Film director John Carpenter embodies the idea of a ‘cult legend’. Although somewhat of an oxymoron, the title fits Carpenter to a T, whose work in the 80’s on films like Halloween and The Thing means he is considered a hugely influential artist, yet was not a household name or critic favourite for swathes of his career.
But for those packing the Albert Hall to experience his live show, there is no question of his awesome status. Carpenter is unique for having taken scoring responsibilities for his films and is touring a set of selected soundtracks to show off three decades of his electronic-metal madness. The crowd may only be here for loving his movies, but there’s one thing for sure they know about John Carpenter projects: they are entertaining.
The 70-year-old director stands stage front behind a keyboard. He and the band dress all in black and perform in front of a screen designed to look like the inside of a box or cage. The screenplays montages of each Carpenter film as the band plays through its theme song. Whereas the music usually served as an accompaniment to the footage, Carpenter flips the format to offer his entire career through a fun and digestible experience.
As one can imagine a horror film director would do, Carpenter’s band pay most attention to dynamics and build-ups than anything else. In terms of musicianship, there is nothing special really taking place. With the main titles to The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13, the cliché 80’s guitar-synth combos serve more like background noise to the impressive cinema action going on above. If anything, it’s the less celebrated works in Carpenter’s canon, like In the Mouth of Madness, that show how ambitious his film scores were and are emphasised when the films showing behind them look pretty unwatchable.
Thankfully, the set is endowed with a great deal of self-awareness. For They Live, the band dons dark sunglasses with a nod to the film’s central prop. As anyone who’s watched his films will tell you, Carpenter doesn’t take himself too seriously – an important attribute when you’re touring theme songs from thirty-year-old slasher flicks.
The best example of this comes when the band follows up the theme to his girl-meets-alien rom-com Starman with Ennio Morricone’s haunting opening score to The Thing. Carpenter introduces the former as “the only movie I ever made about a love story” and dedicates it “the beautiful women of Manchester”, before launching into an array of synth chords that would sound gorgeous in any galaxy; the band then creeps through the nightmarish noises of the latter, the screen bearing all the gruesome details from one of the goriest films ever made.
The stark contrast in the euphonic sounds of Starman makes it the set highlight. Other tracks stand out similarly for not sticking to the traditional structure of Carpenter’s spooky horror scores. Instead of stabbing melodies in unsettling minor keys, the band switch it up and verge on Italo-disco for the theme to Christine, whilst ‘Porkchop Express’ from the comedy Big Trouble in Little China get the whole room head-banging.
The set does seem to drag on towards the end and the audience feels slightly thinner than before the Halloween theme. But Carpenter, who has dad-danced his way through the whole thing, exhibits a pride in his work that is very endearing and keeps everyone applauding passionately.
It’s a set that in many ways matches Carpenter’s filmmaking style: a bit weird, a bit cheesy and big on entertainment value. The audience, after being bombarded with an hour and half of John Carpenter, will be far from frightened – or worse, bored – and are almost certainly heading home to stick on one of his movies.