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The unlikely origin of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' theme

Though many film directors write, direct and even produce movies themselves, it’s unusual for a filmmaker to be quite as talented as John Carpenter, writing, directing and creating the soundtrack for many of his original films. These aren’t just throwaway soundtracks either, Carpenter’s soundtracks represent some of the very best of cinema, from Assault on Precinct 13’s punchy synthy score to Halloween’s haunting minimalist music. 

Creeping up on the listener, the soundtrack’s careful staccato score is incessant, continuing without a pause to reflect the ceaseless energy of antagonist Michael Myers. Composed and created by John Carpenter himself, the director was inspired by both ‘Tubular Bells’, the theme to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, as well as the work of Italian prog-rock band Goblin, though the secret behind Halloween’s eventual soundtrack was from something far more elementary. 

“The rhythm was inspired by an exercise my father taught me on the bongos in 1961, the beating out of 5-4 time,” Carpenter commented in an interview before revealing that it took him three days to compose the entire score for the film. He transposed the technique to piano and thus the iconic theme tune was born, attributing his final influences of the soundtrack to Friedkin’s film, as well as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which Carpenter also admitted influenced the film’s slightly surreal colour scheme. 

The film’s main titles join the ethereal piece of music for Halloween’s lead character Laurie Strode, itself inspired by the Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann, as well as the ominous track ‘The Shape Stalks’. It proved to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with test scores from audience reactions improving greatly once Carpenter’s soundtrack was added. His work on the memorable soundtrack joins one untitled song performed by John Carpenter and a group of his friends from their band called The Coupe De Villes, with the song audible when Laurie steps into Annie’s car on her way to babysit Tommy Doyle.

Often recalled on lists of the greatest film soundtrack of all time, John Carpenter is humble about the legacy of his soundtrack, commenting that, “If you listen very carefully, they’re pretty simple…I had a pretty good ear…so it worked out”.

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