The heroine rushes into a bedroom and hides in the closet, crouching in terror. From her vantage point, we see the shadow of the killer test the bound, slatted doors, pushing and pulling, before punching his way through the flimsy wood to his intended victim. The music combines a pulse-like pounding of the lower register of the piano with a squirm inducing cluster of notes from the synthesizer. The visual and auditory tension is almost unbearable.
The theme for Halloween (1978) has become synonymous with its namesake holiday—quite an achievement in light of its modest aims. John Carpenter quickly composed the music for the low-budget slasher in an effort to enliven his third theatrical feature. Like the film itself, the score would be endlessly copied but would also spawn a cottage industry that seems to grow every year. Come October, you’re bound to hear the instantly recognizable theme, whether in a costume shop, at a Halloween party, or as a ringtone. Decades after Halloween’s release, the evergreen popularity of Carpenter’s minimal compositions is a testament to the old adage: Less is more.
Film School to Assault
Born into a musical family (his father was a violinist and music professor), John Carpenter developed an instinctive approach to piano, reportedly telling one interviewer, “I can play just about any keyboard but I can’t read or write a note.” A love of film, particularly westerns, horror, and sci-fi, led Carpenter to USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles. Partnered with future Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, the two would create the sci-fi black comedy Dark Star (1974). In addition to co-writing and directing, Carpenter composed the score, a pastiche of skeletal synth and electronic musique concrète. Though the film would take years to develop cult classic status, the experience enabled Carpenter to helm a second feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
The gritty tale of a besieged police precinct, protected by an outgunned, motley crew of civil servants and convicts, bears many of the themes – suspicion, claustrophobia, terror – that would come to define the director. Assault on Precinct 13 also contains an effective, bare bones score that serves as a prototype for Carpenter’s more renowned works.
Playing a large hand in the sound of Assault on Precinct 13, as well as Halloween and The Fog, was Dr. Daniel Wyman. Currently a professor of film scoring at San Jose State University, Wyman met Carpenter at USC, where he taught a course on synthesizers. Collaborating in the studio, Wyman proved essential in bringing the director’s ideas to fruition, dialing in synth patches and handling sequencer programming. Responding by email, Wyman tells CultureRamp, “Carpenter had the themes and sound effects in his mind as a sonic ‘wish’ or image… as a composer and orchestrator, (I) had to realize those images he described.”
Domestically, Assault on Precinct 13 met with a lackluster reception; however, it became a surprise hit in England, where its stark soundtrack paid unexpected dividends. In praising the film (singling out its “terrific” music) actress Angela Pleasence convinced her father, noted character actor Donald Pleasence, to accept a role in John Carpenter’s next film, a lean horror film that would become the most profitable independent film in history.
The Night He Came Home
What began life as a cheap shocker titled The Babysitter Murders would, in the hands of Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill, turn into a master class of suspense with the more evocative title, Halloween. Drawing inspiration from the gialli of Dario Argento, Carpenter places his quasi-supernatural killer, Michael Myers (referred to in the credits as ‘The Shape’), in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Institutionalized after the murder of his sister on Halloween night, 1963, Myers escapes years later to wreak havoc on timid Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Hot on his trail, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) seeks to stop his former patient, believing that what Myers embodies is “purely and simply … evil.” Halloween brilliantly ditches any deep-seeded motivation or explanation for the killer’s wrath. Michael Myers—masked, unknowable—wants to kill. The end.
While the spooky vibe of the movie is abetted by fluid cinematography and a color scheme rich in blue and orange, nothing enriches the film’s atmosphere more than the music, a point underscored by Carpenter in the soundtrack’s liner notes. “I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox,” he wrote. “She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to ‘save it with the music.’”
Recollections from Carpenter differ from two weeks to two days in terms of time allotted for the soundtrack. According to Wyman, the score of Halloween took a week. The unsettling tones heard throughout the picture were almost entirely produced from a single instrument. Wyman explains:
I used only the modular system Moog III: five boxes of modules, with 4 sequencers, two keyboards, and a Ribbon Controller [a touch-sensitive strip that controls pitch]. However, I may have duplicated one or two of the sfx on a Minimoog which was in the room… I had ARP 2600s, Sonic 6, that Oberheim, and other instruments… their sound did not match the quality we were looking for. I had written the Moog Modular Systems Handbook for Bob Moog, and without reservation preferred the quality of this famous instrument to any other.
Amazingly, the music that so expertly matches the action on screen was not composed to the visuals. Every theme and cue was performed “double-blind.” This limitation didn’t hinder progress. “Neither Assault nor Halloween had the Moviola in the room,” Wyman notes:
… there was very little “improvisation” coming out of [Carpenter's] fingers for the famous themes. He knew what he wanted. I programmed/created the sounds themselves, according to what he had in his “mind’s eye,” and he played his themes.
