As a huge film fan, and someone who appreciates how much the score brings to the celluloid party, John Carpenter is one of the rare artists who ticks both boxes. As a director (don’t forget producer, writer and actor) he has been responsible for some of the biggest cults films of the last 40+ years; classics such as Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York I & II, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live and so many more. As a composer his often minimal, but brilliantly executed, scores mean that the overused word ‘legend’ is rightly deserving in his case. He demonstrates that you don’t have to write a full orchestral score or deploy the sul ponticello that Bernard Hermann used in Psycho to create tension and augment the drama. Who doesn’t get a shiver when they hear the opening theme to Halloween? It’s unsettling nature is aided by being in 5/4 time which, as people who predominantly hear 4/4 (think AC/DC) or 3/4 (Strauss waltzes), mean we can’t quite grasp the first beat as it never lands quite where we think it should.
Since 2016’s Lost Themes II, Carpenter has rightly been acknowledged as someone whose pulsing film scores not only defined a generation of unique film soundtracks but elevated electronic music film scores to art. His use of the low-end pulse of a synth’s bass notes can quicken the pulse every bit as much as the acoustic stabs of a double bass. In fact, the synthetic nature of electronic music heightens to the dystopian feel of Escape From New York, the hidden alien threat in They Live or the ‘when-are-they-going-to-storm-the-building’ menace of Assault on Precinct 13. John Carpenter is in great company with soundtracks that bring ‘otherness’ just think of Bernard Hermann’s work with Alfred Hitchcock on Psycho and Vertigo, films like The Day The Earth Stood Still with its use of Theremin, Tangerine Dream’s early Moog-fuelled monoliths on Sorcerer and The Keep and Vangelis’s epic scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire.
So Lost Themes III: Alive After Death comes hot on the foley heels of John Carpenter touring his classic scores (as found on Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998) and his film-less soundtracks. He’s been performing them around the world to sold out audiences as a trio with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies and this is part of the reason why it’s been five years since Lost Themes II. Every one of the 10 tracks evoke what John Carpenter calls “a soundtrack for the movies in your mind”. From the title track ‘Alive After Death’ through to ‘Carpathian Darkness’ you want to open IMDB and look up the film and, because they don’t exist, will them into life. Carpenter is a bravura exponent of repetitive hooks that make you check cupboards before you go to bed and synth washes that pulse in a way to make you queasy from the sense that something wicked this way comes. If you love the films of John Carpenter but have yet to check out his soundtracks, then our digital age is perfect to hear them with crystal clarity but, be warned, you might just think you see Michael Myers lurking in the foliage on your daily exercise. I feel a John Carpenter marathon coming to my front room in the near future.
Review by Paul F Cook
If you are interested in electronic music experimentation in Hitchcock films then I can recommend this excellent 9 minute video by Mark Brend for Reverb.com