They Live (Again)
Next year it will be 40 years since we were first introduced to serial killer Michael Myers. ‘Halloween’ remains a masterclass in filmmaking, and is essential viewing for anyone with even a remote interest in horror. It’s made all the more terrifying due to its iconic high-pitched theme, a panicked 5/4 melody that immediately sends a chill down your spine. The story goes that it took three days to compose the entire score, and 40 years down the line, the theme remains one of the scariest horror compositions in the history of cinema. And it’s recently been given a little revamp.
John Carpenter is a man who needs little introduction. A legend of both composing and filmmaking and a titan of 70s/80s cinema, he has influenced a wide range of composers and auteurs, cementing his reputation as one of the most iconic directors of modern cinema. In recent years he’s swapped out the camera entirely and turned his hand to music full time. His debut solo album, ‘Lost Themes’, was released in 2015, and was recorded in collaboration with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies (son of The Kinks guitarist Dave Davies).
While it was his first non-soundtrack album, ‘Lost Themes’ was dripping in the same ominous atmosphere that is so intrinsic to his film work; nine tracks of sinister synth-driven instrumentals that could almost be a score for some yet-made Carpenter film. The album was followed-up a year later with a sequel, ‘Lost Themes II’, which ran in the same ambient vein as its predecessor, and saw him reunited with his son and godson.
This latest release is something a little different. ‘Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998’ compiles 13 of the very best themes from the Carpenter filmography. But this isn’t simply a compilation of movie themes, with decades-old compositions dug up and repackaged for 2017. Oh no. You see, for ‘Anthology…’ he’s reunited with Carpenter Jr and Davies to completely re-record and revamp every track on the record. The album spans 24 years, starting from his no-budget sci-fi comedy ‘Dark Star’, it embraces his golden age (roughly 1978-86) and travels all the way to the late-90s blood-sucking Western ‘Vampires’.
Proceedings are kicked off with a retooling of ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’, the heavy, Metallica-influenced guitar riff shredding its way into your brain. Fun fact: the original was played by the aforementioned Dave Davies. Who knew that his son would be following in his footsteps 23 years later? ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ follows, it’s slower moving percussion joined by some fuzzing, soaring synthesisers. ‘The Fog’ echoes ‘Halloween’, it’s eerie piano riff backed by warped electronics. Carpenter is at his best when he’s trying to scare the pants off you, and the high-pitched urgency of ‘The Fog’ gets your palms sweating. Guitar riffs are front and centre in ‘Prince Of Darkness’ and ‘Santiago (Vampires)’, the former heavier while the latter is a slow, echoing jam.
Naturally, Carpenter favourites ‘Escape From New York’, ‘They Live’, ‘Christine’ and ‘Porkchop Express (Big Trouble In Little China)’ all feature and get a slick rejigging, while the rebooted version of ‘Halloween’ is just as chilling as the 1978 original, that tense piano melody backed by gritty synth whines. ‘Dark Star’ pulses with an ominous Area 51 drawl, while ‘Starman’ is full of shimmering electronics and building emotion. Carpenter and co even manage to fit in a cover of Ennio Morricone’s theme for ‘The Thing’, a minimalistic staccato shudder that Morricone was asked to compose “with very few notes”.
And yet everything suffers a little bit from what we’ll call “Mike Oldfield syndrome”. The fresh sheen given to these tracks, like Oldfield’s remake of ‘Tubular Bells’ in 2003, seems to wipe away some of the grunge and darkness that’s so inherent to Carpenter. Everything still retains its atmosphere, but it sometimes sounds a little too clean; Carpenter for the age of shiny white Apple products. You get the feeling that it mirrors present-day Hollywood, a time when all your childhood films are getting reboots and by giving them a bit of polish they’ve sacrificed some of their character.
With ‘Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998’ Carpenter reminds us of his peak. While things are slightly different to how you remember, everything on here will immediately transport you back to where it all began.
Like John Harrison and Vangelis, John Carpenter was one of the pioneers of the synthesiser-driven soundtrack, and it’s a pleasure to have these repackaged for the 21st century. Be warned though, as soon as you hear the first note of ‘Halloween’, you’ll be double locking your doors at night.