Tune into the Pictures Part 2: If I were a Carpenter
Soundtracks are a rare thing when they matter, just like films. Last week we laid out the process via which sound was added to film and made magic and destruction. Magic in that the seventh art had music and the context of noise added to the flickering images.Like so much technology freedom and expression were added, but at the expense of other excellence. "Silent" films were never silent at all. People offered live commentary, live bands or at least a live organist or pianist. Carl W. Stalling, who made amazing orchestral soundtracks for Loony Tunes cartoons because his parents owned a cinema in one of the more obscure bits of Missouri and so the scores for the "silent" films often didn't turn up with the battered prints. So from the age of 12 he had to improvise in real time to a crowd more rowdy, drunk and demanding than Shakespeare would have faced.And such tough, honest audiences is just what the films of John Carpenter faced in his Golden Period.Since that period ended he has become a toxic cartoon. The world he came from dried up like a rock pool under a hateful atomic sun and he took comfort in an easy world of cock rock and costume conferences, like most of us would have. You take Love where you find it.In 1974 he had the genius to turn his final project at the USC cinema school into something he could could Sell.Dark Star is one of the many great works of art that is slept on because it is over acclaimed by the wrong audience. With a group of mates and no money, John redefined science fiction for a while in the pre-Star Wars scat morality play era.Space was boring and sad. Expensive tech given by governments didn't work proper or at all. Time is a tumour. Friendships decay over decades fuelled by bad jokes and worse drugs. You owe it to yourself to feel it.Back then, there was a load of ways to finance films and get them made. Not many TV channels, home video was for rich porn pounders and all the cinemas that are now bastard bingo halls, money cult churches or other shamefulness needed product. And that meant they needed way, way more movies than are made today.But John had special needs, he wanted to make pictures that were not the typical Bs the ghost of which we see today either with remarkably delicious mammary glands fighting off sharktacunts or else plastic yoof dancing about. He wanted B+ like Sam Fuller - films tabloid cheap in the tagline but well made - with all the the money on the screen, not shat into the golden bogs of the stars. But that Sell. That means using proven formulas in a new context. And cheap, but not stupid. Not lazy. Well shot, well acted and full of invention. Not the most expensive kit, but kit tough and smart enough to be worthy of respect.After Dark Star made an impact, John moved up.Assault on Precinct 13 took the model of unseen Other terror into a new space filled with synth magic. The idea of invisible evil taking down the Good-ish is an old idea from Conrad's Hearts of Darkness to Fort Apache, and Fort Apache in the Bronx. John wanted to combine his visual genius with a soundtrack that was worthy of the effort, but was as cheap as air.How to do it? Synths.A big orchestra needed to be paid, and pop song owners even more. So he worked with his mate Tommy Lee Wallace and massive banks of analogue synths more moody and hard to control than a load of Blue Whales on crack.The minimal, menacing result not only is and was perfect, it created a bass invading palette for everyone from early hip hoppers to ravers and minimal techno innovators.This shit was so amazing it never was even issued properly on record or CD well into the 90s. The ARPs, Moogs and whatever else Carpenter was hitting cuts hard and tough like gin in a paper cut. Sure it was cheap, but it curled out sonic scat on any other soundtrack then and now. It was so out of its time and beyond cool into liquid nitrogen. Written in just three days, it shames everyone.With barely a pause for breath, Carpenter then retooled Psycho for a suburban Americon as Halloween. Again, today a miasma of scatty sequels he never originally intended have turned it all into a pathetic rubber mask joke. But in 1978 those simple synth tones created a new sense of unstoppable gloom and fear, far beyond what a well funded orchestra or pop band could do.John did not direct the only great Halloween "sequel", Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but he did produce this 1982 masterpiece and again the score was key. Carpenter rightly felt that after the insultingly idiotic Halloween II, an idea would be to use the powerful name of the franchise to create a new, unrelated film each year for release around the trick or treat time. Halloween III is a massive fuck you to dumb suburbia and mainstream film audiences that of course is totally slept on today.The soundtrack, however, co-written by John and veteran muso Alan Haworth, will keep you up through the night with subtle, gentle dark dreading beauty.Halloween III didn't fare too well at the box office, being bleak, intelligent and even funny at points. The herd like it simple, and John's creative and then ironically commercial decline started soon afterward.John Carpenter has since become one of those artists who has slung out worthless self parody for longer than they made anything creditable. Sad, true fans such as myself cling to the bare hope that somehow that next project will not be as bad as the last, as we know that the incomparable genius is long, long burnt out like the darkest star imaginable.