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The impact of prog-rock on John Carpenter's sound

John Carpenter is a total genius, and there can be no denying it. A filmmaker, actor and composer, all to varying extents of experimentation, Carpenter’s effect on popular culture has been nothing short of monumental. As a director, he gave us cult classics such as 1978’s HalloweenThe FogEscape From New YorkChristineBig Trouble In Little China; the list of iconic capers he has given us is truly dizzying.

His films from the 1970s and ’80s are undoubtedly his best. Each feature is celebrated for the same but ever so slightly diverse elements, and the majority have a dark, sinister edge that is unique to the mind of John Carpenter. The filmmaker’s filmmaker, he has influenced everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Bong Joon-ho and even James Cameron. 

It is not just the directorial work that made John Carpenter the legend he is today, however, and his work in the realm of movie soundtracks has been just as influential as his visual output. Carpenter possesses a tacit understanding of the symbiosis between the audio and the visual in cinema, and via his soundtracks, Carpenter has augmented films to such a degree that some would say the power of music defined his creative style. 

Halloween is probably the most remarkable example of this, so much so that Carpenter has even returned to the franchise for its latest reboot, giving us an oppressive yet riveting soundscape. To put his legacy as a soundtrack composer into complete perspective, the other modern master of film soundtracks, Hans Zimmer, cites Carpenter as a considerable influence.

Given that as an artist, John Carpenter is one of the most influential around, this always made fans wonder just want music he personally turns to. Utilising a wide variety of instrumentation across his soundtracks, it is unsurprising that his influences are manifold. In a recent interview with Little White Lies, Carpenter revealed some of the composers/musical artists that influenced him when he was first starting out.

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He said: “Movies in general were very, very important to me when I was young. They loomed very large in my life, and the music was equally as important. I was influenced by the early great composers like Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin. These guys were the real pioneers.”

Then Carpenter revealed that prog-rock had a huge influence on his teenage brain: “As time went by I got into groups like Tangerine Dream, they did a score for a movie called Sorcerer which is just astonishing, that really blew me away when I first heard it.”

He continued: “And also the work of Goblin, that was important for horror cinema. The first electronic score I ever heard was for a movie called Forbidden Planet back in ’56. There was absolutely no orchestral music in that, it was all electronic, and I’d never heard anything like it.”

This account from Carpenter is eye-opening. Not only does he reveal that Bernard Herrman, who soundtracked the majority of Alfred Hitchcock‘s greatest works, was a massive influence, he also cites prog-rock as a defining factor in his development as a soundtrack composer.

It is also no secret that Carpenter is a huge fan of German icons Tangerine Dream; he and Alan Howarth tried to emulate their sound for 1981’s Escape From New York.

His mention of Goblin is incredible, however, as the Italian prog-rock heroes created the soundtracks for some of the most influential films of all time and two of Dario Argento’s most widely lauded outings, 1975’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) and 1977’s Suspiria. Giving the films an ominous mix of jazz, prog and heavy metal, with this revelation, it becomes clear where Carpenter takes many of his cues. 

If you haven’t heard either of these two soundtracks, we suggest that you do. Although Suspiria gets more of the plaudits, Goblin’s work on Profondo Rosso is genius. Matching the sinister intrigue of the plot with the analogue atmosphere of their prog, it is a tour de force in soundtrack work and was significantly ahead of its time. 

Listen to the Profondo Rosso soundtrack in full below.