In 1961, Howard Ralph Carpenter, a Kentuckian music professor, sat his son down with a pair of bongos and taught him a simple 5-4 beat exercise to practice with.
He could never have imagined, many years later, his son would make a fortune licencing an adapted version of the same bongo exercise as a ringtone.
Somewhere between that first fatherly music lesson and the frontier of digital melodies decades later, John Carpenter managed to not only write and direct some of the greatest genre movies of the seventies and eighties, but also compose their scores, too.
Listen: John Carpenter performs The Shape Returns from Halloween (2018):
That naciant 5-4 beat we all know today as the theme to Halloween, Carpenter's 1977 breakout film - a new sequel to which has just opened in multiplexes, with a fresh new score from the maestro himself, accompanied by his son Cody, and his godson, Daniel Davies, scion of Kinks frontman, Ray.
Success in science fiction and horror seems an unlikely by product of growing up in a musical family, accompanied by a constant diet of westerns from the likes of John Ford, and his directorial hero, Howard Hawks. But one thing Carpenter has over both of these legendary filmmakers are his skills as a composer, having both written and performed the soundtracks to almost all of his films to date.
Carpenter has confessed to trying to save the original Halloween with music after early studio screenings didn’t go down well. He had yet to mix the score, and apparently nobody was finding the film scary. Here’s a sentence you don’t write often, but god bless those studio executives! By this point behind his keyboard he had already scored all his previous pictures, all the way back to 1974’s Dark Star, a hippie astronaut surfers in space movie, written by his college mate, Dan O’Bannon (who would later go own to write Alien), and 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13, his police-station-under-siege tribute to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (Carpenter is such a fan of this western, he was invited to do the commentary on the Bluray) and a huge hit in Europe. This proto-western is essentially the beginning of a cinematic legacy, a film which was initially recognised more in the UK and France before the US paid attention - a habit that would repeat itself throughout his career.
Haloween had two parents, director Carpenter and producer Debra HIll. Partners professionally and personally, she co-wrote and produced his first hit movie and five others spread over the years ahead. My favourite collaboration of theirs is 1980’s The Fog, for many reasons, not least of which are summertime childhood memories of Portrane beach and the single red eye blinking lighthouse. I never spotted leper-ghost-zombies like the ones that descend on the seaside town in Carpenter’s film. But The Fog’s haunting melancholic melodies are still with me as an adult, always reminding me how much I loved to be scared.
After bonding during the shoot of a TV movie about Elvis Presley - it's great, track it down - Kurt Russell was hired by the director to play the anti-hero, Snake Plissken in 1981’s Escape From New York and helicopter pilot Mc Ready in 1982’s The Thing. Both pictures produced memorable soundtracks, one of them with a twist - all this success at the box-office could only lead to one thing for John Carpenter: a big budget studio movie, and The Thing was it. What needs to be said about what is arguably his greatest cinematic achievement, would take an article within itself. You can find it here. Needless to say, it is Carpenter’s opus - one for which he did not write a single note. The size of the production meant he had to dictate music duties to someone very capable. Cue: Ennio Morricone, who elected to compose a score in the style of his director. Hearing Carpenter play this lingering minimalist theme was one of the many highlights of his Dublin gig a couple of years ago.
The emperor of all creature movies, the practical special effects of The Thing set a benchmark which still stands to this day. But it’s impact at the box-office during the summer of 1982 - the summer of E.T. - was minimal. So, unfortunately, as far as the big studios were concerned his name was mud. This didn’t stop him from making entertaining, and sometimes even great films during the 80s, complete with his double signature of synth soundscapes and a Western-born Cinemascope discipline.
The results were the likes of Christine, a stylish adaptation of Stephen King’s killer car novel, Starman, for which Jeff Bridges received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and Big Trouble In Little China, his third big screen outing with Kurt Russell and the soundtrack debut of his band, The Coupe DeVilles, whose line-up consisted of Carpenter, Nick Castle (masked killer Michael Myers in the director’s original film, plus the currently released sequel) and Tommy Lee Wallace, director of the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s It.
