If Black Sabbath are the forefathers of heavy metal, does that make John Carpenter the master of horror?
Wherever you slot the iconic filmmaker and composer in the pantheon of all-time greats in the medium, there's little disputing that Carpenter – whose film credits include genre staples They Live, Christine, The Fog, The Thing and one of the consensus greatest horror films of all time Halloween – is a giant of all things macabre and ghostly.
The now 74-year-old artisan sat down with Metal Injection days before the release of Halloween Ends, the final chapter of the revived trilogy of Michael Myers led slashers directed by David Gordon Green, to discuss his role in composing the trilogy's score (with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies), his earliest awakenings to music within horror, his love of The Beatles and the British Invasion, admiration for Metallica (and indifference to Ozzy Osbourne) and much more!
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for length.
We're a week away from the premiere of Halloween Ends. From your perspective, is it a strange feeling before a film like this comes out? Obviously, you've been so attached to this franchise for so long. Being executive producer, being attached to the music and the score and it being your baby to a degree, what's that feeling like before the release of a movie like this?
John Carpenter: "How can I put this? There's not much. I don't really have a feeling about it. My movie kind of ended in 1978, that's the movie I'm proud of. And ever since then there's various reincarnations or variations of it. But it's basically all the same to me. I hate to say that. I should be 'oohing an awing,' but I don't care that much. It's nice. This last movie, David Gordon Green is an excellent director. And he really did a good job with this trilogy. And so I'm very proud of what he did. I like it and I like this last movie. It's very good. Jamie Lee [Curtis] is just sensational and she's such a good actress now. I'm so proud of her."
In terms of Jamie Lee, I don't want to say she was "undiscovered" before Halloween, because I don't think that's true. But if you look at what an established actress she is now, there must be something of a point of pride there considering Halloween was a big vessel for her.
John Carpenter: "Well, it was a beginning. But Jamie, she's matured as an actress and as a person. I'm so proud of her, I can't tell you. And she has just grown into this wonderful, wonderful actress. So she acquits herself extremely well. And you know, Jamie and I go way back. And we've had a love affair since 1978. So you know, I can't say anything bad about her."
When you're thinking about composing the music or a score for a film like this, approaching the trilogy as you have since 2017, 2018 versus in 1978 when you were directing. Is it a different approach when you're collaborating with a director like David, with his vision or or take versus complementing something that you're directing yourself and putting the music to what you're creating?
John Carpenter: "Oh, it's hugely different. The fact that there's a different director is the biggest thing. David has his own vision. So now I am here to serve that vision as a composer. That's my job. 1978, I was responsible for everything. But no, no, not at all. So it's terrific. It's really well done here in the present. And I am a happy worker to serve David's vision."
It must take some pressure off, not having hands in every piece of the pie. You basically come in, you do your job, and obviously you're executive producer, but being behind the director's chair on top of scoring, writing, and producing, it must have been pretty taxing at times?
John Carpenter: "Oh, yeah. It really was. I got to where I just didn't want to do it anymore, and it was just too much. But anyway, here we are. And, you know, it's about to come out and I'm happy. Really happy."
Looking back through your body of work from, let's say, Halloween in 78 up to They Live in 88. It feels like, from the outside looking in, that it must have been constant work, constant productions, constant writing. Did it feel like that at the time or were you in a rhythm and just go, go, go in between projects? There were very few years in that ten year period where you didn't have something in development.
John Carpenter: "Well, I took advantage of the opportunities that I had, and that's what I did. You know, I had an opportunity to direct movies one after another. And so I just jumped at it. I want to do this. It's why I'm here and this is what it's all about. So I just did. And then later I thought about the consequences of it and how hard, awful it is. It's not awful. It was never awful. It was very challenging, but I'm really glad I did it."
Now you're obviously getting to take a bigger hand in music, which I know was always a second love for you. I'm curious, if you go back to maybe the mid to early 70s or even before, was there ever a time where you thought that being a musician, or composer would have been your sole occupation? Or was the love and the allure of movies just too strong?
John Carpenter: "Well, the movies were my life for a long time, so music never replaced it. However, yes, now, music has become a second career for me and it's just incredible. I'm so lucky. I'm working with my son and godson, which is just terrific. So I can't be happier. Well, I could be [laughs]."
I was going to ask about that dynamic, the "family dynamic". That must make things interesting, whether it's having shorthand, being able to talk to each other differently than maybe you would to a different collaborative partner. How is that dynamic working with Cody and Daniel?
John Carpenter: "It's great. We each bring something unique to the table. Also it's just a lot of laughs, which is just great. Cody and Daniel have different talents. Cody is a virtuoso on the keyboard and musically. So say for instance if I have an idea for a melody, I could sing it to him and he can play it. And so that just frees me up. And then Daniel brings in ideas and is a guitar wizard, and it's just great. We just sail along together."
When you originally looked at approaching this new trilogy, obviously you don't want to completely reinvent the wheel of the 1978 score, but you want it to stand on its own and have its own agency, if you will. Was that kind of a difficult balancing act? We have "Laurie's Theme" and you have the main title theme that obviously everyone knows and loves and appreciates, but you add wrinkles to it. You make it different from movie to movie within a trilogy. How was that balancing act, if there was one?
John Carpenter: "It really wasn't much of a balancing act because all we did was we followed the direction of David Gordon Green. He made the movies. He told us what he felt like in each scene and we followed his direction and gave him what he wanted. We took the MIDI from the original scores, my son did it, and we had them. We would play them, but changed them. We would bring them into the modern era. We use new technologies, we arrange them differently, and we used them in certain scenes. There was an echo to the past, which was very important, but we created new music for the future."
