Spend Halloween with John Carpenter: Why the horror movie man wants to play scary music, just for you

Horror movie director John Carpenter, performing in concert last year in Barcelona, Spain. He has a new album of music and is going on tour in the U.S. and Canada, with stops including the Hollywood Palladium on Halloween night.
(Xavi Torrent / WireImage)

When John Carpenter was a boy, he found some music paper and started scribbling away “like a crazy person,” he said. His father, a music professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, played the piece — Carpenter’s first avant-garde composition.

“Garbage is what it was,” Carpenter says drolly.

Carpenter is best known for his prolific directing career, with a body of horror and sci-fi films that includes “Escape From New York,” “They Live” and the original “Halloween.” What fewer people remember — or ever realized — is that each of those films featured an original score by Carpenter, and in the last few years he’s taken his love for music into the recording studio — and on the road.

On Oct. 31, appropriately, Carpenter will perform music from “Halloween” and other scores, along with tracks from his recent “Lost Themes” I and II concept albums at the Hollywood Palladium. He’ll be backed by a heavy metal band composed of his son, godson and the rhythm section from Tenacious D.


The concert is part of a tour following the Oct. 20 release of Carpenter’s studio album “Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998,” which includes new recordings of music from films including “The Fog,” “Prince of Darkness,” “The Thing,” “Starman” and “Christine.”

“I mean, what am I doing here?” he says, laughing at his new life as an international rock star, complete with tour bus. “I’m this old guy, you know. But it’s so much fun.”

The 69-year-old said movies are his first love, “so I have to stay with the girl that brought me to the dance” — but his affair on the side with music began early. Born in upstate New York and raised in Kentucky, he had a childhood home filled with classical music, and he soaked up the scores in the scary, fantastical movies that he devoured.

Yes, as soon as you could put a ringtone on your phone, I put [it] on my phone. I mean, come on — how can you not?

— Jamie Lee Curtis, star of “Halloween,” about John Carpenter’s music for the movie

His father played the violin and tried teaching him at age 8 — “which was a big mistake,” Carpenter said, “because I had no talent in the violin. It was terrible.”

He fell in love with the Beatles and rock ’n’ roll, and taught himself piano and guitar. He started writing songs in high school, then formed a cover band in college that played frat parties. While at USC film school, Carpenter wrote scores for his cash-strapped classmates, and when he made his directorial debut with “Dark Star” in 1974, he was the only composer he could afford.

“It was all necessity,” he said. “Because I could play keyboards, I knew the synthesizer. And I knew I could make things sound big with enough tracks — I could make it almost sound like an electronic orchestra.”

John Carpenter performing last year in Italy.
(Awakening / Getty Images for the city of Turin )

After shooting his 1978 low-budget slasher film about a masked maniac stalking a babysitter on Halloween night, he knew his score had to provide the mood and fear that the dry cut was missing.

“I was always looking for another job,” he said, “and I remember showing this film to an executive, who said to me right afterwards, ‘This kind of thing doesn’t scare me. At all.’ Later on, after it had become a hit, the executive said, ‘Man, was I wrong.’ It was because she hadn’t seen it with music.”

As the knife-wielding Michael Myers slithered through the small Illinois town, Carpenter’s slender score for piano and analogue synth shadowed with a slow-burn dread alternated with an accelerated heart rate.

“To me, music is something you do to enhance the film,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as an end to itself. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to support the image.’ It was always utilitarian. I never thought that anybody would pay much attention to it.”

Jamie Lee Curtis played the film’s heroine and deemed “Halloween” the most satisfying creative experience she’s ever had.

“Because it was so clear, it was so lean,” Curtis said. “And his music is lean. His music has a spareness to it — it’s spare and scary and incredibly evocative.”

The “Halloween” theme helped vault the film to box office glory — and has haunted Curtis ever since.

“Yes, it’s played me onto myriad talk shows,” she said. “Yes, as soon as you could put a ringtone on your phone, I put [it] on my phone. I mean, come on — how can you not?”

Curtis recently joined the upcoming “Halloween” directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”) and produced by Jason Blum and Carpenter himself. (“Of course I’m going to be Laurie Strode, what are you crazy?” Curtis said.)

For the first time since film school, Carpenter is hoping to score someone else’s movie.

“I believe it’s almost going to be a certainty,” he said.

The retro, moody, all-synth style that Carpenter’s “Halloween” score embodied went out of fashion by the 1990s, but now it’s back with a vengeance. His influence can be felt in, among other things, the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” whose buzzy main theme just won an Emmy.

“Well, that’ll last for 10 minutes,” he deadpanned, “and then something else will come along.”

But if the crowds at Carpenter’s concerts are any indication, today’s audiences would gobble up an old-school electronic score for a new “Halloween.”

“Music like the score to the original movie would be appropriate,” he said. “That’s what I think. But we’ll see — I’m not the director.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Halloween with John Carpenter

Where: Hollywood Palladium

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 31

Tickets: $45-$200

Other tour stops: Oct. 29 in Las Vegas, Nov. 2 in Anaheim, Nov. 4 in San Francisco, Nov. 5 in Santa Cruz and later dates in Maplewood, Minn; Chicago; Detroit; Toronto; Montreal; Boston; New York; and Syracuse, N.Y.


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