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Halloween 1978
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

How John Carpenter made (and remade) his game-changing Halloween score

The horror master delves deep into the iconic 1978 soundtrack, and tells us how he gave it a contemporary reboot for David Gordon Green’s new sequel

It’s no fluke that the most iconic horror films come backed with a killer soundtrack. From the weird-folk of The Wicker Man and Bernard Hermann’s spine-chilling strings on Psycho, to The Shining and Goblin’s genre-defining synth score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, bona fide classics demand either silence (think: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) or a dread-inspiring OST.

Halloween remains a definitive case in point. Every bit as chilling as Michael Myers’ pale, sunken pallor in the 1978 horror classic is director and co-writer John Carpenter’s low-budget soundtrack. From its iconic title theme to shorter spooked-out motifs like “Laurie’s Theme” and “The Shape Lurks”, it not only proved vital to a film widely regarded as one of the very best in the genre, it helped alter the course of modern synthesiser music in the process.

40 years on from revolutionising horror cinema with Halloween, Carpenter – as well as Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of Laurie Strode, and Nick Castle as Myers - have returned to the franchise for David Gordon Green’s new (and, by all accounts, definitive) sequel. As well as serving as executive producer and creative consultant, Carpenter has teamed up with his son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies – a formation that has recently recorded two original albums, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II – to lay down a soundtrack that is pivotal to driving home the big-screen jitters.

Despite largely distancing himself from the franchise over the last four decades, Carpenter was taken by David Gordon Green’s vision for the new sequel and leaped at composing his first soundtrack since 2001’s Ghost of Mars. Revealing that he believes Green’s new follow-up sits alongside the original (“I see it and this movie as a pair,” he explains over the phone) the horror master casts his mind back to trace the links – and breaks – from the original movie’s soundtrack to his gripping new re-imagining.

YOU HAVE A YOUNG FILM EXEC TO THANK FOR THE TERRIFYING ORIGINAL SCORE

After completing Halloween on a shoestring budget of $320,000, Carpenter took the film, without music and sound effects, for a first screening with a young film executive – only to be told that it just wasn’t scary. Though they weren’t the words Carpenter wanted to hear, “I’m not scared at all” was a perfect cue for Carpenter to, in his words, “save the film with music”. “Being told that wasn’t the greatest moment of my career,” Carpenter says. “But it was alright. Everyone has an opinion, you know? This was the opinion of this one executive. She later admitted she was wrong, so it’s fine.”

Teaming up with Dan Wyman – who he worked with on his second directorial outing, Assault on Precinct 13 – Carpenter wasted no time in composing the DIY soundtrack for Halloween. Later crediting himself as the ‘Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra’, he holed up in central LA’s Sound Arts studio with Wyman and recorded it in just two weeks. “Dan owned equipment and was the synthesiser teacher as USC (University of Southern California),” Carpenter says. “He was a really nice guy. Working with him on Assault worked out well, so I decided to go back to him. He would tune up the synths and do the recording for me. We used what was at hand. I always do.”

CARPENTER WAS INSPIRED BY A BONGO LESSON

Tap the main Halloween theme out and ask a friend to guess what it is. Chances are they’ll know it just from the beat. Besides its menacing note choices, it was Carpenter’s curious use of 5/4 rhythm for the main piano riff that made it sound so disconcerting. Amazingly, it all stemmed from Carpenter’s father teaching him the time signature on the bongos as a 13-year-old.

“I can’t recall exactly when I first discovered rhythm was so important, but that was a big one,” he says. “That’s a vivid memory for me. Very vivid. I remember exactly where I was. I remember the pair of bongos. I remember my father suggesting the 5/4 timing. It was such a unique deal. I hadn’t thought about it before, really. Later on, I worked with other time signatures in scores, but then, I was just 13 and it blew my mind, man.”

Before it bursts into full, frightening 5/4 Technicolor, the main theme is driven by a skeletal stream of metronomic jolts. “The metronome-like sound on it is an electronic machine – almost like a drum machine,” Carpenter says. “I don’t recall what it was exactly, but that was one of the first things that we put down, so I could play along to it. It wasn’t put down as a metronome, though. It was the background to the music and one of the drivers of it.”

