Carpenteresque? Carpenterian? Carpenter-ish? The New York-born filmmaker has created his own defined aesthetic and been influential like few directors in movie history, but John Carpenter’s name hasn’t yet fully entered the lexicon in adjective form: Lynchian, Kubrickian, Spielbergian and even Tarantinoesque can be found in dictionaries, and cultural giants though they all might be, none can lay claim to the extraordinary legacy Carpenter has in both film and music.
Sure, Tarantino and Kubrick soundtracks changed the way scores were made, but they didn’t perform them with their own hands. Modest as always, Carpenter played down his contribution to the seventh art, once famously saying, ”In France, I’m an auteur. In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum”.
Now in 2021, ‘Lost Themes III: Alive After Death’ continues a series of imaginary, instrumental scores from films that were never made, while the sounds and moods that permeate them really started with ‘Dark Star’ in 1974. That cult debut was followed two years later with ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, and while both films together cost little more than $150,000, they firmly established Carpenter as a lo-fi polymath to be reckoned with.
In an era when Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream were bringing synthesisers to the big screen for the first time, Carpenter helped lay down the blueprint. So successful was his marriage of stark, glacial electronica and dark, hyperreal horror that he continued to make music for most of his own pictures. Unlike Carlos and the Tangs, Carpenter recorded his own soundtracks for expediency’s sake, and above all, to save money.
Even back then, he had a knack for economy, both in the sense of budgeting for the picture, and in the musical sense, composing sparse, memorable phrases that acted as dramatic motifs. Carpenter has brought that same incisive razor to all of the ‘Lost Themes’ records since the first one was released five years ago. Unusually for a soundtrack composer, he’s never been afraid of space, another welcome creative deviation that helps make his work so idiosyncratic.
So ‘Lost Themes III’ opener, ‘Alive After Death’ is based on the simplest of phrases, just four ascending notes with a foreboding undercurrent that shifts unobtrusively, building gradually and only taking off near the conclusion when Carpenter’s god son, Daniel Davies, bursts in with a face-melting guitar solo. While it’s Carpenter’s name on the sleeve, it’s a family business these days, with the aforementioned Davies (the son of the Kinks’ Dave Davies), and his son Cody Carpenter (who makes music as Ludrium) helping to realise the Carpenter vision.
While he doesn’t seem to be deliberately referencing his own work, it’s impossible to listen to the sequencer of doom on the magnificent ‘Weeping Ghost’ and not picture Kurt Russell escaping from a giant maximum-security prison, or behold the chilling arpeggios of the equally superb ‘The Dead Walk’, without summoning a number of his best video nasties to the imagination. ‘Turning The Bones’ meanwhile, revolves around a three-note ostinato that comes at you throughout the piece and is a reminder of creepy, minimal soundtracks from the 70s scored by Goblin or Mike Oldfield. And yet it never feels anachronistic.
Carpenter’s work was always anticipating a dystopia that was several years into the future, but close enough for us to relate to the situation and recognise any tacit political messaging. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that what might have once sounded futuristic, now sounds retrofuturistic, and perfectly in sync with our metamodern, anti-utopian times.
Having made at least 10 of the greatest cult classics of all-time, schlock-bothering B-movies that have been referenced ceaselessly in popular culture and influenced A-list directors, international DJs and countless recording artists, it is forgivable that Carpenter has now freed himself from the rigmarole of trying to finance pictures and bring nightmarish stories to the screen to spend more time with the family and have fun.
Having created such a unique place in the annals of two fields of the arts, his job was done long ago, and he has every right to bask in the glory of a true pioneer and do several victory laps. Characteristically there has been little in the way of fuss from an artist who only did his first tour in 2016, and is now unable to tour like everybody else. The ultimate track, the languid, piano driven ‘Carpathian Darkness’, could be a titular joke to himself that almost sounds self-referential. If Carpenterian Darkness is finally upon us then, in style and timbre, it’s perhaps one of the least Carpenteresque things he’s ever made.