John Carpenter is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest horror directors of the late 20th century. His films are both critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, and his work has been hugely influential – Halloween (1978) kick-starting the entire teen slasher subgenre. As well as directing, and often writing, Carpenter frequently composes the scores for his films (making him perhaps the most hardworking person in horror cinema). Ordinarily, you can identify a filmmakers’ work by the camerawork or narrative themes, but you can tell Carpenter’s immediately by the distinctive score – as Guillermo Del Toro has said, “they embody the spirit of each film perfectly. They are his final auteur voice.”
Music plays a huge role in horror, ramping up tension or creating feelings of dread – it’s impossible to imagine Psycho (1960) without Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing strings, or The Exorcist (1973) without “Tubular Bells”. Many horror filmmakers have long and fruitful relationships with particular composers, such as David Cronenberg and Howard Shore, or Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, but Carpenter is unusual in being his own composer, creating an even closer relationship between the visual and aural elements of his films.
“[…] Carpenter is unusual in being his own composer, creating an even closer relationship between the visual and aural elements of his films.”
The decision that Carpenter made to score his own films was born largely out of necessity; at the start of his career the resources were not there to bring in professional musicians “you have no money to hire a composer or an orchestra, so I had to do it myself. I was cheap and I was fast, so that’s why I did it.” As he had a musical background – his father was a music professor and session musician, and Carpenter himself played in bands in high school and college- he used these skills to his advantage. These budgetary constrictions also influenced the sound of Carpenter’s scores – the synthesizer providing an affordable DIY alternative to hired musicians.
Scoring his own films also allowed Carpenter the freedom to match the music precisely to the character of his films: “The score just had to serve the film. You have to make the score sound like the film as much as humanly possible.” The recurring themes of Carpenter’s films – isolation, entrapment and a sense of inevitable, impending threat – are amplified by his use of sparse, electronic sounds.
Carpenter’s first major film, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), set in a police precinct under siege, set the tone for his later work. The main musical theme is an ominous bassy synth refrain, accompanied by a skittering percussion which together suggest a serious yet unpredictable approaching threat. This feeling of an unstoppable malignant force would be personified by the character of Michael Myers a few years later in Halloween (1978). The film’s main theme has high piano notes played in an off-kilter 5/4 time signature, the extra beat adding a sense of relentless forward motion, a regular step for each bar, mirroring Michael Myers‘ steady yet unstoppable approach towards his victims. The tension in the score is subtly ramped up in the bass notes, a pattern of three ascending notes is repeated, but part way through the theme a fourth note is added – again giving the feeling that the oncoming menace is gaining ground.
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The Fog (1980) was Carpenter’s next horror film, a story of a seaside town beset by a strange fog that harbours vengeful spirits from the town’s past. In keeping with the ghostly atmosphere of the film, the musical theme has a mournful air, with delicate repeating piano lines, along with some dramatic gothic organ flourishes at the start befitting the film’s traditional campfire-tale style. The early 80s also saw two sequels to Halloween – although these were not directed by Carpenter, he was substantially involved in their making; producing and scoring both Halloween II (1981) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).
“…an off-kilter 5/4 time signature [mirrors] Michael Myers’ steady yet unstoppable approach towards his victims.”
As the plot of Halloween II picks up from the events of that night in Haddonfield, so the score continues from the previous film, the theme repeating the original’s refrain first in a lower register, then glitching and faltering before settling into the familiar tune, echoing Michael‘s resurrection and resumption of his murderous quest. Halloween III is something of an anomaly in the series, being the only film not to feature Michael Myers, but was instead intended to be the start of an anthology of films based around Halloween. While this concept never came to pass, the film has become a fan favorite, and the soundtrack includes the magnificently named theme “Chariot of Pumpkins”, as well as the inescapably catchy Silver Shamrock advert jingle.
It seems strange that The Thing (1982), despite now being regarded as one of Carpenter’s signature films, is actually scored by Ennio Morricone, rather than the director himself. Although the score is distinctly Morricone’s, the main theme especially has recognisable Carpenter influences, the result of what (despite language barriers) was apparently a productive creative relationship. The thudding bass and minimalist, repeating synth notes (in Carpenter’s words, “something basic, something that even I could play“) of the appropriately named “Desolation” capture the monotony of life on the Antarctic, and the hopelessness felt by the characters as the alien possesses each of the crew in turn.
Prince of Darkness (1987) deals with many common Carpenter themes – a group under siege, isolation and an inevitable, unstoppable malevolent force. The protagonists are a group of scientists assigned to investigate a mysterious canister of apparently sentient green liquid in the basement of a church, who find themselves trapped as the entity exerts its influence. As some of their number become possessed by the malignant force, those remaining become besieged both by their former colleagues and by possessed people outside the church. The main musical theme is a low repeating beat overlaid with an occasional quick three-note refrain; the score perfectly reflects the characters’ tension and feeling of dread – their pounding heartbeats and sharp intakes of breath as they await the next onslaught from their attackers.
Carpenter’s final film in his “apocalypse trilogy” of films, In The Mouth Of Madness (1994) centres around the mysterious disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane, and the malignant influence that his books seem to having on people – inspiring acts of violence, and perhaps twisting apart the very fabric of reality. The film examines the role of popular horror fiction, and those who criticize it as being a bad influence on its audience. It’s appropriate then that the soundtrack is unashamedly pulpy, with an 80s-influenced rock sound complete with ostentatious guitar solos.
“In recent years, Carpenter has moved away from filmmaking, but his musical career has continued to flourish.”
Although somewhat less well-regarded, Carpenter’s horror films of the late 90s still merit viewing, and as ever, the scores add great value to the overall work. The twanging guitars of Vampires (1998) lend a Western feel, and the metal-influenced music in Ghosts of Mars (2001) perfectly suits the post-apocalyptic future setting. Aside from his major horror films discussed here, Carpenter’s self-scored films have encompassed an impressive range of genres and tones, from the paranoid alien invasion sci-fi of They Live (1983) to the restrained menace of Village of the Damned (1995), and the genre-defying wonder that is Big Trouble In Little China (1986).
In recent years, Carpenter has moved away from filmmaking, but his musical career has continued to flourish. In 2015 he released Lost Themes, an album he describes as “music for soundtracks, the brain’s soundtrack“, followed by Lost Themes II in 2016. These atmospheric instrumentals prompt the listener to conjure their own narratives to go with the music – their own imagination given a Carpenter score. Carpenter has also toured a live show, playing the Lost Themes albums and also a showcase of his film scores, accompanied by his band, including son Cody and godson Daniel Davies.
Carpenter’s influence as a composer is also evident in much of modern horror, such as the music in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014) , Disasterpiece’s score for It Follows (2014), and the title music for Stranger Things (2016).
With the release of Halloween (2018), and the upcoming Halloween Kills (2021) & Halloween Ends (2022), all to be scored by Carpenter, the Horror Master’s musical career in horror has come full circle – back to Haddonfield. Although it seems unlikely we will see another Carpenter-directed film, his enthusiasm for composing remains, thankfully, undimmed: “I’m just having a good time making music right now. It’s awful fun.”
What are your favorite hororr movie scores? Follow up questions: How many of those scores were composed/performed by John Carptenter? Continue to Carpenter conversation with us on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!