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(Credit: Nathan Hartley Maas)

The soundtracks that inspired the music of John Carpenter

Creative visionary John Carpenter is as much a cinematic master as he is a music maestro, spending much of his childhood “fantasising” about how music and film could synthesise an artistic reality. His early explorations in music Carpenter compares to playing ‘open-world video games’, elaborating that “this music, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky, allowed me to go anywhere and imagine anything. I was either in a science fiction, horror or western movie. I was the hero of my own fantasies”.

After spending much of his early life living in a wood cabin in Kentucky with his family, Carpenter went off to study at USC School of Cinematic Arts, finding much success to the extent that his film The Resurrection of Broncho Billy won the 1970 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Such led the talented director and composer down an illustrious career path of creation which included penning the script and the soundtrack for Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and Escape from New York

Speaking in a recent interview, Carpenter notes that “my first love in life is cinema; cinema is my mistress,” before going on to comment how the medium has worn him down, “But she’s a harsh mistress. It’s so hard to make movies. It destroys you emotionally…But making music in this present form – oh, what a joy. I feel more in touch with the unspoken world… It’s the purest art form there is”. Though his love for directing may have dwindled, Carpenter still works as a composer, having written the soundtrack for David Gordon Green’s Halloween, as well as its 2021 sequel

When it comes to the soundtracks that have inspired and shaped John Carpenter’s creative vision, one of the first composers he turns to is the iconic Ennio Morricone, and particularly his work on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Discussing the composer and Leone’s film, Carpenter states: “He was an experimental musician. He was not what you think. I think maybe one of the great musical scores of all time was his score to Once Upon a Time in the West. Staggeringly beautiful, my god”. Carpenter goes on to describe the film as a “Western opera”, recalling the time Leone played Morricone’s soundtrack on set to get the actors in the mood.

The second film that Carpenter notes as an influential personal classic, is 1956s Forbidden Planet, with the director commenting that the movie “changed much of his life”. Detailing further, he added: “One of the things that it changed was my idea of what music could be and was, because it had an all-electronic score done by [husband-and-wife duo} the Barrons,” noting the soundtrack’s strange transportive nature as one of its strongest aspects. As Carpenter further explains, “I think that was a turning point for me in my life for many reasons…It was literally, amazingly futuristic, and done apparently very crudely in those days”.

Remade by John Carpenter in 1982, The Thing from Another World directed by Howard Hawks is also noted as one of Carpenter’s most inspiring films, particularly for Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, both “great and strange”. Picking out his unique style as one of the composer’s strongest aspects, the director notes that Tiomkin’s scores are “just transitional music”, sometimes so distinctive that “it works and, again, you can’t describe what it is”.

As a huge fan of the band Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter also found himself falling in love with William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer, scored by the German electronic band. “I was a huge fan of Tangerine Dream when I saw the movie Sorcerer. Oh my God, what a score. What a score,” the director excitedly recalled when remembering the film. Going into the specifics of the band’s genius, Carpenter elaborated, commenting: “It wasn’t leaning towards orchestral, it was trying to be a synthesised score, which was… I celebrate that. Oh, it’s amazing. I love that score”.

Dario Argento’s classic Giallo horror Suspiria also makes Carpenter’s list of favourite scores, composed and created by Claudio Simonetti as part of the progressive rock band, Goblin. Carpenter in fact found the score so alluring that he wished he himself had made it, exclaiming his reaction when he first heard the Suspiria score, “‘Oh my God, what is that?’ It has the Indian sitar sound in it. Absolute genius. He and I became friends.”

See the full list of soundtracks that inspired the director, below.

The six soundtracks that inspired John Carpenter:

  • Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) – Music by Ennio Morricone.
  • Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) – Music by The Barrons.
  • The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks, 1951) – Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
  • Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977) – Music by Tangerine Dream
  • Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) – Music by Goblin
  • The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955) – Music by James Bernard

The final film on Carpenter’s list is Val Guest’s 1955 film The Quatermass Xperiment, a film that inspired some of the directors more horror-led genre movies. The composer of Hammer Films, working on music for Dracula, Frankenstein and two of the Quatermass films, James Bernard was a master of slowly tightening the screws of suspense to create a truly nail-biting scene.

Reminding himself of his childhood, Carpenter comments: “Every time I hear it, I get chills because it reminds me of being a little kid, sitting in a theatre and going, ‘oh my god’. That’s when the music was more powerful than the images that we’re seeing”.

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