To mark next Tuesday's DVD/Blu-ray release of The Ward – the first feature film in ten years from legendary filmmaker John Carpenter – I thought it would be a perfect time to acknowledge one of the consistently cool talents this artist brings to the table. Not only is he an innovative director and often brilliant screenwriter, he's also written and performed some of the most memorable movie scores in horror history. To Carpenter himself, scoring his own movies has always been a matter of practicality: the son of a music teacher, his natural skills saved him the trouble of hiring a composer, and he knows exactly what kind of musical mood best suits his visuals, so nothing gets lost in translationh.
Note that John himself did not compose the music to The Ward, so it didn't make this list, but it's well worth mentioning that the film is scored by his son Cody, who is proving that talent runs in the family – as we first heard in the Masters of Horror episodes Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life, directed by John and scored by his son. Not only is he an excellent musician in is own right, Cody's also picked up a lot of his father's knack for moody, repeating pattern motifs – menacing pulses that transmit suspense and doom through every frame.
Let's take a trip back through horror music history and examine where the roots of that talent took hold, and celebrate John's ten best musical achievements...
Let's face it, folks: if you don't know this theme, you don't know horror. Inspired by a 5/4 time signature that his father taught him on the bongos, the simple piano-based music for this horror masterpiece rolls slowly and steadily through scenes, much in the same way Michael Myers methodically, patiently roams the streets and sidewalks of Haddonfield... until night falls and he finally zeros in on his targets; then the music begins to stalk with him, building simple layers of synthesizer on top of repeating piano rhythms. It's the simplicity that sells it, with some motifs containing only one long dissonant chord, or a climactic theme with only one piano note being banged repeatedly, insistently, never stopping... just like The Shape himself. John later felt ashamed for using so many "stingers" – sudden loud and sharp synth stabs – to sell the shocks. But if you try to tell me those moments didn't scare you silly the first time you watched this movie, I'm calling bullshit.
Not only is Carpenter's follow-up to Halloween one of his best achievements as a director, it also includes one of his moodiest, most sublime scores. The perfect undercurrent to a classic ghost story, the dreamlike title theme and slowly drifting pensive motifs weave flawlessly through the doomed seaside town of Antonio Bay much the same way the ghostly fog twists and creeps over the shore and through the streets. In earlier scenes, the sound of a foghorn becomes one of the musical signals that the supernatural threat is soon to come, and Carpenter builds that simple two-tone echo into a haunting drone. In the film's final reel, a thundering pattern repeats for over ten minutes, rising and falling, then becoming almost deafening... but it's in the movie's quieter moments that this score gets under your skin, like in the scene where Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) reads from the diary of his cursed ancestors.
Escape from New York
Working on a very low budget, John still got maximum bang for the buck with this dark sci-fi action flick, and his score packs all the gritty, stripped-down and no-nonsense vibe of the film itself. To help create the landscape of a crime-ridden dystopia and the personality of its most badass resident, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), Carpenter brings guitar and bass to the front for the first time, blending the low rolling tones with drum machines and harsh, buzzing synthesizer patterns. The combined effect enhances the clash of tribal warfare and futuristic tech (for the '80s, anyway) that drives the movie, but there are also some moments of surprising beauty, like the adaptation of Debussy's "Engulfed Cathedral" that accompanies Snake's glider flight into the heart of darkness.
The shaky rep of this failed attempt to reinvent the Halloween franchise overshadows the superb music that John and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth conceived for the project. The Halloween theme is dropped entirely (in keeping with the whole series-reboot thing), and the new theme is really more of a mood piece. But when the rhythms pick up, things really get going – and some of the cues for this film are among the most suspenseful and jump-inducing of Carpenter's compositions. Miles away from the raw simplicity of the first and second Halloween scores, this is a dense and chaotic group of cues, and maybe that's why it's one of my personal favorites. Of course, the one musical moment that everyone remembers from this film is the unbelievably annoying "Silver Shamrock" commercial jingle, set to the tune of "London Bridge"... but you can't deny that it's the catchiest commercial ever. In fact, I'm pretty sure you're pissed at me right now for getting it stuck in your head again.
