Few directors are known as much for their soundtrack work as their actual films, but then again, few directors are quite like John Carpenter.
Mainly active in the ’70s and ’80s, Carpenter is still widely known as that mustachioed filmmaker behind the insanely popular Halloween movies, a series that ingrained a mask-sporting, knife-happy psychopath in the nightmares of millions and went on to earn Carpenter the tag of “Master of Horror.” However, the director’s reach extends far beyond the cut-’em-up slasher genre.
While Carpenter generally keeps it fantastical, he’s dabbled in everything from sci-fi to action, often injecting his films with sharp social commentary along the way. Yet no matter where his interests stray, Carpenter’s best work has always been bound by a common thread: the music.
With an established musician as a father, Carpenter’s musical upbringing began at an early age, leading him to take on all scoring duties when he began his career as an independent filmmaker in the early ’70s. But while his theme for 1978’s Halloween remains one of the most instantly recognizable — not to mention downright frightening — pieces of cinematic ear candy ever recorded, it wasn’t until Carpenter teamed up with sound designer Alan Howarth a few years later that his soundtracks truly took on a life of their own.
Through their longstanding partnership, Carpenter and Howarth went on to produce electronically crafted, synthesizer-based scores that remain as inventive and groundbreaking as Carpenter’s films, effectively cementing the pair’s position as true electronic music pioneers.
The two first joined forces for Carpenter’s 1981 picture Escape From New York, a science-fiction action thriller starring an eyepatch-wearing Kurt Russell as the now-iconic ex-soldier anti-hero Snake Plissken. The film is set in 1997, which was the future, by which time Manhattan Island has been converted into a maximum security prison thanks to a crime-crippled United States. Down on his luck, Plissken (who repeatedly reminds you to “Call me ‘Snake”) is squeezed into going into the prison to rescue a less-than-heroic president, along the way meeting a dude named Brain, the Duke of New York, a fast-talking cabby, and a whole lot of Crazies out to hurt, kill or eat him for breakfast. But of course, no futuristic dystopia is complete without some serious sci-fi sounds to back it up.
Recently reissued by Death Waltz Recording Co. (complete with new vinyl remastering, six tracks never included in the original film and eye-boggling new art), the score sounds as strikingly modern now as it must have back in ’81. Using the latest technology of the day — an ARP Quadra, ARP Avatar, Prophet 5, Linn LM-1 drum machine — Carpenter and Howarth came up with a soundtrack that fits the suspense-loaded, retro-futuristic film perfectly, offering up some exceptionally atmospheric synth work and, believe it or not, some upbeat numbers that could even get you headphone dancing.
Following the lead of the slow-pulsing “Main Title,” the score’s more ominous synth pieces sound both brutally simple and complex, effectively driving up the tension as Snake proceeds into unknown territory.
Despite these tracks sounding the most “Carpenter-esque,” the Italo-disco-inspired “The Duke Arrives/Barricade” and companion piece “President at the Train” are total show stealers, scoring the entrance of the Duke (appropriately enough played by Isaac Hayes) as he rolls on by in his chandelier-fronted pimpmobile. In fact, these cowbell-equipped songs would sound right at home alongside the dance-rock work of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and his DFA crew.
Giving the score even more modern musical weight are very Krautrock-like jams “The Bank Robbery” and “Snake Shake — End Credits,” which may as well be some long-lost Neu! tracks. And just in case the soundtrack gets too serious for you, a faux-Broadway show tune “Everyone’s Coming to New York” pops up out of nowhere, delivering gleeful vocal lines like “Shoot a cop with a gun / The Big Apple is plenty of fun.”
Sounding like nothing past or present, the score always keeps you on your toes, becoming an engaging listen from front to back, and one seriously classic piece of soundtracking.
The film went down as a success in 1981, paving the way for Carpenter to make bigger, fancier, higher-budget films, most notably the following year’s The Thing. But never again would he strike the same perfect balance found in Escape From New York. With one foot firmly in the future and another in the past, it straddles both the more classic filmmaking techniques of the ’70s and those emerging in the tech-hungry ’80s, having just enough money to be a “proper” motion picture but allowing Carpenter to embrace that invigorating rush of independent filmmaking without giving up anything to future studio demands.
And that pioneering spirit — both cinematically and musically — is perhaps captured best by something Carpenter once told Howarth when penning the score for Escape From New York: “There’s only one rule to follow: there are no rules.”