John Carpenter Composes an Eerie, Immersive Score for the New ‘Halloween’

John Carpenter is an auteur with a formidably varied skill set that enables him to pursue his visions uncompromisingly by taking complete creative control. For 1978’s “Halloween,” widely considered his magnum opus, he ventured beyond the role of director and screenwriter, to score the film himself. Legend has it that after the unscored film received a lukewarm reception from producers, Carpenter knocked out a soundtrack in a mere three days. In this bout of passion, he composed a score so viscerally memorable that it would become ingrained in popular culture. Four decades later, the main theme of the movie is still universally recognizable. A new “Halloween” film has just hit theaters, one that retcons the narrative arc of previous sequels, and picks up where the original left off. Carpenter has teamed up with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, both of whom collaborated on his three recent solo albums, to revisit the musical theme of the original movie, and build a new soundtrack around it. “Halloween (Official 2018 Motion Picture Soundtrack)” is both a camp renewal of the classic score and a compelling, haunting work in its own right.  

The famous “Halloween Theme,” is just as you remember it, the iconic 5/4-time, creeping melody, with heavy, murky chords and eerie synths hovering above it. This time, however, Carpenter has added a steady bass drum pulse, low enough in the mix to not make the piece sound like a house remix, but prominent enough to add a more propulsive quality. “Laurie’s Theme” is a bit disappointing, as it’s only forty-four seconds long, compared to the two-minute original. Moreover, the prickly piano tone of the initial version has been replaced by a warmer tone that fails to create the same haunting effect. Everything but the backing has been cut out, save for some synth strings that seem too bright for the context — but perhaps it works for the movie.

The remaining tracks are all new pieces. “Prison Montage” has an ominous chord progression that builds in layers until a variation of the main theme makes its way into the mix, under washes of discordant noise. This time, the timing is standard, and the cryptic tune bears just enough similarity to the titular refrain to register. “Michael Kills” hits out of the blue with an insistent industrial beat that evokes Trent Reznor’s work, but lasts for just over thirty seconds. “Michael Kills Again” begins with droney strings and dark ambiance, before a reverberating metallic clang sounds, and the same monotonous skittering percussion of the original titular theme takes over. The invariability of the grating sound hints that something is imminent, and sure enough, there comes a torrent of noise mimicking chainsaws and shrieks. “The Shape Returns” brings back the central motif, and at one point establishes a beat with something like a snare, but so wispy that it sounds like someone slyly scraping a rough surface to keep time — as if there’s some elusive entity following your every step.

“The Bogeyman” is yet another variation on the main theme, slowing it down to a gentle pace, and varying the tempo sporadically. Just when everything has settled into a quiet fog, Carpenter attacks with “The Shape Kills,” a massive, discordant stomper. “Laurie Sees the Shape” sounds like the beginning of a realization, with a beat taken root, over which nebulous fading tones and hissing noise create a frantic tension, before a sort of deranged carnival vibe emerges on “The Shape Takes Allyson.” Some of the most evocative tracks are spacious pieces with just sparse, plaintive piano and ambient sound, for instance “Allyson Discovered.” If you had never heard of “Halloween,” and listened to this album, it would still strike as designed specifically to soundtrack a horror film. The score is full of uncomfortable pauses, moments of rising tension, sudden jolts, and hellish stampedes.

Carpenter uses silence as an instrument, contextualizing sounds by making use of negative space. “The Grind” begins with approximately a minute of nearly complete silence, after which an earlier melody is intimated. “Trap the Shape” couldn’t have a better title, as the fleeting rhythms, evaporating swells, and shrill overtones create an evanescent, amorphous soundscape. “The Shape Burns,” draws things toward an end, revisiting the main theme, and it all culminates in an extended number, titled “Halloween Triumphant,” spanning over seven minutes, and tying together various motifs from the whole recording.

Although “Halloween” might have been designed specifically to enhance the effect of the new film, it stands on its own as an album. It’s music for brooding by candlelight, falling subject to spells of paranoia, and occasionally being swept up into adrenaline surges that blow a short fuse. You can put it on, and let it run like some ambient music, and brace yourself for the rollercoaster that ensues. It’s a thrill to hear the classic “Halloween” theme excavated in a new context, and Carpenter has managed to use this as a springboard for a profusion of fresh musical ideas. At once classic and kitschy, dynamic and cohesive, it’s overall an evocative and exciting listen.   

Halloween (Official 2018 Motion Picture Soundtrack)” is available Oct. 19 on Apple Music.