The trio’s music video for their Big Trouble theme is essential viewing, with our director rocking his guitar sat in his film editing suit, managing to be both an Eighties snapshot and an affectionate peon to dad rock. Though none of these pictures were notable hits at the time, studios today are chomping at the bit to remake them, such has been their lasting influence on a generation of genre fans across the world thanks to home video, DVD and streaming.
Disgruntled at the way his film was handled on its release, Carpenter returned to smaller budget fare, rounding out the decade with his homage to Nigel Keane’s Quatermass, Prince Of Darkness, a flawed if fascinating movie, jammed full of great concepts and sequences, baked with a thunderously grand and threatening electronic organ, but alas let down by a mostly so-so cast (excluding Donald Pleasence, who in his fourth film for Carpenter is always on point).
His next low-budget entry, They Live, has had legs well beyond its cinematic ambitions. A man once said, "I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. I’m all out of bubble gum." That man was the late Rowdy Roddy Piper, WWF wrestler and star of Carpenter’s cynical science fiction satire on alien invasion, Reaganomics and Eighties consumer culture. It features one of the longest fist fights ever put on film - between Piper and Keith David, whose character may or may not have survived The Thing - and an uncharacteristic electronic guitar and harmonica riff for its main theme. The film’s main conceit - only being able to see what’s truly going on in the world when you wear special dark glasses - has been riffed on in many TV shows and music videos ever since, and the movie is now considered a subversive b-movie classic.
Of his nineties work I would choose his take on all things Lovecraftian, In The Mouth Of Madness, featuring Sam Neill, as one of his most ambitious and entertaining. One could sense Carpenter getting bored with directing, going by the results of his remake of the British science fiction classic, Village Of The Damned in 1995, starring the great Christopher Reeve - I’m afraid Superman deserved a better swan song. 1996’s Escape From L.A. gets a special mention, with the return of both Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken and Debra Hill as co-writer and producer (she was to die, at 54, only a few years later just after completing a movie for Oliver Stone.) Though there is a lot of fun to be had with 1999’s Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars in 2001. The former featuring a memorable star turn from James Woods, and the latter contains a killer last line - and it is a western, though set against the futuristic red landscape of Mars.
Today John Carpenter is pretty much (semi) retired as a movie director. His last theatrical outing, 2010’s The Ward, personally left me wanting. Retirement, if that’s what you want to call it, has been good to the man. Never giving any f***ks when it comes to discussing financial compensation, he’s freely admitted he made more money from ringtones of his movie themes than he ever did from filmmaking. Devoting himself to playing video games and collecting royalty cheques, he did recover his inspiration to release two albums of original music, Lost Themes and Lost Themes 2, composed and performed by him and his family band complete with two sold-out worldwide tours.
And he’s even threatened to return to film making. With America awash with Trumpisim, Carpenter recently suggested that it’s time to give the country a wake-up call with their very own generational take on THey Live (yes please!) That reality has come ever closer with the phenomenal worldwide success of the David Gordon Green directed, forty-years-later sequel to his classic film, one that disregards all sequels, complete with a sterling performance from Jamie Lee Curtis, reunited with ‘The Shape’ for one ‘final’ showdown.
As producer and composer, Carpenter’s fingerprints are all over the movie. And I have to confess, when killer Michael Myers burst once again onto the screen complete with mask, knife and a body count as long as your arm, a stupid grin burst across my face. And, dare I say, a tear, because both Michael the bogey man and Carpenter the boogie man... are back!
Halloween is on general release now. Dublin's Light House cinema are holding an all-day John Carpenter marathon, with screenings of the newly restored 4K versions of They Live, Prince Of Darkness, Escape From New York and The Fog, on Saturday, November 24rd - more details here.