Vintage horror is all the rage right now. Blame it on the overnight success of Stranger Things or the rise of streaming services offering a glutton’s worth of nostalgic works at one’s fingertips, but it’s a thing, and a very lucrative thing. Every weekend there appears to be another juicy horror convention worth attending, while every week there’s another exclusive vinyl reissue by Mondo or Death Waltz worth forking over $50. Needless to say, the trail of merchandising, both official and unofficial, is slowly bankrupting diehard fans all across the world. Much like superheroes and comic books, what used to be a very niche scene is now scarily ubiquitous, and the days where VHS copies would sit on shelves and collect dust until Halloween are a very distant memory.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the more, the merrier, we say — though it has led to a changing of the guard, so to speak. At this point, the concept of a cult film or a cult director seems almost like an undersell. Sure, there will always be a number of horror circles that will remain forever marginalized, but they’re becoming exceedingly rare. Walk into any con and you’ll be surprised to see how many of your favorite B- and C-movies are now keychains, enamel pins, plush dolls, and T-shirts. It’s staggering how fast this shit has spread over the past couple of decades, and while there’s a part of me that wants to condemn this trend (the same side of my soul that boiled over when I’d see other fans wearing the same band shirts), it’s also nice to see my heroes finally getting their due.
One such name is John Carpenter. Similar to Stephen King, the ol’ Horror Master has seen quite a resurgence in interest around his work. Yet, unlike the best-selling Maine author, who continues to keep writing and popping out one blockbuster book after the other (some among his greatest, others among his worst), he hasn’t really done anything over the last two decades. In fact, not since 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness has Carpenter delivered a good film, or at least one we’d be keen on revisiting without a bucket of popcorn doused in irony. Since then, he’s experienced a miserable downfall, starting with 1995’s Village of the Damned, careening off the charts with 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, and completely fumbling what could have been a late era comeback with 2010’s The Ward.
(Track by Track: John Carpenter Breaks Down Each One of His Themes)
But, you know what? Who cares. The guy set the bar for genre filmmaking, not only at a time when it was tacky and unconventional but when his competition was the stiffest. He came out of the same era that birthed Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and went toe to toe with other titans like George A. Romero and Wes Craven, and neither of them (well, with the exception of Spielberg, obviously) had a better run than Carpenter. While the box office said otherwise, history correctly shows that from 1976 to 1986, Carpenter was the Michael Jordan of genre filmmaking: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China. That’s all without mentioning his two dynamite television films — 1978’s Someone’s Watching Me! and 1979’s Elvis — or the other productions he had his hands on, namely 1981’s Halloween II and its cruelly underrated followup 1983’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Collectively, it’s a body of work that speaks for itself, and has since created a legion of fans that span multiple generations and varying degrees of obsession, from original artwork to comic books to action figures to board games to essay volumes to you name it — and it all makes sense. Because really, for anyone looking to get into horror or sci-fi, Carpenter is the baseline, the foundation from which you build your own personal repertoire upon, and that’s something both reassuring and surreal for veteran fans. Reason being, watching Carpenter is not the same today as it was 10 or 20 or certainly not 30 years ago, if only because he’s been so canonized and his works have an heir of prestige to them now that was never there. And while it’s brought some questionable reevaluations — They Live is a little overrated these days, even if it is quite prescient — it hasn’t really changed the scope or the dynamic of his films.
What has changed is his music. Looking back, what’s always separated the maestro from his contemporaries was his ability to score his own films. It’s an essential part of his overall aesthetic, even over his recurring stable of veterans or his sodium-lighting-fueled cinematography, and it’s arguably the best reason why he’s carved out such a huge portion for himself in the pop culture spectrum. So, why the change? Well, it’s now a genre unto itself. Think back to how many bands or scores are indebted to his music, especially over the last decade alone. What started with Johnny Jewel and his Italians Do It Better label has since continued with the likes of Survive, Disasterpeace, Gunship, and the list goes on. Most of them, especially Jewel and Survive, have found incredible success on film, with the former owning this summer’s Twin Peaks and the latter turning Stranger Things into a lifestyle of sorts. Again, this is all a good thing, especially for Carpenter.
With his music, Carpenter has truly found his comeback, delivering two solid solo albums of new material, 2015’s Lost Themes and 2016’s Lost Themes II, while touring incessantly across the world like a bonafide rock star. It’s a unique position for the auteur in that he doesn’t have to step behind the camera — namely because he probably realized, unlike so many of his peers, that those days are long behind him — but can still remain the spotlight. As such, it’s no wonder he’s speculated to return to the keyboards and not the camera for next year’s Halloween, just as it’s no surprise that he’s gone ahead and re-recorded all of his iconic themes for the incredibly nostalgic compendium, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. From Assault on Precinct 13, to Halloween, to Escape From New York, to even Vampires, this set has literally everything fans would want from the guy, going so far as to include tracks he didn’t even write (see: The Thing, Starman).
Yes, it’s a total retread, but there’s at least a twist. Note that this isn’t a reissue — no, he’s leaving that to the aforementioned Mondo and Death Waltz labels — it’s a re-recording. Much like his Lost Themes albums, Carpenter teamed up with his son, Cody, and his godson, Daniel Davies, and zipped right through his entire catalogue, dusting off one theme from the next. It’s essentially a studio recording of his recent stage show, and anyone who caught him on tour over the last year can attest to how sharp they actually sound, and how each one of his themes were given a modern facelift. They’re all familiar and quite reverent to the originals but there’s this splash of modernity to each that feels more in line with his Lost Themes material. It may prove to be a little uncanny valley for veteran fans who grew up seeking out his soundtracks in vintage shops and MP3 blogs, but it also feels like a celebration — for us, for horror, and especially for Carpenter.
Seeing how everyone’s cashing in on the nostalgia these days, it’s only fitting that Carpenter get his due. To his credit, he’s never really had a chance until now. The closest came 20 years ago, when he was cruelly shooed away after he insisted upon a hefty sum to direct the first Halloween reunion, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later. That refusal was another loss in a decade of obsolescence, one which saw him schilling rights to various studios for a pathetic run of remakes. (All of them suck, but this writer will go to bat for 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13. Killer job by Jean-François Richet with an essential cast.) So yeah, we’d much rather have him remaking his own music than watching a handful of Hollywood hacks go to town on his filmography, but even so, it’s not like this is some garish cash grab. For the first time in decades, we’re seeing the guy do something that oozes with passion — making music with his family — and while you can’t exactly hear that on record, you can feel it in execution. If this is what he wants to do, then hey, why don’t us diehards just wait here for a little while … see what happens?
Essential Tracks: “The Thing”, “Assault on Precinct 13”, and “Dark Star”