Killing His Contemporaries:
Dissecting The Musical Worlds Of John Carpenter
by Daniel & Seth Nelson (May 2002)Psychopathic killers, supernatural forces, gallant heroes, unending evil; all trademarks found in the films of the incomparable John Carpenter. Pounding beats, haunting melodies, ominous arrangements, minimalist scores, unforgettable themes; all characteristics found in the music to the films of John Carpenter. Few people realize that the very music found in most of John Carpenter's distinct films is in fact a creation of John Carpenter himself.
An exploration into John Carpenter's music allows for a deeper appreciation of his films and reveals crucial unions between his films and their music. Musical scores for film have been around since the inception of motion pictures; however, the music that John Carpenter creates for his films displays distinct characteristics, wholly unique to his scores. The use of theme music for certain characters in Carpenter's films acts like a musical narrator, enhancing the effect these characters play in the story. Infrequently, John Carpenter utilizes outside, prerecorded music for his films, but instead of relying on the obvious interpretation of these songs, Carpenter spins their meaning, allowing the songs to become entirely his own. John Carpenter is a unique and important filmmaker who happens to also create most of the brilliant music for his films, adding yet another facet to this already multifaceted artist.
Throughout John Carpenter's career, his films have been at the forefront of the science fiction and horror genres, including his ultra-low budget masterpiece Halloween in 1978, and his 1981 classic Escape From New York. Within the film world, Carpenter is a master of directing, writing, producing, and even acting, lending his talents to nearly 30 films. The wide variety of Carpenter's films offer a story for every type of movie fan in any kind of mood. The titles are recognizable by most; the chilling remake of The Thing (1982), the supernatural love story in Starman (1984), to his most recent star-packed alien tale Ghosts Of Mars (2001). In total, 17 out of the nearly two-dozen films directed and/or produced by Carpenter feature scores either composed, performed, or produced (or some combination of the three) by John Carpenter. For Carpenter, filmmaking is not the only outlet to his artistic vision, because creating the music for his films completes this vision, making the films truly his own. His desire to play many roles in the filmmaking process places him in an incredibly select group of filmmakers.
The distinct trademarks found within his film scores leave no doubt that Carpenter inhabits a realm in which he is the sole occupant. In examining the marking characteristics in the music of John Carpenter, adjectives constantly appear and reappear when describing the sounds one hears. Expressions like pounding, driving, pulsing, haunting, bursting, crashing, slashing, racing, and floating, are all experienced in Carpenter's scores. Upon discovering Carpenter's musical trademarks, the viewer is able to instantly recognize and associate a Carpenter score from non-Carpenter music.
The heartbeat pulse is a musical device that Carpenter masterfully uses in the scores to many of his films. In Carpenter's 1981 Escape From New York (for which Carpenter composed and performed the musical score), uncertainty overwhelms a scene where The President of the United States (played by Donald Pleasance) goes missing in a plane crash, and no one, outside of the prisoners in New York, know whether he is alive or dead. While the police put together a search party for the President, Carpenter immediately begins a repeating, two-note heartbeat pulse using bass sounds created on a synthesizer. The heartbeat pulse symbolizes the actual pulse of the viewer, as well as the characters' pulses in the film. Through this simple, yet dramatic heartbeat pulse, the viewer's increasing emotions of concern are instantly aligned with those of the frenzied police force, who search frantically for their leader, The President. The heartbeat music in this scene also represents the possibility that the President is still alive and gives the impression that the heartbeat is actually the living beat of the President. Added to this panicked situation, Carpenter infuses both an unsettling high-pitched wavering sound, and also a low-pitched bass moving up in scale. In total, an unnerving brief musical moment is created and the viewer has experienced Carpenter's ability to control not only what is on screen and being heard, but what the viewer is supposed to feel.