The Cattle Prod
The familiar piano motif that runs relentlessly through Halloween resides in a rather exotic time signature: 5/4, meaning five beats per measure. Carpenter learned the rhythm in an unusual manner. “My father taught me 5/4 time when I was younger,” Carpenter told BBC Four. “He taught me on some bongos.”
Tricky time signatures are the specialty of prog rockers and jazz musicians (most famously, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”). Locked in step with a mechanical “ticking,” the theme intrinsically sounds menacing. “5/4 is nuts,” Carpenter told the BBC‘s Mark Kermode in a thorough interview from 1999. “Where does it end? What’s going on? You can’t find the start and stop of it. It’s off.”
The counter-melody of low synth strings and shifting tonal center escalates the tension. Variations of the theme weave in and out of the film, sometimes initiated with a “stinger.”
Stingers – or what Carpenter refers to as “the cattle prod” – are blasts of percussive synth meant to jolt the audience. Often abused in horror cinema, they can provide false scares, such as the old stand-by: a cat jumping into frame. But when heralding a gruesome act, stingers can be quite potent
As with the main themes, the stingers were born of Carpenter’s intuition and Wyman’s expertise. Carpenter, Wyman told us, “asked for a particular type of sound effect, either in descriptive musician’s terms (a cluster with a gliss down), or in typical producer’s language (‘a scary sound that trails away… real sharp’).”
The ultimate confrontation between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers plays out over several minutes, as the babysitter repeatedly gets the upper hand only to find the killer back on his feet. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking scene is when, in desperation, Laurie hides in the closet.
Performed on Moog, a dissonant, semitone cluster combines the notes F and F#, challenging the ear. It’s an unpleasant sound that amplifies an already horrible predicament. When asked how this effect was achieved through a monophonic keyboard (which produces one sound at a time), Wyman elaborates:
The keyboards were monophonic, but the audio outputs by no means were monophonic. I ganged multiple oscillators together through the Moog mixers, and those went out to the VCA’s (voltage controlled amplifiers) which hit the studio mixers/recorders. Thus, one key could play semitones at once, yet the output was in stereo. However, we may have played the effect… on two keyboards or more. I say “we” because John did not do all the playing. He played the now famous themes, of course, and cues that were recorded with an acoustic piano in our studio as well. Beyond that, I filled in many harmony lines, sound effects, and sonic textures.
Cheap and Fast
Time and time again, John Carpenter stresses that speed and efficiency were the motivations behind his beloved soundtracks, saying, “I’m cheap… I’m fast. And as a musician, that’s it.” Consciously or not, his approach also mirrored concurrent movements in the arts. By eschewing the traditional avenues of piecing together a band or seeking greater funds for, perhaps, a small string section, Carpenter exudes the DIY punk ethos of the time. The “cheapness” of the final product doesn’t sound cheap in the slightest. Like an early Ramones album, the music sounds deliberate, raw, and could have been made no other way.
Tangentially related to punk, the contemporary minimalist movement in music also shaped the score. Wyman elaborates,
I tried to imagine what he was hearing in his head … for instance the “ticking” that makes Halloween so tense throughout. At that time, minimalism was just being heard in contemporary concert music—Steve Reich’s early works like “Violin Phase” or “It’s Gonna Rain.” That was particularly in my head, to add to what Carpenter visualized. Do remember that there were no computers, no storage of sounds, except for the Oberheim, which I generally did not use. Musicians with synthesizer skills and orchestration skills had to try and figure out what a producer/director wanted from mostly verbal description.
Dr. Wyman would collaborate with John Carpenter once more on the wonderfully eerie The Fog before setting off on a film career of his own, composing both synthesizer and strings for films including Hell Night, The Dead Pit, and The Lawnmower Man.
You Can’t Kill The Bogeyman
Death Waltz Records is currently reissuing several Carpenter soundtracks on vinyl. The label’s founder, Spencer Hickman, neatly sums up Halloween’s enduring listening appeal. “First off it’s so weird, [that the theme is] in 5/4 time which immediately makes you feel slightly unsettled,” he told us. “Also it’s cold, really fucking sparse; it’s totally functional much like Michael Myers. It’s there to do a job and succeeds greatly.”
Indeed, the music gets the job done, as Carpenter realized upon first viewing the finished product. “I finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall,” he wrote in the liner notes.
My plan to “save it with the music” seemed to work. About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century-Fox (she was now with MGM). Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music.
Thirty-four years later, Halloween is poised to terrorize the multiplex again with screenings across the nation. Though the shocks may have dulled over time, the music remains vital.