John Carpenter / Cody Carpenter / Daniel Davies: Halloween: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Album Review
John Carpenter’s Halloween theme is so terrifying, so instantly iconic, that it makes you forget certain things about the original movie. Like the fact that Michael Myers spends at least a third of the film driving around town slowly in a tan Buick, for example. This is to say nothing of balding shrink Dr. Loomis—lurking in a trench coat and catcalling children from behind the bushes on Halloween night, he disturbed me upon rewatching nearly as much Myers. But those finger-stabbed piano notes burn all of the campiness off of the entire Halloween enterprise. They are ingenious in the way that the movie’s premise—random man in mask murders babysitters for no reason—was ingenious. The movie was a big clean table with only a few well-placed objects on it, and it showed the world what you could do in a horror film with meager resources and a whole lot of taste. Those little piano notes are an entire philosophy of art given marching orders.
Carpenter wouldn’t say such high-flown things about his work, though. Even though his name is on all his movies, he works less like an auteur and more like someone cooking chili for 20 on game day—toss everything we need into the pot, make sure there’s enough. He scored Halloween himself because, he says, “I was the fastest and the cheapest I could get.” He made all the music in three days, working without the benefit of the finished movie to work against, and he often didn’t have the time, inclination, or ability to tune the synthesizers properly.
The new movie, directed by David Gordon Green, is better lit, better acted, scored more richly then the original. There’s a lot more money, and time, to burn on the effort, and you can feel all of that love lavishing itself on the screen. This isn’t a B movie, like the original: It’s a B+ movie. But some of that fine-tuning and focus-sharpening scrapes off the no-budget dirty fuel that the Halloween engine is supposed to run on. The first thing you notice about the new Halloween score, which Carpenter rewrote himself and updated with modern synths and blasts of NIN-style digital guitar, is that the synths are tuned now. That’s right—tuned. Who’s afraid of a goddamned tuned synth? Frankly, the out-of-tune analog synths were better, creepier, more reflective of the movie’s weird insularity. Updated and polished, they sound merely brisk, like Myers is putting some time in on the elliptical in the off-season.
As everyone knows, Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her role as Laurie Strode, the sole survivor of Myers’ original massacre and the first hallowed Final Girl in all of slasher-moviedom. (The other sequels, including the weird and fun Season of the Witch, are jettisoned like a bunch of bodies over a bridge.) Now, Strode is haunted, a doomsday prepper, and Carpenter gives a neat twist to her own theme to suggest her desolation—those iconic three notes, but with mournful chord progressions poured beneath them. There are fun little grace notes like this everywhere in the score, a sign that Carpenter is engaging with his source as eagerly as next-generation director David Gordon Green.
One of the best decisions Carpenter made in the original movie was to leave out music almost entirely—you spent a lot of time just listening to wind in the trees and watching a Steadicam stare at houses. The new movie recreates this woolly blankness, so when the themes do poke through—that icy-needle sonar ping that signals Michael Myers is watching, the little lawn-sprinkler percussion that undercuts the main theme, telling your lizard brain that Myers is on the move—the jolt they give, both nostalgic and dramatic, is more delicious.
A funny side effect of Carpenter’s ubiquity, though, is that even in his most memorable work, he gets a little lost among his many imitators. Forty years on, “John Carpenter horror music” is its own genre tag, its own minor zip code. Listening to his updated score, you don’t come away marveling at how one-of-a-kind his vision is—you mostly catch yourself making mental lists of other John Carpenterish artifacts. The work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the theme to “Stranger Things,” the entire career of AraabMuzik—it can be difficult to remember that you are actually in the presence of an originator.
But that’s fine. Carpenter is working in service to his own nostalgia, and he understands intuitively what his score is here to do. It is not meant to be frightening. It is meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy things about John Carpenter, about the first time you saw the original Halloween. Nostalgia makes for a funny complement to horror, in a way: It reminds you of all the times you felt safe and loved. Horror—or true horror, anyway—is supposed to render you helpless and alone. It’s hard to be terrified when you are grinning in recognition.