The effect of the heartbeat rhythm found in Carpenter's Escape From New York is mirrored in his 1995 Village Of The Damned (Carpenter co-composed the music with Dave Davies, and plays synthesizer and bass guitar). In the film, a chilling scene depicting numerous mothers giving birth at the same time uses a heartbeat pulse as music, building tension as the viewer waits to see what the babies will look like. In Carpenter's tale, an evil force impregnates these mothers in a town called Midwich, and the heartbeat effect again has multiple purposes and meanings. The continuous heartbeat pattern represents the concern that the townspeople and the viewer share over these simultaneous births, and whether these babies will be born healthy or show some sign of the evil that created them. The singular heartbeat played over the birth of several babies, unifies the evil source of these creatures. Again and again, John Carpenter uses the heartbeat music for the same effect in his films: grabbing the viewer's emotions and aligning them with the actions taking place on screen. Carpenter also uses the heartbeat to demonstrate that the characters within the story feel a great sense of uneasiness and tension. He gives rise to the characters' innermost emotions without the characters themselves ever having to mutter any sentiments about how they feel; the heartbeat music speaks for them.
John Carpenter is called the master of atmosphere by many, most likely because he paints vivid scenes onto the screen, using every available technique to place the viewer inside of the story. These people are absolutely right! John Carpenter is a master of atmosphere, not only for the filmmaking aspect, but also for the music that embellishes and helps to complete the atmosphere of each scene. In Carpenter's underrated Big Trouble In Little China (Carpenter composed, performed, and produced the score) from 1986, Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell) is drawn into a magical and darker side of San Francisco's Chinatown, and takes on the role of saving the world. Amidst his fantastical journey, Jack and his friend Wang are forced underwater inside of an elevator. The atmosphere is immediately created when the camera shows the two characters underwater, and is further developed from the effect that the water has on the music, almost as if it too is dragged underwater with them. The music that plays before the two characters are submersed into the water is a loud and constant crescendo of synthesized strings, and after the underwater sequence, the music is much the same. However, when the viewer's audio and visuals are pulled underwater with the characters, the music shifts into simple and short keyboard bursts combined with haunting and echoed suspended notes, that are muffled to compliment the slow movement of everything under the water. This haunting musical effect is achieved by the use of suspended notes that resemble screams and deep breathing, giving life to the chained and floating corpses that confront Jack and Wang as they swim, and as the viewer "swims" with them. The atmosphere is complete. With the help of the music, the feeling of unnerving danger underwater is achieved. The scene is short, but the musical elements are lasting and powerful. John Carpenter uses scenes like this to show the dependence that his films have to music, and how the two build off of each other to create the ultimate picture. Of course, when dealing with John Carpenter films, music is a relative term. In Carpenter's world, it is also the music one does not hear, that has a lasting impact on the viewer.
John Carpenter finds music in silence, relying upon the natural sounds created in particular scenes to stand on their own without any composed or conventional music laid on top of them. Carpenter's 1988 They Live (for which Carpenter co-composed, performed, and produced the soundtrack), features a lengthy alley fight scene between the two heroes of the film, Nada (played by Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David). Instead of bogging the scene down with a musical composition, Carpenter allows the "music" of the fight sounds to stand alone. Blow after blow, kick after kick, and with each gasp of air; these rhythmic strikes take the place of any played instruments. Because of Carpenter's musical background, and the fact that he created the characters and scripts for his films, he knows when it is appropriate to use music and when it is not.