CARPENTER KNEW HIS SOUNDTRACK SAVED THE FILM AT A PUBLIC SCREENING

Having wrapped up production, including music and sound effects, in July 1978, Carpenter snuck a watch of Halloween at an early public screening in late October. As he watched the audience’s reaction, he knew that his soundtrack had saved the film. “It was at Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills,” he says. “I remember the audience really responding to it. I knew that it was a combination of things – it was the movie, yes, but also the music that was helping it. As I had that earlier screening with the executive, I guess that was the moment when it occurred to me that the music worked pretty well with it. I was relieved.”

DAVID GORDON GREEN ‘DIRECTED’ THE NEW SCORE

Over the last few years, 70-year-old Carpenter has focused more on following his musical inclinations than his filmmaking ones, and nowhere is that more clearly on display than his two non-soundtrack albums, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. Created with his son Cody and godson Daniel, these albums served up unapologetic and downright authentic 1980s horror/sci-fi soundtrack nostalgia.

Carpenter worked with Cody and Daniel on the new Halloween score too, but he also saw director David Gordon Green as a crucial collaborator on the OST, too. “He really put his stamp on it,” Carpenter says. “We had to take him into consideration when doing everything. He sort of directed us: ‘I want music here,’ he would say. Or, ‘I want it to kind of feel like this. This is what I want you to do.’ David is very music-literate, so he spoke the language. I had input on a script level – I made a couple of suggestions, but after that, it was his movie. Everyone can make suggestions on a script, it doesn’t mean anything. I made it clear to him, ‘It’s your movie, man. Make your movie.’”

THE NEW SOUNDTRACK TAKES A MODERN LEAP

A big part of the original Halloween score is its DIY, flea-market lo-fidelity. Paired with Carpenter’s minimal, reiterative themes, it carried with it a creepy spirit that no Hollywood budget could improve upon. But Carpenter has always been one to move with the times. Whether you look to the Lost Themes albums, with their sprawling, full-band instrumentation, or the live shows that he has played alongside Cody and Daniel since 2016, he has happily embraced modern technology.

On the new Halloween, that’s laid bare on its revitalised – and modernised – title theme. “We used different instrumentation on this one,” Carpenter says. “It has a lot more power and bass to it. It’s just the modern technology. We didn’t want to change it too much. We wanted it to be recognisable and with the same spirit, but we just brought it up into the modern age. It’s very similar to how we perform it live.”

“I wasn’t worried about whether or not the new soundtrack sounded too polished,” he adds. “In relation to the original or otherwise. We just wanted to make it sound good. It doesn’t have an orchestra, so it wasn’t that big budget, you know? It was synthesisers, but the modern sounds are pretty great.”

THE NEW “LAURIE’S THEME” CAPTURES A LIFELONG TRAUMA

While the main theme will always be the original film’s definitive motif, others occupy a more narrative-defined place in its OST. Take “Laurie’s Theme”. While the original piece is a slow-burning, masterfully brooding theme, the new version approaches Jamie Lee Curtis’s character from the perspective of deep-seated suffering. “With the new one, we’re conveying a new and damaged Laurie,” says Carpenter. “She’s no longer an innocent girl – she’s an older woman who has had to live with trauma for all her life. The theme is meant to convey a kind of matured sadness. Jamie Lee Curtis is just great in this movie, she’s amazing. She’s really matured as an actress and really come into her own.”

THE NEW HALLOWEEN WAS SCORED TO IMAGE

On his 1981 post-apocalyptic sci-fi classic, Escape from New York, Carpenter sat down and recorded his soundtrack while watching the film. It was a career-first for the director, who, on the likes of Halloween, The Fog, and Assault on Precinct 13, recorded without reference or synchronisation to image. On the new reboot, Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies took the former route again.

“It was the first time we’ve done a movie together,” he says. “When we were live scoring, we had a general idea of what we needed. ‘Do we need a driving piece of music here that drives the action? Or do we need a reflective or sad piece?’ I would generally track it, but sometimes the boys would have ideas. So it evolved, and we all brought what we had to it. That part was fun. It wasn’t just for us – it was to serve a movie. All the things we did were to make the movie better. It was a great experience. We all had different roles to play, and it worked out just terrifically.”

John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies’s Halloween: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is out now via Sacred Bones