The original version of this article was published in the online music magazine PPCORN in 2015.
Remember what scared you the most about the 1978 film Halloween? Perhaps it was the slow, methodical way in which masked murderer Michael Myers would pursue and kill his prey. Maybe it was the widescreen cinematography by Dean Cundey, where anything could be lurking at the far corners of the frame. But chances are that what gave you nightmares for years on end was the spine-tingling, minimalistic score by writer/director John Carpenter: By now, its iconic main theme has become entrenched in the minds of not only horror fans, but the general public alike.
For years Carpenter has provided music for his films, sometimes by himself and sometimes collaborating with other composers such as Alan Howarth (1983’s Christine), Shirley Walker (1996’s Escape from L.A.), and even The Kinks’ Dave Davies (1995’s Village of the Damned). He has scored fifteen of the nineteen films he’s directed (not counting TV), making him one of those rare directors whose visual language is keenly married to his musical sensibilities.
Lost Themes (2015) marks the first time Carpenter releases an album of non-film instrumental tracks, in collaboration with his son Cody Carpenter and composer Daniel Davies. The results are a bit hit-or-miss, but there’s no denying the general aura of cinematic verve brought to the whole enterprise: Lost Themessounds like the soundtrack to a John Carpenter movie that does not exist. Things get off to a great start with the moody “Vortex,” which at times recalls the film scores of Tangerine Dream. The track pulsates and throbs with urgency, the layers of keyboards and sequencers undulating over each other effortlessly.
Next up is “Obsidian,” an eight-minute track that trips all over itself by trying to piece too many different ideas together. There’s a drums-and-guitar intro that starts things up promisingly, but soon we’re stuck in a lumbering passage that transforms into an organ-infused gothic passage with echoes of Danny Elfman. This would be fine if it developed interestingly, but soon we’re back to a slow section with Rick Wakeman-style keyboard flourishes that seem to come from out of nowhere. The track then abruptly returns to the beginning passage. Like The Beatles would say, it’s all too much.
Things don’t improve with the repetitive “Fallen,” which again commits the mistake of starting one way and switching gears in the middle with no unifying thread to speak of. “Domain” is also somewhat weird, with motifs that seem to come out of a training montage for an 80s film. However, it’s dynamic and full of energy; Carpenter is clearly having fun.
“Mystery” gets back to business with a neo-classical synth arpeggio that eventually explodes into a nifty little rock theme. The lighter composition “Abyss” at points threatens to become a John Tesh/Yanni new age vehicle, but thankfully Carpenter and his cohorts introduce a thumping beat that ends with one of those memorable melodies that evoke his scores to Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988).
“Wraith” may actually be the best track in the whole album, with an insistent groove that once more channels Tangerine Dream, but towards their rock-infused 90s era. When the electric guitar and percussion kick in towards the end, it’s hard not to imagine Snake Plissken roaming the desolate streets of Manhattan in Escape from New York (1981). The album closes with “Purgatory,” a slow dirge that builds to another rhythmic drums and synths resolution, and “Night,” an eerie if somewhat predictable suspense piece.
By the end of Lost Themes, you will feel as if you’ve just watched a new film by the genre master. And that’s small consolation: Many fans have been waiting years for Carpenter to come back and direct one last magnum opus. Lost Themes is proof positive that the man still has it in him. Come back, John. Hollywood needs a shake-up.
Carlos I. Cuevas