John Carpenter’s best films mirror the modern world. Whether it’s the virus of distrust that fuels perfect horror The Thing (1982) or the blind worship of greed that sits at the core of sci-fi satire They Live (1988), it’s as if he knew that the combined existential nightmare of coronavirus and President Trump would one day come to haunt us. But put these theories to him and you can practically hear his eyes rolling down the phone line.
There are endless Reddit threads dedicated to whether The Thing is about the Aids crisis or They Live points to the existence of the Illuminati, and the director is tired of those conversations. “I can’t watch any of my old films,” he says from his house in Hollywood. “I had to make the score for [1976’s] Assault on Precinct 13 in just 24 hours!” Many of his most revered films were made with very little resources, he says. Although that forced him to be creative – using silence to build tension instead of expensive special effects and saving money by composing their soundtracks himself – it also left him feeling spiritually exhausted. “It meant that after they were done, I wanted to move on mentally and leave it all behind me.”
Carpenter has a reputation for being gruff and sardonic – toying with interviewers for the fun of it. But he’s in a great mood today. He’s been singing in the shower. His voice has a giddy glow that suggests he’s a lot younger than his 73 years, many of which were spent chain smoking cigarettes on film sets as he redefined the slasher flick with the likes of Halloween. What makes him happy, however, is making music. In the past few years, he’s had an unlikely renaissance as a rockstar and this month he releases Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, the third in a series of excellent non-soundtrack albums.
The new record rushes like a runaway ghost train, eagerly shifting between funk, horrorcore stadium rock, pop, grunge and electronic. On every track there’s an infectious interplay between John and his son Cody, who has been part of the band for each Lost Themes release alongside friend Daniel Davies’s gigantic guitar solos. They also backed up John for the score he did for 2018’s Halloween reboot, which sounded like the original film’s atmospheric music, shot through with mescaline. Carpenter says that playing in the band has “absolutely” re-energised him. “We all made this album with massive smiles on our faces,” he says. “What you hear between me and Cody is duelling synths. We’re both giving light to one another on a song. This is [among] the best music I’ve ever done.”
His film scores have always been just as ground-breaking, doubly impressive given that he made them while balancing being the director. “Matthew’s Ghost Story” from The Fog combined thick waves of distorted bass with focused bursts of ice-cold piano. It is all dread. Assault on Precinct 13’s dusty funk score is James Brown if he was into early Detroit techno – a combination so tantalising that it’s been ripped off by a million video game soundtracks. The central theme from 1978’s Halloween was built around a lumbering drum beat that mirrored the sinking footsteps of a serial killer in a melted Captain Kirk mask, stalking babysitters through Haddonfield. Crucially, the song’s audaciously camp synths showed the director hadn’t completely lost his sense of fun.
It’s tempting to imagine John Carpenter making all these classic theme songs slumped over an organ in a darkly lit room, sadistically carving out the best bits from his nightmares. Yet Lost Themes III rubber stamps just how versatile he is as a musician. On these new songs he shows he’s every bit the student of the dirtier Soft Parade-era art-pop of his “favourite” band The Doors and the way Ray Manzarek elevated the Wurlitzer, as he is the disquietude present in those classic compositions that Bernard Hermann did for Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds).
“I loved The Doors, The Beatles, The Supremes and The Four Tops. There’s definitely funk to this music. It brings me so much joy that I get to have another career [as a musician] at this age. There’s a joyous feeling in our playing. You don’t understand what that feels like. It’s so freeing.” That’s not to say that he has fallen out of love with cinema, which he says remains his “first love”.
Across the Seventies and Eighties, the filmmaker, who was born in Carthage, New York, in 1948, redefined the movies. He made Halloween fresh out of film school, dared to scratch under the surface of toxic masculinity with The Thing, and basically invented the cyberpunk aesthetic with Escape From New York. And he perfected the art of brutally ripping the carpet away from underneath his audience’s feet. In Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), an angelic blonde girl is violently shot to death as she runs to an ice cream van. She gets a belly full of lead instead of chocolate chip, and it remains shocking to this day. “I guess I will be remembered as someone who was ahead of his time,” Carpenter says.
Still, it is the less celebrated Carpenter movies that feel like his most prescient, and the ones he enjoys talking about most. The Fog (1980) is unfairly branded as a disappointing follow-up to Halloween, but the terrifying premise – a coastal town invaded by the murderous ghosts of a ship of lepers sunk by the townsfolk’s treacherous ancestors 100 years previously – feels more relevant than ever before. It’s a warning of what happens when America buries its crimes. It poignantly suggests they will one day come floating to the surface, causing further destruction unless properly acknowledged, and it’s impossible to watch it without the hairs standing up on your inner thighs.
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Meanwhile, the kookier In The Mouth of Madness (1994) – featuring Sam Neill’s pompous insurance director investigating the disappearance of a horror novelist – shows what happens when people fervently believe more in fantasy than the real world. Thankfully, Carpenter is more than happy to indulge in my belief that this pair of films are among his most socially relevant.
“The Fog is based on a real story. In the 19th century in Goleta, California, some people conspired to sink this ship carrying gold. I believe they set up this fake fire so the ship would crash. I was fascinated in the idea of the crew one day taking revenge,” he recalls. “The Mouth of Madness was more about experimental physics and how people are happy living in these alternate realities.” And that’s something you see a lot of nowadays? “Yep. The reaction to Obama, the riots with all these racists and hillbillies. We’ve had it non-stop for four years. It’s been unbelievable. It’s going to change though – it has to! There’s just been this cult of ignorance.”
This cult has even extended to Carpenter’s own films. On social media, alt-right conspiracy theorists have reclaimed They Live, which Carpenter says was intended as a parody of Reaganomics and the rise of yuppism, for themselves. “Last year I had to deal with people on Twitter saying They Live was about how the Jews control the world. So I stepped in and said ‘no, no, no’, but they wouldn’t accept it.
“It was unbelievable,” he continues. “It’s like: come on now guys, there are no lizard people! These theories aren’t even creative. It’s just foolishness. How can you believe this s***? That’s what I don’t understand.” Trump’s legacy, perhaps? “Yep.”
With his late-blooming career as a rockstar, many fans have wondered whether Carpenter would direct a film again, or if 2010’s The Ward should be seen as a goodbye. “I love directing and under the right circumstances I would do it again,” he says. “But it can’t be an underfunded movie, you know, and it has to be something I love. A Dracula movie would be nice.” Although he’s returned as an advisor and to do the score for the upcoming Halloween sequel Halloween Kills, which he franchised after the success of the original and now has 13 titles to its name. “I think it is the ultimate slasher film,” says Carpenter. “It is rough and tumble, and boy is it tough! Michael [Myers] is a force of nature again. He’s like the wind – it just comes and you can’t stop it. My new music had to match its intensity. I love the female solidarity [in the new films]. The girls really kick ass. Don’t f*** with them!”
Carpenter is genuinely excited about the future. He’s raring to play Lost Themes III to a crowd when Covid-19 lockdown measures finally start to dissipate. “For an old man like me to get up and interact with the young people standing close to the stage, well, it’s the greatest feeling on earth.” It feels like John Carpenter’s journey as a rock star is only just beginning. “I guess it’s true,” he replies, laughing – only half-sarcastically.
‘Lost Themes III: Alive After Death’ is out on 5 February via Sacred Bones
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