With a new John Carpenter anthology featuring reworked versions of his most iconic and haunting themes, the celebrated horror director and composer reflects on his creepy “synth-noir” sound and a life well-lived

He may not have made a film for more than a decade, but legendary sci-fi horror director John Carpenter is definitely not going gently into that good night. Indeed, the veteran cult movie icon’s long-standing sideline as a composer of cyberpunk electronica has blossomed into a major new career chapter during that time. The godfather of sinister synth-noir has never been more influential.

Since 2015, the creator of creepy classics including ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘Escape From New York’ (1981), ‘The Thing’ (1982) and ‘They Live’ (1988) has been rebooting and re-recording his own self-composed film scores on two ‘Anthology’ collections, the second of which has just been released. He has also made two albums of original music in the same cinematically infused mode, ‘Lost Themes’ and ‘Lost Themes II’, with more in the pipeline. 

Grizzled, laconic and whiskery, at 75, John has recently reclaimed his throne as the analogue electro-goth daddy, the Moroder of suburban slashers, the Vangelis of neon-drenched body horror, the slime-punk Mike Oldfield. Signed to the left-field Brooklyn indie imprint Sacred Bones, his labelmates on the eclectic roster include David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Alan Vega, DJ Muggs and Zola Jesus. A killer cast of cinematic rock-noir freaks.

Notionally, John’s ‘Anthology’ albums feature covers of the original film’s core pieces, but these often sound like irreverent remixes, with added rock punch and digital grit. 

“Doing these albums is revisiting stuff I did long ago and putting a new spin on everything,” he rasps down the line from his Los Angeles home. “We utilise a lot of new sounds which in and of themselves change everything about the original. It just brings it up to date and makes it modern. I think it sounds fantastic.”

As on all his recent albums and film scores, John is joined on ‘Anthology II’ by his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies, both solo rock and electronic musicians in their own right. In a surreal twist of transatlantic rock- movie fate, Daniel is the biological son of Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, but he lived at the Carpenter house for a couple of years as a child while his parents were breaking up. This is when the seeds of the future Carpenter-Davies trio were first planted, long before they conceived any official recordings.

“I grew up with John and Cody, and there was always music in the house,” Daniel affirms. “We were always playing music, but the first full album that we made was ‘Lost Themes’.” 

As Cody recalls, the collaboration came together almost randomly. 

“I don’t think it was a concerted effort to make an album,” he says. “But rather my dad and I just having fun messing around in his home studio, making music without a purpose. It ultimately turned into an album that was released, but that wasn’t really the initial idea.”

Most of John Carpenter’s early film scores were improvised on primitive analogue synthesisers at short notice, necessity being the mother of indie-film invention. He retains some of that instinctive punk attitude to recording today. The process is not reverential at all, claims Daniel. 

“With ‘Anthology’, we go through the movie soundtracks, we think about what we want to put on there, and then we kind of re-record everything,” he explains. “There’s no original sounds from the movies. We start out basing everything on how the originals sound, and then it evolves from there. If we want to add a little guitar, a bigger bass sound, or something that wasn’t there before, we do that.”

For his initial run of spine-tingling 1970s film scores, John used vintage vacuum tube synthesisers, still prized today for their warm harmonics and organic distortion effects, and steampunk classics like the EMS VCS 3, favoured by Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. He later worked with composer and sound designer Alan Howarth, adding broader arrangements and a richer electronic palette. Nowadays, though, he prefers to compose on digital workstations like Logic Pro.

“It’s all digital,” he explains. “The guitars are obviously real, but digital everything else. Digital sounds great to me. I know a lot of purists think we should be analogue-ing it, but I’m fine with digital.”

“We’re using a combination of software and actual physical synthesisers,” Cody adds. “I personally like the ease of using software, but sometimes the real thing is the better choice.”

“Maybe you can’t get the sounds totally accurate, but you get the feel,” Daniel says. “Certain things, like those arpeggiators from ‘Escape From New York’, they’re wild when you really dissect it – there’s no way to recreate that on a synth. But we can figure out the MIDI of that, and then use it on a synth and send it through a Moog and make it sound how we want. I think that’s what is important to John – how does it feel, you know? Does it feel right?”

John Carpenter was immersed in a multiverse of music from an early age. Growing up in Kentucky with a college professor father who moonlighted as a Nashville session musician, he tried his hand at violin, piano, guitar and bass in his teens. He also played with a high-school rock band called Kaleidoscope, briefly. His musical influences have always been broad.

“That’s a huge, wide path there,” he says. “My dad was a classical music teacher, so I grew up with composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart… but I loved rock ’n’ roll too, so everything from Elvis onwards. And then in the movies, I just loved classic composers – Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, people like that.”

John was also an early adopter of electronic music. One of his most profound childhood memories was hearing the seminal circuit-bending score for the groundbreaking, deep-space sci-fi thriller ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) by Bebe and Louise Barron, pioneers of tape loops and ring modulators. He was eight years old. 

“It blew my mind,” he says. “It’s still unbelievable.”

So when John began making low-budget films – pulp-noir classics like 1974’s ‘Dark Star’ and 1976’s ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ – composing his own electronic scores made perfect sense. For an indie-movie auteur who needed to work fast and cheap, hiring professional composers or full orchestras was impossible. Over time, these prowling tech-noir soundtracks would become intrinsic to his cinematic DNA – instantly recognisable Pavlovian triggers for creeping dread and nerve-jangling suburban tension. 