Phones ringing, glass bottles rattling, lights buzzing, a sign swinging, gas pumping, cars honking, bells jingling, and television static; the musical silence Carpenter uses in an early scene as an evil presence approaches a city and its inhabitants in The Fog (for which Carpenter composed and performed the soundtrack), from 1979. These everyday natural sounds have a music all their own. The use, or rather the non-use, of any conventional music in this scene, draws the viewer deeper into the story because the realism found in these everyday sounds and objects is highlighted by not using any music. The viewer must focus on the actions at hand, and the sounds produced from these actions. In 1983, Carpenter commented, "Someone once told me that music, or the lack of it, can make you see better. I believe it." Often, many films are flooded with scenes containing music that do not further the story, but luckily Carpenter understands the role of music in his films, and can move the viewer either with music or musical silence. John Carpenter's ability to transform the ordinary happenings of life into important cinematic events, as well as his talent for pulling the viewer deeper into the movie through his detail to atmosphere and to the viewer's emotional state, ensure his status as one of the true masters of theme music. As brightly as Carpenter shines with these musical trademarks, his true gift is within the realm of providing larger main theme music, which benefits the overall story within his films.
The character theme music that John Carpenter uses in his films, offers another level of explanation to the overall story elements and provides background and foreground as to who the characters are and where they are going. A western, outlaw rock theme announces the arrival of Snake Plissken in Carpenter's 1996 Escape From L.A. (Carpenter did some of the music for this film). Upon arriving in an armored truck to prison after being captured by the police, Snake must agree to an ultimatum: either help the President in reclaiming an essential computer disc or die. Snake agrees to the former and suits up for the adventure with guns, ammunition, and his trademark leather jacket and pants. Throughout Snake's arrival and dressing sequence, the Western style guitar played alongside a fluttering harmonica, and combined with a walking bass and drum rhythm, signal that Snake Plissken is a kick-ass and rugged outlaw. The viewer does not even need to know, and is not actually given in any detail, the specifics as to the history of Snake. The main themed outlaw music acts like a musical narrator, describing through music to the viewer this missing background information. The all-instrumental music does not speak any actual words, but the tone of the rough and edgy music defines Snake's persona as rough and edgy, telling that he has not had the ideal background. This outlaw theme is used throughout the film in reference to Snake, and he is the sole possessor of this western music, which contrasts from the computerized and more futuristic music used in the rest of the film. Just as the music stands out from the rest of the soundtrack, Snake himself chooses not to fit in with the futuristic world at large. Snake's character, along with his theme music, hearken back to such Spaghetti Western heroes as Josey Wales and the "Man with No Name," who were highlighted by minimalist scores that captured and helped to reinforce the characters' personas and the overall atmosphere found in the films. Without the music, characters like Snake Plissken, Josey Wales, and the "Man with No Name," are still rough and tough looking, but with the unique music, these characters are catapulted into cult-like heroes.
Perhaps John Carpenter's best known composition is his main theme music for Halloween, which has been used in some fashion, in every follow-up film to the original (with the exception of Halloween III). Within Halloween and Halloween II, which are closely related in both plot and music, the main theme is reprised but slightly altered each time, throughout both films. One of the most poignant variations of this main theme takes place in Halloween II (a film Carpenter did not direct but co-produced, as well as co-composing and performing the soundtrack), from 1981. After tormenting the town of Haddonfield, Illinois throughout the movie, The Shape, better known as Michael Myers, follows Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) to a hospital, where Laurie is recuperating from wounds suffered in a previous encounter with Myers. While hiding in the hospital parking lot, Laurie realizes that he is in the lot with her, and as she frantically pounds on the hospital's front doors, the variation of the main theme smashes into the film. The simple repeating melody that delivers fast and immediate pulses of sound is created by a high pitched synthesizer. The unending theme matches what is taking place not only in this particular scene, but the overall storyline: Michael Myers cannot be stopped! This stripped-down version of the main theme does not have the low bass tones that the film's main theme starts out with in the beginning of the movie. Instead, Carpenter replaces this bass sound with the hypnotizing breathing from Michael Myers and the shrieked screams from Laurie. At this point in the film, there is absolutely no doubt as to the pure evil of Myers, and therefore this main theme mimic's his deadly intentions and must be hard-hitting and direct. There is a catchiness in John Carpenter's music, which allows the viewer the ability to remember certain themes, like the legendary Halloween music, adding even further to the strong effect his films and their music have. This catchiness is a product of both the simple repeating melodies and the minimalist sounds that forever link character to music. Further connecting character to music is Carpenter's ability to transform the viewer's familiarity with a famous song and give it a new interpretation.
