As soon as John Carpenter strode onto the stage at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Friday night, before he played a single note, the famed cult director received a king's welcome as someone shouted the immortal line from his 1978 classic Halloween:
"YOU CAN'T KILL THE BOOGEYMAN!"
Nor can you kill horror movie buffs' love for John Carpenter. During the next hour-and-a-half of the 68-year-old's film music, Carpenter led his five-piece backing ensemble on synthesizer while montages from his filmography appeared projected behind the stage in a set that secured his status as the godfather of horror film music.
Horror movie soundtracks are having something of a moment. Go to Amoeba and check the soundtrack section; it's full of classic and current-day horror scores elegantly repressed on limited-edition vinyl from boutique labels like Mondo and Death Waltz. While the surge is boosted by indie theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse, and podcasts galore (The Hysteria Continues; Killer POV; Forever Midnight), live performances of horror soundtracks -- Goblin's recent touring notwithstanding -- have been rare occurrences.
Which explains what makes Carpenter's current tour so special. Here's an artist who's made a career of gut-churning imagery and horrific scenes, and yet the prevailing feeling at the Fox Theater was unabashed joy -- from the opening strains of Escape From New York to the finale of Christine. For his fans, the chance to applaud the director-producer-screenwriter-actor-editor-composer was like, say, the rest of America having an opportunity to shake Tom Hanks' hand and say, "I really loved Forrest Gump."
With his own son on second keyboards, Carpenter's band performed fluid medleys of each film's music and sounded tonally dialed-in, a necessity for his scores. Carpenter came of age in the era of early rock 'n' roll, and that simplicity has always been a component of his music; four or five notes often form the melody, but what he does as far as backdrop and repetition can make those four or five notes creep up one's spine.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in his timeless theme to Halloween, a blueprint for film scores ever since performed perfectly on Friday. Similarly, the pared-down score to The Thing -- written by Ennio Morricone, with a bit of editing by Carpenter -- achieved maximum impact in the renovated theater. Locals also got The Fog, filmed in and around Point Reyes, and Big Trouble in Little China, filmed in San Francisco. A mix of songs from his two recent studio releases, Lost Themes I and II, peppered the set.
But no one seemed to having as much fun as Carpenter himself. Swaying like a genie and pointing at fans, the composer seemed to be basking in the newfound attention directed his way in the current horror soundtrack zeitgeist. (In May, Guillermo del Toro happily added to the accolades in a marvelously complimentary Tweetstorm.)
It was a jubilant way for John Carpenter, filmmaker, to finally be recognized as a groundbreaking composer live and in person. Here's hoping he returns.