Who doesn’t love John Carpenter? There was a point in the 80s where he was indisputably the big name in Genre direction, writing and, most pertinently, scoring, with pieces like his opening theme to Halloween being arguably the second most iconic musical piece in Horror (after those shower scene strings in Psycho).
A new collection of some of his most iconic themes is due for release this Friday (October 20th). Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 features remasters and re-recordings of some of his most famous themes, in collaboration with his son and godson, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies. To celebrate, we look through the new collection, track by track…
1. ‘In the Mouth of Madness’: The film is a bit of a forgotten classic within the Carpenter back catalogue. As for the theme itself, the original riff, as performed by Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, is well recreated by his son, Daniel. This is very much what you’d want from a collection like this, it’s a faithful recreation, simply adding a cleaner modern production style which definitely benefits the drums which sound even better than the original. It’s an interesting choice of opener (as you might expect from the title that they would go in chronological order and if not, well, they’re all opening themes, any of them could work) but it works well with its Moroder-esque synths clashing with the Metallica-inspired riffs to create a unique atmosphere.
2. ‘Assault on Precinct 13’: The song that Hans Zimmer once said was his favourite opening theme from any film is once again given a new lick of paint and a lighter, more prominent drum kit. What becomes clear with this track is the benefit of Carpenter working on these tracks aswell in still having the same synthesizers to play. It’s a fascinating balancing act listening to the attempts to both ‘improve’ on the originals while still trying not to lose their atmosphere. Despite there being nothing necessarily wrong with the original, it is more satisfying to these moden ears to hear the wall-of-sound approach of the remaster and what sounds like adding in another hit on the half-beat with the snare just adds an irrevocable impression of an onwards marching threat. All-in-all, some lovely work here, taking the iconic and making it better.
3. ‘The Fog’: An interesting one in its inclusion. I was never a full fan of The Fog theme, or really the film, following up on the success of Halloween, the theme seemed to sound somewhere between that music’s iconography and a loose attempt at apeing the stylings of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (From The Exorcist, but if you’re reading this you probably knew that). That said, the modern redux adds and takes away in equal measures, trimming down the track to a neater three minutes from the originals five and a half, aswell as removing the church organ sounds; possibly because in track order we’re about to get to Prince of Darkness and we don’t want things to go overboard…
4. ‘Prince of Darkness’: And here’s where we go overboard. Not that the original was a restrained piece of music but the slow burn, atmospheric, synthetic build of the original, rich in echoed drums and chime sounds, are replaced with a near immediate descent into operatic, orchestral insanity, rich in choral majesty and the aforementioned church organ sounds. At the heart of both versions is the same piece of music but this is almost like two different composers approaching from two different directions. While you could argue that perhaps the modern version is the more compelling piece in isolation, in context, it doesn’t seem to match the muted tension of the film’s opening credits. Still, an interesting re-interpretation.
5. ‘Santiago (Vampires)’: The first of two breaks from the norm as this is not the main theme to the movie in question but it is very much a piece that encapsulates the mood well. The original’s reverb-laden athmospherics have been replaced with an extra layer of Pedal Steel – creating an indelible image of the film’s New Mexico location. It’s a fascinating change of tone as this seems more suited to The Last of Us than the histrionics that are associated with Carpenter but then, as we see with The Thing, Carpenter wasn’t exactly afraid of human mutations or downbeat atmospheres.
In terms of album structure, it’s a good one to put here as it’s been all rise since track one. It’s a nice, muted moment of pause here before we get to…
6. ‘Escape from New York’: This is another track that didn’t need much more than an extra lick of paint – and that’s what they gave it. That does give me this space to ask the question of how come opening themes for Escape from LA, and Village of the Damned weren’t given any treatment on this record? It seems odd to exclude just two of his cinematic scores from the collection. Perhaps it’s because LA was already more of a driving rock cover of his original theme but certainly, Village of the Damned‘s score deserves more love than the film ever got. That said, don’t let my ranting distract you from the majesty of both the original work and this remaster.
7. ‘Halloween’: First off, don’t worry, no-one has messed with that piano riff. The short, simple series of faintly arpeggiated notes in an unnerving 5/4 time that form the second-most iconic musical cue in Horror. This isn’t an exaggeration. Even with the long list of sequels and remakes they still couldn’t find a better theme to open on. It’s been sampled in at least 60 different rap songs and even covered by artists like Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (who’s Carpenter adoration you can hear in work like their score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Yet, I’m not sure if this new version adds much to the original. The piano and synthesizer remain relatively untouched but the old clicking drum beat (sounding somewhere between an old typewriter and Freddie Krueger’s fingers) has been replaced with a generic EDM click track. It’s hard to ruin what is such a great piece of music but somewhere an otherworldly timelessness that the original had is lost in translation.