On rare occasions, when budget and studio bosses have allowed, he has worked with outside composers, most notably the legendary Italian maestro Ennio Morricone on his shapeshifting, sci-fi body-horror masterpiece, ‘The Thing’. Morricone recorded around 20 minutes of music, full of latent terror and gothic darkness, but Carpenter felt this score was too understated at times. So the director “secretly ran off” and recorded three more short tracks full of stark, brooding, minimalist synth drones. They became ‘Burn It’, ‘Fuchs’ and ‘To Mac’s Shack’, and all are included on ‘Anthology II’. Carpenter never mentioned these clandestine additions to Morricone. 

“No, he didn’t know,” he confirms. “The deal was that he record several pieces of music in Italy for us and a couple over here, and that was all he did for the movie. But then we needed something more, so I did it myself. It was quicker and more efficient. It wasn’t because I was any better, I’ll tell you that.”

Alas, not even Morricone’s prestige could save ‘The Thing’ from critical and commercial catastrophe when it came out. Released the same weekend as Steven Spielberg’s ‘ET’, it bombed at the box office and left most reviewers cold, only earning its revered cult reputation over the ensuing four decades. It’s now widely regarded as Carpenter’s career-topping masterwork, a potent Cold War parable of human isolation and pandemic paranoia.

“I don’t know that people really saw it until it was released on home video, then they got a chance to appreciate it, I guess,” John shrugs. “But it was too dark for audiences at the time. It was too much about the end of the world. People wanted to feel ‘up’, so they chose ‘ET’ instead. That made them feel good. ‘The Thing’ was too adult for them. It was not a friendly movie. It was a movie that ripped your guts out.”

Deep into the blazing autumn of his career, John Carpenter enjoys the rare double distinction of being both a revered filmmaker and a hugely influential left-field musician. The lurid, propulsive, neon-saturated synth-noir sound he created decades ago has now become its own sub-genre, inspiring homages by everyone from ‘Stranger Things’ score composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein to emerging dark-pop artists like Perturbator, Com Truise and the archly named Carpenter Brut. 

Indeed, director Iván Castell cast Carpenter as the narrator of his 2019 music documentary ‘The Rise Of The Synths’, anointing him as Jedi Master to a global scene of retro-sounding synthwave bands, many of whose members were not even born in the 1980s. But Carpenter is blasé about his influence on modern bands.

“Don’t ask me to name any,” he laughs. 

But Cody and Daniel acknowledge the lineage. 

“I’m not really sure about the psychology behind why certain sounds root themselves in our cultural psyche,” Cody muses. “But I’m glad the 1980s synthesiser sound still has a cult following.”

Outside their own studio recordings, the Carpenter-Davies trio have also branched out into composing scores for other directors, recently lending music to the Foo Fighters horror comedy ‘Studio 666’ and the Keith Thomas-directed remake of ‘Firestarter’. In a pleasing piece of symmetry, they even scored director David Gordon Green’s recent hit reboot of John’s most famous suburban slasher franchise – ‘Halloween’, ‘Halloween Kills’ and ‘Halloween Ends’. John says he feels no precious sense of ownership when working on remixes of his classic films by other directors. 

“Not at all,” he shrugs. “It’s not mine. The movies I direct are mine. When somebody else directs, it’s their movie.”

Back in 2016 and 2017, the Carpenter-Davies trio toured extensively with their ‘Lost Themes II’ album, playing festivals and concert halls around the globe. Their current schedule includes several more albums and film scores, but no live dates. These days, rather than travelling the world, John is much more comfortable watching basketball from his couch. 

“We have some movies coming up, and we’ve been working on another ‘Lost Themes’ album,” Daniel says. “So I’m not sure the door is there for touring. It’s not closed, but it’s gotta make sense in the schedule.”

John has been semi-retired from directing since 2010’s hospital psycho-horror ‘The Ward’, but he still claims his attitude to filmmaking is “never say never”. Indeed, he recently set genre film fan sites buzzing with teasing hints about plans to shoot a long-overdue sequel to ‘The Thing’. 

“It’s up in the air, nothing concrete at this point,” he says. “I’ll do a movie if I like it and if it’s got a budget I agree with, but I’m not going to kill myself anymore. I’m too old. I’ve done too much stuff. Everybody wants you back into films – this has been going on for years. I don’t know if you know what that means, but they come up with a price ahead of everything else, and you have to make your movie fit into that.”

That said, he has not given up directing altogether. He recently lent his name and music to ‘John Carpenter’s Suburban Screams’, a new TV series for the US network Peacock. Loosely based on real-life crimes and paranormal stories, it was filmed in Eastern Europe, with John directing one episode remotely from Los Angeles.

“It’s a kind of reality show,” he explains. “Terrifying stories from various suburban areas. The cast and crew were in Prague and I was in my living room in my favourite chair, ha! And it worked just great. The secret to all of it is preparation, knowing every shot you want. The one I directed is about a phone stalker. It’s fun!”

For the past decade, John Carpenter has been more creatively active in music than cinema. At 75, does the godfather of grimy electronica feel more like a musician than a filmmaker? 

“I don’t feel like either,” he grins. “I just feel really lucky – I’ve had a great life. It’s unbelievable. I got to be who I wanted to be. Incredible.”

‘Anthology II (Movie Themes 1976-1988)’ is out on Sacred Bones

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