John Carpenter's use of preexisting compositions from other artists, allows him the opportunity to spin the song's meaning and mold the tune into the framework of his own storyline. Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" pipes through a car radio in Halloween, as Laurie Strode and a friend are driving to a babysitting job. As the music plays on the radio and as the two are preoccupied with getting high, Michael Myers pursues the car closely, unbeknownst to the two young women. The original song deals with two young lovers trying to convince themselves that they should follow the deep and deadly committed love that Romeo and Juliet shared. John Carpenter reinterprets the meaning of the song by suggesting that the doom for the two young women in the car is near, and for them to not fear the inevitable; death brought by the reaper himself, Michael Myers. He refocuses the song away from love and entirely on being killed. Not only are the characters' fates being played on the radio, but in fact, the bringer of their death is in a car just behind them.
Carpenter's Halloween II uses another familiar song that viewers would have probably recognized, The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman." The film opens with what seems to be a calm and peaceful evening showing the outside of a house in Haddonfield, Illinois, flashing back to a more innocent time. As the wind gently blows through the trees, "Mr. Sandman" opens the film. The song fades out into film reality, with a shaken Laurie telling the two young children, whom she is babysitting, to immediately leave the house in which Michael Myers has just terrorized and in fact lies, presumably dead, on the floor. The original meaning of the song deals with a girl wishing to "Mr. Sandman" that he bring her a "dream" in the form of a perfect man. Carpenter twists the song's happy and upbeat intent into a sinister "nightmare" in the form of Michael Myers, who is far from the perfect man. Mr. Sandman, in Carpenter's world, is the Boogie Man represented by Michael Myers, bringing not dreams in slumber, but eternal sleep in death.
Carpenter's gift for understanding the important connection between music and film, shines through in scenes like these, because it is especially here where he distances himself from other filmmakers and composers. Too many filmmakers and composers would take a song like "Mr. Sandman" and place it into a scene to reinforce feelings of happiness and innocence, and leave it at that. Carpenter however, challenges the very notion of what music can do for a scene and how the viewer can interpret its meaning. He may initially present music and scenes to the viewer in the same way as other filmmakers, but within a few short seconds, Carpenter's genius takes over, transporting the viewer to another level that they most likely have never conceived of before.
Films and music have always been intertwined; when done correctly the audience is not only visually entertained, but takes away a lasting impression of the musical score and the film itself. To fully appreciate John Carpenter is to realize that he is the master of the entire package. His films are filled with storylines, characters, and directing that leave present and future filmmakers envious and influenced. These aspects of film are enhanced with the addition or intentional absence of music, firmly bonding the viewer to his films, and taking every opportunity to further Carpenter's vision of telling a story in its completeness. In his music, he covers every aspect of sound, from the viewer's emotions to what the characters are composed of and the atmosphere they interact in, to the music found in things that normally receive no music. Within this brief glimpse into the music of John Carpenter, the focus has been on some of the trademark sounds that set him apart from other score composers, and quite simply, it is just not possible to detail every Carpenter soundtrack and what makes each of them special, as the surface is just barely scratched. Instead, by highlighting the level of depth and attention that John Carpenter gives to his films through his music, his musical style can begin to be discovered and appreciated. John Carpenter is like no other, and his music cannot be placed into any one genre, as the music found in his nearly-twenty scored films, incorporates all different types of styles. Listening to his music on album can be rewarding, but John Carpenter's music is best experienced by watching his films, where the viewer's senses benefit from the combination of brilliant music and unique movie. The worlds created by John Carpenter are so rich and complete, so vivid and alive, that once you enter, you will never see and hear films in the same way again, and refreshingly, this is a great thing.
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