"Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998" compiles the highlights of the filmmaker's career as a soundtrack composer.
John Carpenter’s Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 explains why Trans-Siberian Orchestra has kept its holiday sights focused on Christmas. Carpenter beat them to Halloween—literally. Carpenter brings the same mix of classical lite and Sunset Strip hair metal to his soundtracks that TSO slathers on Christmas. The key difference is that Carpenter is more fun because Halloween benefits from that treatment. Stacking layers of pomp in 9/4 time on top of a holiday as homespun as Christmas feels like an effort to class up a sentimental affair.
Horror, on the other hand, is all about transforming the ghosts, goblins, witches and vampires that were cute during childhood into credible threats, which means loading them up with drama, portent, and tension. Carpenter had that wired, using synths and guitar textures that wear their decade on their chests like “Frankie Says” T-shirts. But just as Carpenter’s movies rarely suffered despite their budgets, much of the music succeeds despite those textures. Or maybe because of those textures? Those synths in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the sound of the future, with their disembodied quality an essential characteristic. Mountains of icy strings swell improbably from no obvious source, and the themes are sounded with the ominous sleekness of the chrome fender reflecting distorted light at night as a car turns a corner with its windows impenetrable.
Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is the godfather of Carpenter’s soundtracks. “Tubular Bells” became part of the soundtrack for 1973’s The Exorcist, and on it Oldfield used synthesizers when they were truly part of an unsettling new world. Carpenter salutes Oldfield’s influence by reworking a phrase from “Tubular Bells” in part of the theme for The Fog.
Personally, I’ll return more often to the pieces from Carpenter’s earlier movies. The themes from Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York and The Fog work unpredictably within constraints. When his budgets got bigger, the soundtracks became more bombastic. They remain fun for semi-ironic reasons, but Carpenter seems distracted at times in his later movies and certainly in his soundtracks. Instead of the DIY morse code melody of the theme to Halloween, Carpenter recently told the press that he wanted to use Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as the theme for 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Still, Carpenter’s wild streak shows up in almost everything he’s done, and there’s nothing by the numbers in the music on Anthology.