8. ‘PorkChop Express (Big Trouble in Little China)’: Although not the films main theme, ‘PorkChop Express’ represents the best musical summary of this 80’s classic. What’s refreshing about this piece is that it doesn’t hit nearly as hard on the stereotypes of China in Hollywood as you would expect – containing far more bluesy rock n’ roll than your standard fantasy adventure score. I appreciate this new piece’s simplified production style as the original’s guitar lines are, in retrospect, far too drenched in overdrive, whereas now it’s easier to see what the piece is doing without sacrificing any of the fun, goofy charm of the original. Equally, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t try to change anything about the actual main theme of Big Trouble because how do you improve on perfection?
9. ‘They Live’: This is probably the closest we will ever get to hearing musically what it would be like if John Carpenter made a Film Noir. Seeping through its DNA is a rootsy, blues riff covered in a slow-build saxophone and harmonica swirling around each other, almost like sonic representations of John and Frank as it rises and rises until, well, it stops. It’s odd that as the main theme, as a thematic representative of all that will follow, it spends so long rising only to feel like it’s cut-off a few seconds before the climax. As a reproduction, the modern version pushes the saxophone far further forward than the original and seems to employ more live instrumentation than MIDI recreations. One of the more interesting companion pieces and most importantly, one that if dubbed over the original credits, wouldn’t seem out of place.
10. ‘The Thing’: The only true cover on the album, as The Thing‘s score was famously composed by Ennio Morricone. When asked to create this piece, Carpenter requested Morricone use as few notes as possible. Very much undeservingly, Morricone’s work here was nominated for a Worst Original Music Razzie Award but then this would not be the first nor last time the Razzies nominated something not because it was the actual worst but because it was (un)popular.
The problem with minimalism is that there’s nothing to hide behind and, as covers go, Carpenter’s version isn’t bad (it’s certainly faithful to the original) but it just seems to be lacking that certain something in comparison. It’s hard to describe beyond where the original transports me to an unsettling, bleak, isolated tundra, the new recording just takes me to Carpenter’s recording studio. Sometimes, things are best left the way they were or completely torn apart, even the most painstaking recreations can leave you wondering ‘if it’s that close to the original, why bother?’
11. ‘Starman’: The one film in Carpenter’s ouvré with an Oscar nomination to it, though this is the Academy Awards, they were never going to reward Jeff Bridges for his sterling work over (the admitedly fantastic) F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus. This also counts as a unique entry in Carpenter’s canon as his most determinently romantic film with a sweeping, and yes, synth laden, score to accompany. The Anthology version has the same wall-of-sound approach as used on the rework of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, which adds an extra layer of melancholy. It rises to the same crescendo and then crashes down like the original but it brings with it the weight of a realisation of how much the world has changed since. Has the world become a less innocent place since the 80s? Were the 80s even as idealistic as this theme and its film made it seem? Who knows but it’s hard not to get caught up in this one, it’s quite intoxicating. Seriously though, Bridges deserved that Oscar, and no amount of Crazy Heart attempts at retribution will fix that.
12. ‘Dark Star’: Here we are at the penultimate track and conversely, the first film chronologically speaking, and once again we’re not actually dealing with the opening credits theme (‘Benson, Arizona’ would be very out of place in this collection). This track is both one of the more forgettable but equally most essential entries on this Anthology collection. With the lack of available commercial copies of the film’s score, (making finding a legal copy of this song very difficult for some) it’s nice to have this piece on the collection. It’s a brief, pretty standard piece of sci-fi scene setting, lacking some of the sophistication and innovation of the work that would follow. However, when you consider that at age 26, even on a shoestring budget, Carpenter made a sci-fi film that he directed, co-wrote and co-composed the score, it does become quite impressive.
13. ‘Christine’: Finally, we come to everyone’s third favourite sentient car (after Herbie and Brum). A meeting of two of the biggest names in 80s Horror; John Carpenter and Stephen King. In many ways, this piece of music had to be big, it had to live up to the iconography of both men and it probably achieves that, hitting most of the greatest hits of Carpenter’s musical back catalogue with moody, elongated synth builds giving way to driving guitars squealing out solos like the wheels of the demonic vehicle. The addition of the extra heft that the full band approach adds makes this a properly satisfying album closer.
As a whole package, the album is well balanced, maintaining reverence while never being afraid of doing things purists may consider desecration. The best bit is even if you’re not a fan of the films, this collection still functions out of context (for the most part).
John Carpenter Anthology: Movie Themes 1974 – 1998 is out on CD, vinyl & digital download on Friday, October 20th, via Sacred Bones.