It’s one thing to be recognized for your directing work over the years by creating a slew of genre classics, but it’s on a whole other level to also manage to create stellar soundtracks for them as well. John Carpenter has done precisely that in countless movies over the years.
There’s a lot of them to pick from, and Carpenter’s more comprehensive library of music beyond film is also worth digging into. Still — for the here and now — we’re delving into the most significant examples of John Carpenter’s movie composing in a second career that has spanned decades.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s third stab at composing was his first strong effort. Assault on Precinct 13’s mean synthy beats make this dirty 70s cop movie retelling of Rio Bravo feel as grimy and dangerous as the situation the motley crew of a cast find themselves in.
When you look at the evolution of the Carpenter soundtrack in the years after this, Assault on Precinct 13’s score feels just as raw and dirty as the movie it accompanies.
The quintessential John Carpenter soundtrack for the quintessential John Carpenter movie. Halloween was a massive moment in Carpenter’s career, and even when he’s been disinterested in directing sequels and reboots of his iconic slasher, he’s often returned to blend new variants of his original score for them.
How Carpenter morphs his titular theme to suit the various stages of action in the movie is impressive. This musical masterpiece burrows deeper into the blood and tissue of that one night in Haddonfield.
The Fog (1980)
It’s no coincidence that Carpenter’s stellar run of films from the 1970s and 80s coincides with some of his most iconic composing work. The Fog had the tough job of following up Halloween on both fronts, but it did an admirable job all around.
The score is perfect for a ghost story set in a coastal Californian town. Its haunting, twinkly overtone brings an almost jovially spooky feel, while the longer lower moments add a sense of foreboding to proceedings. The audiovisual pairing means you can almost taste the salt in the air. Mind you, I did just eat some chips listening to it again.
Escape From New York (1981)
As Carpenter grew more flexible in his composing, the results became wildly different without sacrificing his signature style. Few examples are as pointed as the score for Escape from New York.
The mood pieces for the prison island of New York are a highlight. Perhaps it’s no coincidence the quality and variety are amplified when you consider this and Halloween II marked the start of collaboration with Alan Howarth.
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)
Carpenter may have left the Halloween franchise to others once he made the first film, but he kept composing new soundtracks for its early sequels. Perhaps fittingly for the film, his work on Halloween 3: Season of the Witch is underappreciated.
It features one of the greatest tracks Carpenter has ever composed with Chariots of Pumpkins, and came during this fruitful period where he collaborated with Alan Howarth.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Pound for pound, Prince of Darkness has the best soundtrack for a John Carpenter movie by the man himself. It’s a dread-inducing dreamscape — a doom-laden orchestra for the end of the world.
The movie’s story has an apocalyptic nature, with a simple, yet impossible cylinder acting as the catalyst for increasingly terrible events. Carpenter and Howarth subtly escalate the despair and dread through the score as the influence of the cylinder’s contents.
They Live (1988)
The last of Carpenter’s collaborations with Alan Howarth is a fine way to end the partnership. They Live’s Western-tinged opening theme is reminiscent of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 score, and this tale of hidden corruption and invasion is backed beautifully by synths, mournful harmonica calls, and bluesy riffs.
The standout track for me is All Out of Bubble Gum, which gets these audio ideals firing on all cylinders with accompanying looping finger snaps. And the name alone just puts you right into that iconic scene, doesn’t it?
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Ghosts of Mars isn’t considered one of Carpenter’s best movies (but it’s better than you think), but the soundtrack is definitely one of his best. A metal-infused swagger that encapsulates a particularly grimy period for heavy rock.
In many ways, it ends up being a progenitor of Mick Gordon’s score for the video game Doom. It gets its metal core from a collaboration with the band Anthrax, and however you might feel about Carpenter’s penultimate movie, he absolutely delivered on the soundtrack front.
After many many years away from the franchise (and scoring in general,) John Carpenter returned to compose David Gordon Green’s modern Halloween trilogy with assistance from Daniel Davies and Cody Carpenter, John’s musician son.
Carpenter has collaborated with this team of musicians the most in recent years, even touring with them a few years back for the release of John Carpenter’s Anthology. They collectively freshen up an all-time classic score and add new layers and whole new tracks. Honestly, any of the three scores would deserve a spot here, but I still have such fondness for the 2018 film as a herald of Carpenter’s return to the franchise.
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