When I left the Paramount Theatre, my jaw and cheeks were sore from smiling. I grinned like an idiot for an hour and a half straight during the John Carpenter Live Retrospective, reveling in the cult of John Carpenter through his music. It was a beautiful blend of nostalgia and reverence, as I witnessed selections from Big Trouble in Little China timed to music with comedic effect and the Halloween score played live with a full band. Watching Carpenter throw a pair of sunglasses on for They Live and dance around to his own synthesized tunes was a perfect representation of his artistry. He transitions from dark to light, from terror to laughter. He was up there, at the age of 68, having fun, with his unique “brand” cutting through all the madness.
How does one begin to describe John Carpenter’s career? His two terrifying masterpieces, Halloween and The Thing, along with fan favorites like Prince of Darkness and The Fog, surely grant him the honor of the Master of Horror. But then there’s this counter-culture and often silly thing going on with Big Trouble, Escape from New York, and They Live. Carpenter’s films have big ideas, but never an ounce of pretension. They can be read as “fuck you’s” to corporate overlords and authoritarian regimes, while pointing out that you never really know as much as you think you do. Magic is real. The Boogeyman is your brother. Media actually does brainwash you. We are not alone. In Carpenter’s filmography, our fictions are challenged and usually destroyed.
Carpenter undoubtedly changed the aesthetics of horror, but his influence on music is just as deep. The “retro” compositions of hipster horror liking sprung from the synthesized sounds of Carpenter. We all rejoiced when Disasterpeace’s score to It Follows tantalized our ears. Our heads were nodding for weeks after You’re Next. Channeling their horror ancestry, modern filmmakers lean on that familiar sound to cue audiences into the type of film they’re about to watch. In a self-referential way, the music informs you that the movie is born of inspiration from our beloved horror classics. Carpenter’s often-emulated sound evokes a sweet amalgamation of fear and fun — a powerful tool of genre endearment.
There’s more to the Retrospective than rekindling scores to old movies. Carpenter and his band performed a stellar selection of music from his stand-alone compositions: Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. These songs simultaneously feel like an old horror film and new electronic music. They package together the rhythmic action, dissonant fear, and glimmer of fun that represent John Carpenter. You can hear hints of Michael Myers’ blade in the sharp notes of “Angel’s Asylum.” You can feel the Antarctic chill of The Thing in the sobering tones of “Mystery.” You can imagine a gritty world overcome with violence in the steady drumbeat of “Vortex.” More than any of these things, you can also interpret a spirit of youthfulness and exploration — one that isn’t using the past as a brace but a foundation to keep creating.
Too often, we define artists exclusively by their history of works. Fans even demand that artists never change, as if creators are indebted to recycling their past because some consumers want a “wash, rinse, and repeat” experience. No one is entitled to dictate an artists’ future expressions. And no artist should feel compelled to stay in familiar territory because that’s what fans want.
While I loved hearing Carpenter’s beloved compositions of yesteryear, his new work is arguably far richer and more complex. During a time when fandom is under fire (for good reasons), I was pleased to see the Seattle crowd cheering on cuts from Lost Themes with similar gusto as those famous scores. So how does one describe John Carpenter’s career? Rather than looking back, listen ahead.