Unlike so many musicians, director John Carpenter never tires of playing his biggest hit: the eerie, endlessly referenced theme to his 1978 horror classic Halloween.
“Hell no!” Carpenter tells Billboard when asked if the tune’s popularity ever wears on him. “It’s a lot of fun to play.”
The spooky theme is about to be introduced to a whole new generation of fans through the new Halloween, which he scored alongside his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies (son of The Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies). It’s the first time Carpenter has taken an active hand in a Halloween franchise installment since 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which ditched Michael Myers for a standalone story about deadly Halloween masks. Halloween opens Friday.
“[Producer] Jason Blum approached me and put it to me the right way,” says Carpenter. “He said, ‘Look, they’re gonna make it with or without us. So why don’t we join up and try to make it better? Make it good?’ … I felt, well, that’s interesting, I could do that. I kinda like that.”
Despite his status as the director of one of cinema’s most legendary and influential horror films, Carpenter says he approached the project much like a hired hand, working to satisfy the creative vision of Halloween 2018 director David Gordon Green. For one thing, he composed a re-worked version of the original theme at Green’s request. “David wouldn’t let me [do all new stuff],” says Carpenter. “He wanted the original theme…I’m here to serve.”
The theme to Halloween 2018 follows the same basic template as the original but features additional instrumentation, including an electric guitar, added bass and beefed-up synths that amp up the intensity. Still, Carpenter and his fellow musicians were intent not to fiddle too much with a classic.
“The thing that I like about that theme is that it represents The Shape [aka Michael Myers] perfectly,” says Davies, who in addition to his work with Carpenter is currently carving out a career as a solo composer. “That theme is relentless. You know, you have the kick drum and the percussion and that pure piano that’s going across the whole thing. There’s a purity in it, and then with the relentless percussion…it represents what that character is.”
Carpenter is adamant when asked if he rewatched the original Halloween before beginning work on the score for the new film, which was conceived as a direct sequel to the 1978 version. “No, god no! Why would I do that?” he asks. “No, I don’t have to watch anything. I have to watch David’s movie, what he shot…You see, most of this stuff is improvisational. It comes out of instinct.”
Green’s film has drawn comparisons to Carpenter’s in some early reviews, but Carpenter believes their sensibilities as filmmakers are actually quite different. “We tried to pick up his vibe, his tempo, his timing,” he says of adapting the score to Green’s style, which he describes as “fast-paced…The color palette that he uses is a lot like the original Halloween. But his style is different than mine, and I like him a lot.”
The filmmaker and composer has performed the Halloween theme live a number of times since the release of his 2015 album Lost Themes and its 2016 follow-up, Lost Themes II, which evoke scores to nonexistent genre films of the sort he made his name on. Now he’s back on the road in the lead-up to the release of the new Halloween, In addition to embarking on a European tour this month (which will be followed by a performance at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles on Halloween night), he’s collaborating with his son on new music.
Much like the brilliantly simple Halloween theme, Carpenter is economical in his speech, forthright and occasionally withholding when it comes to elaborating on his thoughts. When asked whether he enjoys touring, he offers simply: “Yeah, lots. It’s fun.” On composing using modern technology: “It’s great. It works fine. It’s good.” And on the question of whether he’ll direct another film (his last was 2010’s The Ward), he offers only, “I don’t know, we’ll see. If the right thing comes along.”
He’s only slightly more forthcoming when asked if he understands the influence he had on an entire generation of musicians and composers, particularly in his use of synthesizers.“I don’t hear it,” he says, “But maybe my ear is different. I used synthesizers, but Tangerine Dream used synthesizers. And I don’t hear much of my phrasing…so I don’t know.” He notes he still hasn’t seen the 2015 horror film It Follows, whose score by Disasterpeace owes a major debt to his early compositions. (“You think they’ll really pay me money?” he cracks.)
Carpenter may be non-committal on the prospect of directing another film, but he is intent on continuing to make music. It’s all a part of the director’s unlikely “second career” as a touring musician, though Carpenter claims not to keep up with the latest musical trends, aside from what he hears on the pop station regularly played by wife Sandy King. Still, the amount of time he spends with his 30-something collaborators inevitably has an effect.
“All the time they drag me into the modern world,” he says with a note of resignation. “Sometimes against my will.”