And obviously you're so deeply rooted in horror. But I'm curious in terms of your scoring work now with Cody and Daniel, is there something you'd really love to tackle if you had the opportunity? I know when you were directing you always wanted to work on a Western. I'd imagine that would be something different, and an interesting challenge for you.
John Carpenter: "Oh, sure. Yeah, but we're just sort of, how can I put it, we're an all-purpose unit of composers. We do what we're asked. Sometimes we do our own stuff, which is the Lost Themes albums. But as movie composers, we do what the director wants us to. He's the guide. He's the one who tells us what's happening."
You mentioned Lost Themes. I've been curious about that and the world tour you did in 2018. Would that be something you'd be interested in approaching again? Putting together a large-scale type tour?
John Carpenter: "Well, it was fantastic. And I think we put on one big show. I mean, we did a lot of score music and stuff from the Lost Themes album. And it was wonderful."
Would you have any interest in maybe doing a tour down the line or did you get that out of your system?
John Carpenter: "Sure. I wouldn't mind doing it again."
For me, a score can make or break a horror movie. You know, sometimes less is more. What's your earliest memory of music within horror films? Maybe when you were coming of age or when you were in film school? Is there something that really stands out to you as the music made the film or really helped it rise above?
John Carpenter: "Well there are a couple. The score that was so influential and the movie itself was so influential to me was from a movie called Forbidden Planet. It was a space opera in 1956 and it had an all electronic score. I just, I couldn't get enough. I thought, 'what is this? This sounds so interesting.' So yeah, I think that started me on my way. There was a movie made in the early fifties called The Thing From Another World and that score was by Dimitri Tiomkin. That one was just amazing. So terrifying, and it worked. So I would say those are two in the beginning.
"That and the classical music my dad played. My dad was a music teacher and composer and violinist and he played music in the household as I was growing up, so I grew up with music. He played constant classical music. You know, I had my favorites, but all of them were essentially soundtracks to my early youth. Night on Bald Mountain, on and on. So anyway, that's I guess partially where my influence comes from."
Do you think you can separate yourself from it now if you watch a film, whether it be horror or anything else? Do you find yourself analyzing the score or breaking down the scenes? Is your director composer hat on when you're watching or can you just be John and separate it?
John Carpenter: "Well, if a movie is great I don't notice anything. I don't notice the techniques, the score, but most of the time I do. But I can become just a normal viewer if the movie works for me and completely give myself over. It's hard to do. Yeah, I was trained and I know how it all goes together."
You're always going to be associated and rooted in horror, even earning the tag master of horror. But has there been anything in recent years that has impressed you? You must get people sending you things or trying to refer you things all the time.
John Carpenter: "Have there been movies that have impressed me? Yeah, some have. Years ago there was a movie called Let The Right One In, a Swedish film, and it was amazing. It reinvented the vampire movie."
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about rock music and heavy metal metal, given what we are. There were some pretty classic quotes going around in the last few years saying you are a big Metallica fan, particularly of 90s Metallica. I'm curious, growing up absorbing classical music, what would have been some of your earliest introductions to heavier music or rock music? Were you absorbing early Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, or Deep Purple?
John Carpenter: "I wouldn't care about Ozzy Osbourne that much."
Not an Ozzy guy?
John Carpenter: "No, not really. I didn't think he had much of a voice, but my rock and roll roots go back to the 50s. I grew up with the 50s rock and also the pop music of the 50s. And then when The Beatles came along it was all over. It was over. That was it."
You were a Beatles obsessive?
John Carpenter: "Oh I loved them, and the British Invasion and on and on. All the music of the 60s was brilliant. Nothing like it."
I'm curious about your take on Alice Cooper. Would that have been something you gravitate to at the time, given the macabre nature of what he does?
I'd guess the stage production and the shock rock element of it was always something that really lured me in. Would you have appreciated a good music video or stage production? Or were you a music for music's sake kind of guy in terms of your rock?
John Carpenter: "I like it all. Music videos, some of them were great. The 'Sledgehammer' video was great. 'Tomorrow's Girls' was great. So anyway, there's a lot of them that are great."
You did mention Metallica. Do you have a favorite song or an album? If we think of heavy metal in general, are you just strictly speaking a Metallica guy? Or do you like good guitar riffs here and there? How far or deep do your roots in heavy metal go?
John Carpenter: "Well, the best Metallica song is probably 'Enter Sandman.' It's classic. Yeah, I'm a guitar riff guy, but that goes way back there. Even in the 50s they were doing that stuff. The Stones were doing riffs, on and on. So I embrace all rock except when it gets into the more modern stuff. I'm not a rap fan. And anyway, we'll leave all that alone."
I was reading an interview you did not too long ago, and you said something that really struck me. I had to highlight it. Thinking about movies, you said something along the lines of 'you always aim for the horizon' and I'm going to paraphrase here, but you kind of want a movie that can be evergreen, that you can think about 30, 40 years later and it'll mean as much as it did on the day you made it.
And considering we're sitting here a week away from Halloween Ends. I know you're not one to talk about legacy, but given the fact that you wanted to make something that aimed for the horizon, you couldn't, I'd imagine in 1978, think we'd be here in 2022 talking about Halloween. That says a lot to the impact of that film.
John Carpenter: "Well, thank you. No, I couldn't imagine that at all. I didn't imagine anything, I just wanted to get a movie done. But it's wonderful, it's wonderful. It's just awesome. It's been a long road, there's been many sequels. Some good, some bad, some really good. I just float along with the current."
Halloween Ends premieres worldwide on October 14. The official soundtrack is available that same day via Sacred Bones.