Music as Mystery: John Carpenter's Lost Themes and Career Retrospective at BAM
“The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil—it is merely a restatement of the mystery—and only offers an escape valve for the frustration felt by psychiatrists, social workers, and police officers, who daily encounter its force.”
—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)
“It’s all the same. It’s interior or exterior. Day or night. How many people do I have in the scene? What has to happen? Either you’re doing a rock ’n’ roll show or you’re knifing somebody. You just have to approach telling the story.”
—John Carpenter, in conversation with Mick Garris
Filmmaker and composer John Carpenter’s most notorious antagonist is known to most as Michael Myers, but in the credits of 1978’s Halloween, the hulking killer is identified as simply “the Shape.” No one could really recognize the character’s mask for what it was (William Shatner’s countenance rendered in rubber); it was broadly perceived to be blank. The Shape never spoke, his voice replaced by a far more threatening proxy in the form of Carpenter’s now-legendary theme music.
Prior to Halloween, Carpenter previously employed the “voiceless juggernaut” trope in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The MPAA threatened an X rating not for sexual content, but rather for its, later cut, depiction of a purposeless murder of a child by short-range firearm. The film’s cabal of cold-blooded gang members barely utter a syllable throughout the film’s duration, and the collective motive for their unyielding violence is at best nebulous. When they approach their besieged victims, Carpenter cues up a beyond-ominous five-note theme.
John Carpenter is a modest craftsman without a shred of allegiance for auteurism, and his eclectic career proves it. To wit, he quickly followed up Halloween with a TV biopic on Elvis, through which he first encountered Kurt Russell, later to be cast as Snake Plissken in Carpenter’s wild adventure film Escape from New York (1981).
But the aforementioned musical touches are unmistakably John Carpenter. For him, music was part of the package deal that came with hiring John Carpenter as a director: as he often puts it himself, “I’m cheap and I’m fast.” His scores eschewed expensive hired musicians in favor of multi-tracked analog synthesizers, hemming to a staunchly minimalist aesthetic. Assault on Precinct 13 was scored in one day; the music for Halloween was written and completed in three. He went on to score every film he directed, up until his entrée into the major studio system with 1982’s The Thing, stepping aside to allow no less a master than Ennio Morricone to compose the soundtrack. (Struggling to overcome a language barrier, his only feedback in response to Morricone’s early sketches was simply, “less notes.”)
Carpenter returned to his synthesizers sporadically throughout his filmography, often deferring scoring duties simply because he had the resources to allow someone else to do the work. But the value of his sonically economical musical voice has resonated throughout the years, spawning pods of imitators. Countless bedroom synth purists have sought to ape his dark, distinctive compositional voice, and so it was unsurprising but thrilling when the announcement came that 2015 would see the release of Carpenter’s debut album of original music sans moving image. Lost Themes was composed with the help of the director’s son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies. The use of clean, modern recording techniques fails to dilute the man’s aural signature, a sound out of time—wholly threatening and yet mildly campy. The music is foursquare and sleek, moving forward on a jet stream of icy synths. The imitators can go home and weep: this is clearly the originator at work.
In a press release, Carpenter said that the making of Lost Themes was “all about having fun. The plan was to make my music more complete and fuller, because we had unlimited tracks. I wasn’t dealing with just analogue anymore. It’s a brand new world.” That sort of straightforward assessment of resources, and the resulting game plan, is an extension of his craftsman’s pragmatism. It’s also a remarkably unaffected attitude for a man who made his reputation by delving into the bloody depths of senseless violence.
In Halloween, actor Donald Pleasence portrays Dr. Sam Loomis, breathlessly in pursuit of freshly escaped lunatic Michael Myers. Speaking through jowls packed with half-chewed scenery, he recalls his former patient: “I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes. The devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was pure and simply evil.”
And there we have it: the restatement of the mystery. Given the silence of the cruel personas that populate his films, Lost Themes can be read not so much as the soundtrack to a horror film that doesn’t exist, but rather a series of monologues for murderers yet to be identified. The music stands in for the justification of carnage, acting as a set of sonic catchphrases, rather than direct confessions of rage, hate, or insanity. Carpenter’s characters cannot be explained, nor do they deign to explain themselves. The music is our only cipher.
In a conversation between the two directors for the television show The Director’s Chair (2014), Carpenter told Robert Rodriguez that the Shape was “not a human character or a supernatural character . . . [he was] a blank, allowing the audience to project into him.” This is a bleakly dead-on appraisal of how a film like Halloween could start with a middling budget of $250,000 and go on to be the most successful independent film for over 20 years (finally dethroned by The Blair Witch Project). Certainly audiences love to be scared, but the fascination with meaningless, psychotic death hangs over the proceedings as well.
Although he’s shouldered the “Master of Horror” trope ever since Halloween earned its investors their bloodied dividends, Carpenter’s drive to work has eclipsed any stylistic catholicism. A recent career retrospective at BAM illustrated as much, showcasing Carpenter’s forays into kung fu exploitation (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986) and paranoiac sci-fi (They Live, 1988). That said, his best work is also his darkest. On Lost Themes, he continues to explore the same darkness, offering yet more mystery.
JEFF TOBIAS is a musician, composer, and writer currently living in New York.