John Carpenter performed on October 23 at Colston Hall, Bristol, concluding the Simple Things Festival 2016
ith Netflix’s Stranger Things resurrecting spooky synth music for new audiences, now seems like the perfect time for ‘The Horror Master’ himself, John Carpenter, to bring his haunting scores to the stage for his first ever tour. The 68-year-old director-actor-producer-editor-writer-composer — whose filmography includes genre-defining chillers like Halloween and The Thing — took to the stage one cold October night at Bristol’s Colston Hall.
Carpenter has gathered an undying cult following during his career, and this owes as much to his use of stomach-churning visuals as it does to his eldritch backing music. This reverence is evidenced as he walks on stage, the horror fans welcoming him with beholden applause. The drums beat, and euphoria erupts through the crowd as they recognise the pulsating opening bars of Escape from New York’s main theme. We are instantly transported to the dystopian future of 1997, as the New York skyline — rendered in retro graphics — materialises on the screen behind the stage.
Carpenter’s synthesiser leads a six-piece band, including his son, Cody, on second keyboards. Three guitarists and a drummer provide a heavier, prog-rock edge not present in Carpenter’s original scores — the electronic compositions ominously unfolding like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. As we creep into Vortex — the opening track from his first non-movie album, Lost Themes (2015) — the delightful, 80’s disco vibes are retained and intensified by the neon pink-blue flicker of the stage lighting. While the moustached, long-haired Carpenter bops along to the music, it’s hard not to view him as some kind of messiah. His eccentricity makes him seem like a character straight out of one of his own movies.
“For most of my career I composed music for scary movies, thrillers …ghost stories” Carpenter tells us, the stage filling with dry ice for The Fog’s score. It’s clear that intense cinematic nostalgia grips the audience, and indeed, in the periods where Carpenter performs material from his studio albums, the accompanying projected film clips are markedly absent. It should be noted, however, that this show is not just an exercise in sentimentality. Carpenter looks forward by performing impressive material from his recent studio albums, including the guitar shrieking tracks Wraith and Distant Dream, compositions which — while bearing Carpenter’s signature uncanny atmosphere — have an unmistakable rock ‘n’ roll energy.
As the band puts on sunglasses to perform music from the irreverently anti-capitalist They Live, it’s easy to see why Carpenter’s films have such enduring appeal. Slogans from the 1988 film fill the stage — “OBEY”, “MONEY IS YOUR GOD”, “BUY”, “CONSUME” — and this performance makes the film’s message seem urgently pertinent.
“In 1982 I made a movie called The Thing”, Carpenter announces to thunderous applause. The Thing’s score was the result of a collaboration between Carpenter and legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Performed in Morricone’s honour, the theme is comparatively minimalist in its gradually escalating dread, but footage from the film provides a gruesome animatronic backdrop that sustains the audience’s excitement.
"I direct horror movies. I love horror movies. Horror movies will live forever” says Carpenter, before we hear the striking piano melody we’ve all been waiting for — the theme from Halloween.
John Carpenter has forged a musical aesthetic that has become synonymous with horror. While his music is defined by bleakness and discord, witnessing it performed live is intoxicating and thrilling. Carpenter has proven tonight that he is not only the master of the horror genre, but a legitimate musician in his own right.