Alongside Wes Craven and George A Romero, John Carpenter is one of the preeminent horror filmmakers from the 1970’s and 1980’s. After over 40 years, Halloween and The Thing remain among the best horror movies made. Even more moderate successes – Prince of Darkness, The Fog, and They Live – are considered cult classics. In addition to his prolific filmography, Carpenter has typically created the scores for most of his movies. Today, horror fans consider Carpenter’s music in as high regard as his movies. With so many soundtracks to consider, it was a difficult task to narrow it down to five choices. But for this edition of The Chopping Block, I highlight five of Carpenter’s better musical scores.
5 – John Carpenter’s Christine (1983)
To date, Christine remains one of Stephen King’s best works. At the heart of the ‘haunted car’ story, Christine is about the dissolution of childhood friendships as we grow older. Unfortunately, John Carpenter’s Christine isn’t one of his best movies. And it’s a middle-of-the-road King adaptation. Not surprisingly, Carpenter has a good handle on the horror. Comparatively, the horror master struggles with the story’s emotional core. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s score for the movie is damn good. In fact, it may be the best part of the movie; it’s definitely one of Carpenter’s best works. This is classic 80’s synth-horror music. Courtesy of Carpenter’s score, an average horror movie manages a few great scenes including the still impressive car regeneration scene at Darnell’s Garage.
Best Track: Moochie’s Death
Runner-Up: Show Me
4 – Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a wild mix of pseudo-science and supernatural horror. Maybe not as well regarded as his other movies, Prince of Darkness boasts a stellar cast, several well-placed jumps, and an unsettling overall tone. You’ll find familiar themes that pop up in many of Carpenter’s movies. Most notably, Carpenter has always shown an affinity for westerns and, in particular, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Several of his movies feature a band of survivors fighting off a siege. Though there’s less of ‘Western vibe’ to this soundtrack, it’s still a fittingly haunting work. Like its subject matter, The Prince of Darkness soundtrack is apocalyptic. Carpenter’s ‘This is Not a Dream’, which threads its way throughout the movie, is disturbing. It perfectly suits the movie’s grim closing moments.
Best Track: Darkness Falls
Runner-Up: Love at a Distance
3 – The Fog (1980)
Critics weren’t as in love with The Fog as much as Carpenter’s other movies. But it’s a brisk, fun B-movie with a ‘ghost story’ hook. Even if it’s not your favourite Carpenter effort, it’s an absolutely fantastic score. In fact, excluding the Halloween soundtrack, The Fog may be Carpenter’s eeriest movie soundtrack. The main theme, and tracks like Antonio Bay, are slow, setting an unsettling mood. With later tracks in the soundtrack, Carpenter increases the sense of urgency. Certainly, Carpenter’s work here elevates a good movie, making it an overall scarier experience.
Best Track: The Fog Theme
Runner-Up: The Fog Enters Town
2 – Escape From New York (1981)
‘The Duke is A-Number One’. And Carpenter’s score for Escape from New York is beyond cool. Over the last several years, it’s become fashionable to emulate 80’s movie aesthetics, including the infamous synth music score. Arguably, Carpenter’s work on Escape from New York played a huge role in shaping that sound. Though Carpenter isn’t the only influence, the DNA of his music is all over Stranger Things. This sound, in particular, found its way into a lot of 80’s action movies. And that’s not really surprising. Escape from New York’s main title is every bit as cool as the movie’s anti-hero, Snake Plissken.
Best Track: Main Title
Runner-Up: Chase Across the 69th Street Bridge
1 – Halloween (1978)
Outside of John Williams’ Jaws theme, is there any other horror anthem as iconic? Williams’ work instantly conjures up images of the Great White. Similarly, the Halloween anthem is instantly linked to ‘The Shape’. What separates this score from Carpenter’s other work – and other classic horror scores – is just how much we now associate it with the holiday itself. Think of it like the ‘Jingle Bells’ for October. From start to finish, the score is haunting, working both for background mood and startling jumps. Carpenter’s updating (and extension) of his work for last year’s Halloween 2018 stood well on its own, while reminding us how timeless the original score remains. Recently, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross remixed Carpenter’s theme and the result were, to say the least, impressive. Just another example of the timelessness of Carpenter’s work.
Best Track: Halloween Theme
Runner Up: The Shape Lurks