HORROR IS STILL A HIT
A bemused John Carpenter is still creating and performing music based on his original 1970s Halloween soundtrack, writes Dan Cairns
Some interview subjects have a willingness to spill that makes almost every sentence a memorable quote. Most are in the middle: candour of sorts, but carefully controlled, with the occasional, often unintended, indiscretion. Catch some on the wrong day, though, and the experience is like playing squash against a mattress. No amount of cajoling is going to prise open the clam.
Past interviews with American film director and composer John Carpenter have tended to be molluscular, and so it proves now.
During a break in rehearsals for the live shows he and his band are bringing to Britain, and ahead of his latest film, the 70-year-old horror master, notorious for his refusal to rewatch his films and his unwillingness to dwell on the past, is positively gnomic.
Carpenter is revered by movie buffs for his offerings — Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing among others — and for the scores he wrote for them. He has often, however unintentionally, conveyed a sense that he thinks he could have been treated better. Does he feel he has received his proper due?
“I can’t control that, and I’m not going to obsess about it. In the beginning, as a young filmmaker, I did. I read the reviews, I was like: ‘Oh my God.’ But I’ve been shat on for almost every movie I’ve made. After a while, I just thought: ‘This is out of my control, so why should I worry about it?’ So I don’t.”
Carpenter first performed his film music live two years ago, with a band that includes his son and godson. The gigs were a blast: his hugely influential electronic scores were played at earshattering volume to audiences dressed up in slasher-film apparel. Forty years on, the idea that he is now performing Halloween’s glacial keyboard motif in packed venues seems to both please and baffle him.
His early scores were self-written and played primarily on synthesisers, for budgetary reasons. “It was all about necessity,” he says. “And it was another creative voice for the movie I could provide. But it’s hard to do. After you’ve directed a movie, you’re stuck in the editing room. And you can start thinking: ‘Now you want me to sit down and do the music?’ ”
Sucked into the Hollywood studio system in the mid-1970s, after cutting his teeth in independent filmmaking, then spat back out in the early 1990s, Carpenter’s days as a mid to bigbudget director are long gone (more’s the pity).
Does he have any involvement with Hollywood now?
“If I’m not working, I don’t go visit a studio and stand there and wave at people. Sure, I’ll go in and have a meeting, but, look, I don’t hang with a lot of executives. I’m in and out.”
As for an itch to get back behind the camera, Carpenter admits it’s “still there, but it’s decreased a lot. I had to stop after a while — the work was just too stressful and hard. I wanted to have a life.” He doesn’t miss the studio system one bit, he says, and holds to the view that, even if the studios’ motives are as mercenary as they ever were, things were marginally more benign when he was in his directorial prime.
“Look, they’ve always been pirates. But some of them at least were smart pirates who loved the movie business. These days, they don’t care. For all that, Universal have been great on this film. They’ve paid me really well.”
The film Carpenter refers to is a new version of Halloween directed by David Gordon Green, for which Carpenter wrote the music. It’s his first involvement in the franchise — which spawned numerous dire sequels — since 1982. A direct sequel to events in the 1978 original, it stars that film’s protagonist, Jamie Lee Curtis, returning to do battle once more with Michael Myers. The glacial motif is featured again, on a soundtrack Carpenter describes as “refreshing” the music that, four decades on, is still hailed as one of cinema’s most iconic scores.
Minimalism remains a key feature of Carpenter’s film music. Back when he started, this was as much about his limited playing skills as his aesthetic preference, though he is a firm believer in music as a complementary tool. And a fierce critic of the opposite, “where the composer tells you exactly what to feel. But sometimes, especially in horror films, silence works best — it can make a scene much more frightening.”
Music dominates Carpenter’s life now, in a way cinema used to. In the past three years, he has released two albums of non-film music and an anthology of his movie scores.
He seems perfectly content with this state of affairs, reminiscing fondly about his childhood as the son of a music professor “who attempted to teach me the violin, which [a rare chuckle] didn’t go very well”.
And with that he is gone. Not one to stand and wave at people. In and out. But that’s OK. He’s the master of horror, not chat.
Halloween soundtrack is out through EVP Recordings under licence from Sacred Bones Records. Read on page 15. assessment of Halloween,
John Carpenter resists the composer ‘telling you exactly what to feel’ in films