Spooktober Soundtracks Vol. 1 – The Film Scores of John Carpenter

by Gavin Mead ’15

In the lead-up to Halloween, Spooktober Soundtracks will be a weekly feature exploring the strange, exciting world of original horror movie scores.

It would be hard to argue for a genre more reliant on music than horror films. Scary movies depend so much on the cultivation of mood and atmosphere that they tend to push composers into creating weird and novel sounds that can be found virtually nowhere else. From the atonal orchestral pieces used in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to the prog-from-hell freakouts found in the films of Dario Argento, few genres are accompanied by music so singular and bizarre.

Few composers, however, have had such a lasting and powerful influence on popular culture as John Carpenter, who in a career spanning almost three decades, not only directed an incredible run of iconic horror movies, but also had a hand in producing the scores for almost all of his films. Despite initially composing only out of necessity, given the shoestring budgets of his early independent films, Carpenter created a sound so instantly recognizable and evocative that his influence can be traced to virtually all corners of underground music. His chilling scores, mostly composed in less than a week on cheap, primitive synthesizers, transcended the world of film, serving as a major touchstone for musicians exploring the darker sides of electronic music, such as The Knife, and informed the textures of modern synth-experimentalists like Oneohtrix Point Never. Samples of his work can be found in practically every sub-genre of hip-hop as well, from the West-Coast rap of Dr. Dre to the horrorcore of Three 6 Mafia.

While almost all of his work is worth looking into (with the possible exception of the excursions into cheesy shred-metal found in his later work), here are three of my personal favorite soundtracks composed by Carpenter:

1. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

The third installment in the long-running Halloween series has the unique distinction of not featuring the legendary masked killer Michael Myers. Despite the initial backlash over Myers’s absence, the movie itself isn’t really all that bad and is finally experiencing the critical reevaluation it deserves. From the beginning, however, it was readily apparent that the film’s soundtrack was its biggest saving grace. It has everything one could want in a classic Carpenter score and serves as an electro-pagan precursor to the recent work of musicians such as James Holden and Vessel.

2. The Fog (1980)

Most of Carpenter’s other horror scores draw on the tension between the film’s grisly subject matter and chilly music accompaniment. However, Carpenter’s soundtrack for The Fog, which is about a small coastal town in California that is terrorized by the ghosts of ancient mariners, seems more closely connected to the setting. Menacing and massive bass notes roll in and out like the eponymous fog of the film, functioning as a blanket of sound from which icy arpeggiated synth lines emerge. This is also a film meant to be played loudly, as the soundtrack contains some of Carpenter’s most effectively terrifying jump-scares.

3. Halloween (1978)

Carpenter’s Halloween not only single-handedly created the “slasher movie” sub-genre (for better or for worse), but also provided what is possibly the single most recognizable horror film theme of all time. The score is eerily minimal, most of it comprised of little more than creeping minor key synth chords, a muffled thump, and the iconic three-note piano line. However, for all its simplicity, it’s surprisingly dramatic as well. The synth lines keep getting piled on top of each other until they reach a breaking point. It’s iconic for a reason.

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