For years, John Carpenter was thought of more as a hat-chef than as a serious artist — a well-groomed and solid master of the genre, more of a cult icon than a brand name. That has all changed in the last decade as he has become thoroughly adored as the untouchable and sublime Lord of Horror, without even returning to the director’s chair. Carpenter’s shadow falls on much of contemporary American genre cinema and is spreading to the international market, from a recent Brazilian political thriller Bacurau to the über-style films of Bertrand Bonell, who composes electronic soundtracks for his elegant French riffs on American genre formulas, just like his idol.
After his prolific work in the 1980s and 1990s, Carpenter’s filmography shrank in the 21st century, leading him to de facto retirement. Then, feeling a new interest in his work, Carpenter brought his brand back from the dead by focusing on music. 2015 album Lost topics, his first non-soundtrack recording, began a comeback that included live gigs and new scores to remake his most famous films produced by Blumhouse. Carpenter almost always dismissed his musical endeavors as a product of necessity, but their utilitarian qualities, like the film itself, found recognition for their strict and cold minimalism. While his soundtracks may have started out simply as a cheaper alternative to orchestral arrangements, they actually created their own genre. The Lost topics the franchise culminated in this year’s third installment, Lost Topics III: Lives after death, giving the series more sequels than Carpenter has ever directed.
Carpenter’s style – characterized by formal precision and an almost architectural sense of composition, as well as bare bone results – has become an easy stenographer for filmmakers looking to channel or refer to that long cultural decade known as the 80s. The revival and impact of Carpenter’s now-commodified aesthetics is due in part to the Netflix series Stranger Things, as well as YouTube nostalgic microgenres guided by an algorithm like synthwave. Carpenter’s new music feels suitably made for streaming as background music, a kind of gothic electronic equivalent to lo-fi hip-hop rhythms: not exactly ambient, but spooky furniture music, like Eric Satie with an eyeliner. These possible musical hints feel like the familiar beats of a horror movie – not exceptional or innovative, but comforting in the eerie way of a cold movie you’ve watched a million times can be a gloomy day.
Carpenter has long had a smart eye to label himself as an artist, consistently using the Albertus font to bring out his name in opening credit sequences, and even stylizing his film titles as The John Carpenter thing or John Carpenter’s Vampires. On the cover Lost Topics III, Carpenter’s face overlaps with the face of his bandmates, son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, recognizing the work published under his own name as a family affair. John Carpenter has become a real endeavor, a full-fledged band, not just an authorial authorial effort. Although his scores are often thought of as the product of a lone synthesizer wizard, they were, just as often, stuck music – the soundtrack for Ghosts of Mars is the result of Carpenter’s riffing and breaking in the studio with Anthrax, Steve Vai and the future I saw composer Buckethead. Alive After Death it has the same quality, solid and precise, but still somewhat loose and improvised in its construction.
Ghosts of Mars it could be Carpenter’s most outspoken hard-rock score, but his sound jobs consistently shared Van Halen as much as Tangerine Dream. That never changed, even when the films were conceived; “Cemetery” is powered by a bunch of guitars as much as Kraftwerk-like techno rhythms and drums, and the soloists blaze on songs like “Vampire’s Touch” and “Dead Eyes”. But unlike Carpenter’s nu-metal collaborators, they were unjustly ridiculed Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter’s bandmates mostly help him revive the old sound, instead of creating a newer, fresher one, which will result in a markedly reduced return – a bit like the David Gordon Green remake Halloween he looks toothless and rude when held against the surreal, psychedelic, and misunderstood same material of Rob Zombie. Sometimes, as in “Dead Walk,” the preset settings and synthesized voices sound a bit like the fall version of the Mannheim Steamroller.
The reproduction of Carpenter’s copies became so unbridled that it was fair that the master cashed in on himself, like reviving Juicy I and DJ Paul of the Three 6 Mafia brand after so many rappers looted their early underground work. (In fact, Paul and Juiceman owe Carpenter something long – they occasionally returned to the source of his soundtracks for samples from which they could construct their own horrorcore universe.) But while it’s wonderful that such an individual artist gets a regular job, it’s hard not to feel like that Carpenter is simply extracting data from his past life for new material – unlike, say, David Lynch, who does polarizing and embarrassing things both with his albums and with his resurrections from past intellectual property. It is almost impossible to distinguish the “Crying Spirit” from the moments from the various Halloween movies. Sometimes “lost” in Lost topics it feels less like a satanic book written in blood, and more like a map of unfinished GarageBand projects that Carpenter came across while organizing his desktop.
But Carpenter is, for the most part, an artist whose work is not fully understood at the time. It took time for the audience to find value in his later, lower-budget efforts: the sequel to the Plissken snake that lies to Hollywood Escape from LA, a theory-fiction that creates the mind In the mouth of madness, a virulent anti-church horror-western Vampires, and starring Ice Cube Ghosts of Mars they have all been rebuilt at certain critical angles, their once delineated nu-metal flourishing and early CGI experiments now accepted with affection. The only third part of the trilogy he has ever participated in before is Halloween III: Halloween, who was hated in 1982 for playing with the canonical narrative quickly and loosely, but is now a favorite of many because he dared to try something different. Maybe Lost Topics III it should, ideally, be forgotten for a few decades, so that future generations can find it again in the search for art for reconsideration, reconsideration, and return.
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