by John S
On June 14, Tuesday, the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle played host to one of the greatest film music composers of our time. It just so happens this great film music composer is also one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Who is this formidable double threat? Two clues: his first name is my first name, and his last name is the English noun for someone who builds things. And to all the comedians out there: no, his name is not “Numbnuts Architect.” It is…John Carpenter.
John Carpenter (or “JC,” as I like to think I would refer to him if he and I were, you know, homies) became a household name with Halloween in 1978. Suddenly, babysitting on All Hallow’s Eve wasn’t the same – and neither were horror films and horror movie music. A considerable part of what made Halloween such a harrowing experience was the score, also composed by JC. A minimalist piece that had flavors of Goblin and Mike Oldfield but with an overall character all its own, Halloween‘s music, like the film it graces, is now a cinematic legend. Its “reimagining” in Halloween 2 is even better, made robust and more complex by powerful gothic tones.
JC’s other scores are similarly striking, each being distinct but also still unmistakably part of the same musical family. The Fog, Halloween 2, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, Christine, Big Trouble In LIttle China, Prince of Darkness, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, and Village of the Damned were made memorable and vividly “Carpenterian” by their scores. Sure, there were other JC trademarks such as wide-angle lensing, gliding shots, and expressive use of color, negative space, and darkness, but his music was his biggest tell. You’d know his music anywhere.
Naturally, there was no way in the world we were going to miss JC, Live In Concert. And, boy, did he not disappoint. Lasting roughly 90 minutes, the concert played out, appropriately enough, like a spectacular Carpenter movie. To wit: we have a killer opening, followed by a solid first act, which escalates into a riveting second act, with a stunning reversal that kicks us, inevitably, into the third act, that then builds to a powerful twist ending. I should also add that scenes from each movie were projected onto a giant screen behind JC. Heck, he should release this show in theaters and call it John Carpenter’s Music of Darkness. It plays out waaaaaaay better than most thrillers or horror flicks I’ve seen recently.
Now, without further ado, a play-by-play of the 90 minute “Thrill Ride” that is John Carpenter’s Live Retrospective. Try to stay calm.
Escape From New York: JC’s music makes Snake Plissken’s Manhattan shenanigans come to life all over again. Still don’t buy Donald Pleasence as the American President, though. Adrienne Barbeau would’ve made a far more convincing and interesting Prez. Just saying.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM ACT 1:
Assault on Precinct 13: The concept of being cooped up, Night of the Living Dead-style, in a soon-to-be-shuttered police station, as murderous street punks swirl around outside like crazed zombies, is claustrophobic enough. So JC’s music is appropriately no-nonsense but also somehow determinedly hopeful.
“Vortex”: A non-movie track from JC’s first Lost Themes album that sounds like the awesome offspring that would result if Halloween 3: Season of the Witch and Christine had a drunken, spectacular one-night stand. Pass the Tequila!
The Fog: My favorite JC score (and fave horror flick) that somehow makes the potentially-creaky idea of murderous leper ghosts coming back 100 years after their deaths to unleash a Special Can of Hurt on a Northen Cali fishing village that done-them-wrong seem so, well, plausible. Perfect example of how low-key and slow-burn can sometimes be much, much scarier. “Stay away from The Fog!”
They Live: Ah…Rowdy Piper and David Keith beating the tar out of each other in an alley. Special sunglasses. Subliminal messages. Aliens who look like Fire Marshall Bill’s much uglier, bug-eyed twin brother. All set to JC’s cheeky music. Love it. “Obey!”
HIGHLIGHTS OF ACT 2:
The Thing: Okay, you’re right. Technically, this is Ennio Morricone’s music. But it’s gracious of JC to make room and pay homage to the maestro whose music graced many of the Italian Gialli (AKA, Spaghetti Thrillers) that influenced Halloween.
“Distant Dream”: Another non-movie track from Lost Themes 2 that sounds like the bouncy product of a no-holds-barred, anything-goes three-way between Big Trouble In Little China, They Live, and Escape from New York. Partay!
Big Trouble In Little China: Snake Plissken goes buck-wild again, this time in San Fran. Lightning bolts, exploding Chinese men, hot green-eyed chicks, and James Hong ensue – and all the great synth-rock music can’t make it any less hilarious.
Halloween: Here’s the Big Reversal: one would’ve thought JC would’ve saved his immortal classic for last – but then one would’ve clearly been an idiot. Because JC knew how to throw us for a loop in his flicks – and he does so again here. So what then could he be saving for his Big Finale? What, I ask? Ahem.
HIGHLIGHTS OF ACT 3:
In The Mouth Of Madness: Sam Neill plays the World’s Hottest Insurance Investigator (in a tie with Rene Russo from 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair) searching for a missing horror writer in a town that only exists in the writer’s novels. JC’s kicky/catchy rock music keeps things from going too dark. Lived any good books lately?
Prince of Darkness: I have never looked at a mirror the same way ever since. Damn you, Unnamed Priest Played By Donald Pleasence! Couldn’t you have just waited for Catherine to climb out first before you threw the effing axe? Ya effing jerk! Anyway, JC’s ominous, doom-laden music rocks the house, er, church and MAKES this movie. “This is not a dream, not a dream, not a dream…”
AND…THE GRAND FINALE:
Christine: The closest thing JC has to a Romantic Thriller. This stunning remix steals the show and bests even the Halloween set-piece, which ain’t easy, folks. Yet Christine‘s music does exactly that. It’s a seductive, melancholy number that oozes mood and atmosphere-perfect for a dark love story about a boy and the girl he loves: a 1958 Plymouth Fury sedan that viciously runs down anyone who gets between them. Hope he has good auto insurance. Because Hell hath no fury like a Plymouth Fury.
Saved the best for last…JC, you clever dog.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberrysoda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.