While some critics felt this studio-backed Stephen King adaptation was a misfire, I'm definitely a proud supporter of Team Christine – especially when it comes to the music. While the ever-present '50s tunes emanating from the radio of King's infamous '57 Fury define the car's very real personality with a touch of dark humor, the relentless rolling beat of Carpenter's attack theme is deadly serious; it's the nightmarish music of rubber hitting the road with murderous intent. On the flipside, the soft delicate tones of "Arnie's Love Theme" make it one of John's most melancholy melodies, depicting both the outcast character's loneliness and his doomed supernatural love affair with the Plymouth from Hell. Unfortunately, the use of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" (probably imposed on Carpenter by the studio) kinda puts a sell-by date on the movie... but I gotta admit that song does sum up the car's attitude in four simple words.
Big Trouble in Little China
This wild supernatural kung-fu comedy marked the end of Carpenter's relationship with the major studios (who just didn't get it), but to me it's one of his absolute greatest. The music has its own role to play in this homage to the colorful Asian action-fests the Shaw Brothers first brought to amazed US audiences, combining shimmering samples of traditional Chinese instruments with a pounding rock beat (even if the guitars are quite obviously sampled in several cues like the opening theme "Pork Chop Express") and popping, busy electronic rhythms. It's so much fun, you can even forgive this outrageously awful music video for the movie's title theme, sung by John himself and performed by his own band, the Coupe De Villes. If you haven't seen this clip before, you'd better put your drink down, or you'll totally do a noser.
Prince of Darkness
I interviewed Carpenter a few years back when the remastered edition of this score was released on CD, and while he seldom dwells on most of his projects, he professed his enjoyment with writing and arranging the music for this one. He praised the dark, cold tones of the Oberheim synthesizer, with which he created a thundering triplet as the foundation of this apocalyptic soundtrack, beginning with the very first cue during the long opening credits sequence. From there, the music almost never lets up throughout the entire length of the film, lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to burst out and grab your face like the satanic legions depicted onscreen. Like Halloween III, this score has very few clear motifs, but John's going for a feeling of creeping doom here, and although he told me he had no idea what constitutes "gothic" music, that's exactly what he's accomplished with the sampled choirs and deep bell-tones that signal the title character's arrival.
For this dusty, western-flavored vampire flick, John wisely brought some excellent blues-rock artists aboard to create a sleazy roadhouse vibe that combines perfectly with all the driving synth rhythms and doomy soundscapes that you've come to expect from a Carpenter score. Calling themselves "The Texas Toad Lickers," the core musical team features Carpenter playing guitar and bass alongside celebrated session artists like Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn (whom you've probably seen onscreen as the backing band for The Blues Brothers) and drummer "Bucket" Baker, as well as some early keyboard contributions from Cody. It's mostly gritty action and road-movie themes, but when intense horror music is called for, Carpenter plays to win. One of Carpenter's last box-office successes, Vampires is one mega-cool flick, and a lot of the credit goes to the musical engine that drives it.
Ghosts of Mars
Another film that tends to draw fire from fans (mostly because it plays out like a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 in space), this is nevertheless one of John's coolest-sounding films... and the first time the composer goes balls-to-the-wall heavy metal, jamming with music icons like Anthrax members Scott Ian and Frank Bello, axe virtuoso Steve Vai, Nine Inch Nails alumnus Robin Finck and avant-grade guitarist Buckethead. Carpenter's synth compositions are chilling and otherworldly (unfortunately most of those cues didn't make it onto the soundtrack album), but it's the metal that kicks these action themes over the top, and actually makes the film a lot more entertaining; as far as I'm concerned, it's still a really fun flick. Still, haters gonna hate, can't help ya there.
Escape From L.A.
Working in tandem with composer Shirley Walker, Carpenter wrote some of his first orchestral themes for this big-studio sequel, which was also filled with alt-rock and metal tracks (thankfully many of them are good, including Tool, Rob Zombie and Tori Amos). The high points include an industrialized upgrade of the Escape From New York theme and some massive percussion and brass motifs that will shake your teeth out. Walker provides some suitably epic action cues, going totally over the top along with the satirical spirit of the movie (which ,again, lots of fans didn't really dig, but haters gonna... you know). There's even a couple of great Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western touches, especially when the movie references Plissken's gunfighting expertise ("Whatta ya say we play a little Bangkok Rules?"). Hella variety, hella fun.
By the way... if you're worried that Carpenter's classic The Thing is not included, it's because the lion's share of musical credit for that score goes to legendary Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone. Even so, it's widely accepted that Carpenter provided (uncredited) electronic enhancements to the old-school orchestral score to maintain a mood of subtle menace. The "heartbeat" synth pattern that forms the basis of the movie's unforgettable main theme is most likely John's doing, and it seems that motif is alive and well in the upcoming Thing prequel coming out this fall... watch the trailer and listen for yourself, especially at the very end...