Creepy, minimalist and instantly memorable, director John Carpenter’s catalog of film scores has stuck in the minds of audiences for more than 40 years, with its influence felt today in everything from It Follows to Stranger Things. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and composer Atticus Ross recently paid homage to the filmmaker with a new take on Carpenter’s Halloween theme.
Carpenter’s synth-heavy (and largely solo) approach to his soundtracks—The Fog, Escape from New York, and Christine, among others—stood apart from his contemporaries, and although he’s stepped back from the spotlight as a director, two recent, well-received electronic albums—Lost Themes and Lost Themes II—have won him a new generation of fans who might have missed the late 1970s and early 1980s, the era in which he earned his “Horror Master” reputation.
This month sees the release of Carpenter’s newest project, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974 – 1998, and the launch of his second concert tour at The Joint in The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Oct. 29.
Anthology, as the title suggests, chronicles the 69-year-old’s career from his first feature, the micro-budgeted science-fiction satire Dark Star, to the James Woods starrer John Carpenter’s Vampires. The 24 years in between cover a lot of ground, and fans familiar with the director will enjoy everything from the ZZ Top-inspired “Porkchop Express” riff from Big Trouble in Little China to the bluesy theme from 1988 cult classic They Live.
Of the 13 tracks on the album, 11 are Carpenter originals. Although he rarely allowed others to score his films, two standout pieces from The Thing and Starman (scored by Ennio Morricone and Jack Nitzsche, respectively) are represented on Anthology.
The Anthology Begins
Carpenter, whose father was a violinist and music teacher, never learned to read music, but displayed a talent for composition even before breaking through with 1978’s Halloween. Childhood music lessons, coupled with his student filmmaking background—in which improvisation and assuming multiple roles was common—prepared him for the challenges of low budget, independent filmmaking.
“You can’t afford to hire an orchestra. You just can’t do it,” he says in an interview with Vegas Seven. “One thing you can do however is get a hold of a synthesizer and do multi tracks and sound big and sound slightly more orchestral than a piano.”
Working mostly with borrowed equipment in those early days, the filmmaker took inspiration from Morricone, Psycho scorer Bernard Herrmann and Hammer Films composer James Bernard, among others, hoping to create a sound similar to what affected him as a teenager.
“Some of the greatest music that I’ve heard was from the cheap ass science fiction and horror movies,” he says. “It was really effective stuff and some of the big orchestral scores of those days were a lot less so.”
Describing the composition process as “instinctual,” Carpenter says he never went into a film with a score in his mind. In fact, rarely did his scores come fully formed.
“They [were] just ‘Bang, here we go! This sounds good, this sounds like this movie, this sounds like this scene,’” he says.
Reimagining the Classics
Following a 2016 tour to promote Lost Themes II, Carpenter began preparation for Anthology. Having performed many of his old themes on tour, he and his band, which includes son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, set out to re-record (and in some cases rearrange) this collection of “greatest hits.”
Carpenter says he was never dissatisfied with the original scores, but many of them needed to be modernized.
“With something like Assault on Precinct 13, which was very primitive and crude, we rearranged the sounds in different ways slightly,” he explains.
In the case of Escape from New York, “The hardest thing to get was the arpeggiator [sequencing tool]. We had to copy it exactly because that was an old arpeggiator that I would play and it would skip around.
“It’s a unique sound so we re-created that. It was fun and, again, the instruments now are so much brighter and richer than they were in those days.”
For his Las Vegas appearance, fans should expect to hear the complete Anthology with selections from Carpenter’s Lost Themes albums sprinkled throughout. If the concert resembles his 2016 tour, the man himself will be positioned center stage with his band surrounding him, and a screen projecting scenes from his films behind him.
Carpenter, who admits to never watching his films, says modern equipment and sound allows him to have fun with his classic scores.
“But I never thought when I was recording this stuff that I would, in my late 60s, be standing up in front of an audience and playing it. I just never believed it.”
John Carpenter performs at The Joint in Hard Rock Hotel and Casino with special guests Perturbator on Sunday, October 29. Tickets can be purchased on the Hard Rock website.