The Sound of Scary: John Carpenter's Lost Theme Music
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because just the right combination of notes can give you a good scare.
By Michael Nordine
Halloween’s theme song is almost as iconic as the movie itself. The slow, creeping keyboard melody is such a fitting sonic embodiment of the inexorable killer Michael Myers that imagining one without the other is close to impossible. As famous as both the film and its attendant music are, not everyone is aware that one person is responsible for them both: John Carpenter. The horror legend took the then-nascent slasher genre to new heights with his 1978 benchmark, not only as co-writer and director but also as composer. It wasn’t the first time he acted in both capacities, nor was it the last.
Given the fact that the 67-year-old has been composing for as long as he’s been directing, the release of his first solo album, Lost Themes, is a long time coming. The title is something of a misnomer, however: This isn’t a compilation of previously unreleased material cut from film projects. Carpenter’s album consists of nine synth-heavy instrumental tracks and six remixes. Every song has a one-word title in keeping with the brooding vibe of Carpenter’s extensive oeuvre: “Vortex” introduces us to the eerie aural environment, with “Purgatory” and “Abyss” deepening the sense that something is intriguingly amiss. The remixes are more industrial, experimental and ultimately forgettable than their original counterparts.
His soundscapes are as vital to his films as masked serial killers or an eyepatch-clad Kurt Russell.
Omeed Izadyar, a sound engineer and cinephile who curates the record label The Crossing, is a longtime acolyte of the filmmaker. “Few directors have a ‘sound’ the way Carpenter does,” he says via email. “His scores use simple, hypnotic themes and masterful slow burns to realize the suspense and dread he wants us to feel.” It’s an apt point: Carpenter’s soundscapes are as vital to his films as masked serial killers or an eyepatch-clad Kurt Russell.
His best themes, namely those made for Halloween and Starman, work as well on their own as they do in the context of their respective films. There are no movies to match anything on Lost Themes to, unfortunately, but several tracks could easily have made it onto the silver screen. The standout is unquestionably “Night” (embedded above), which is catchy in the foreboding tradition of all of Carpenter’s best work. There’s a vaguely arcane quality to it: Close your eyes and mentally conjure an appropriately dark film to accompany the low, bassy tones it opens with. “Night” builds slowly but surely while also resisting an easy payoff — instead of a grandiose crescendo, the would-be climax consists of little more than some moody keys layered atop the already sonorous melange.
Imagining the song overlaid across the opening credits of a new movie is ultimately bittersweet. Carpenter has only directed two films since we entered the 21st century, neither of which reaches the same heights as classics like They Live or The Thing. If the essential genre auteur can still direct as well as he can compose, however, then maybe his best days aren’t behind him.