HALLOWEEN – John Carpenter


Original Review by Alan Rogers

John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween is a very effective, low-budget “slasher” horror film set in suburban America. Psychotic murderer Michael Myers escapes from a state mental institution 15 years after murdering his sister, and returns to his hometown where he continues on his killing spree. Babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is unaware of the peril she is about to be in as Myers’ focuses his attention on her. Although the plot is simple the film itself is expertly realised and regularly features in “Greatest Films…ever” lists (the film was selected in 2006 by the US National Film Registry as being a film that is “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”). Part of the film’s success can be put down to John Carpenter’s own iconic score for the film.

The centrepiece of Halloween is Carpenter’s memorable title theme. It is heard in full in the first cue “Halloween Theme – Main Title” and then again a number of tracks including “Shape Escapes” and “Loomis and Shape’s Car”. As with a lot of themes simple is best, but listening closer it’s surprising how much complexity there actually is contained within the theme. The basis of the theme is a repetitive ten-beat pattern (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2) that acts as the propulsive bedrock on top of which a repeating 3-note motif (the actual theme?) is placed. These ostinato patterns set up an uneasy tension and variation in the theme is created with various pitch changes. The additional layering of ascending synth strings raises the tension even more. Carpenter’s Halloween theme appears to be associated with Michael Myers’ character (“The Shape”) giving him a emotionless, relentless quality that is important for a character whose face you cannot see. Carpenter injects surprises, shocks and horror not with the theme itself but with additional embellishments of the music such as the addition of synth stingers whenever something shocking happens on the screen (e.g., “Shape Escapes”) and by careful placement of when the theme begins and ends in the film. 

The second major theme (“Laurie’s Theme”), although of a much slower pace, has several similarities to the main theme (including being heard several times throughout this album). This theme again feature’s a simple piano ostinato that is the theme’s basis and over this there’s a 3-note motif on synths, plus an additional 4-note motif. And again, the various ostinato patterns sets up tension, but this time for Laurie and the overall feeling is almost of boredom, a sense of the mundane (suburban?). And this feeling to the theme doesn’t really change too much throughout the score. But, this is not entirely true though. Both “Michael Kills Judith” and “Better Check The Kids” features what sounds like a subtly altered version of Laurie’s theme: fragmented and heard over dissonant synth chords and sickening descending piano scales, it seems to echoe Laurie’s nightmare and her own horrific predicament. Moving on from Laurie’s theme, ostinato patterns also play a prominent role during scenes where Myers is actively stalking Laurie. “The Shape Lurks” and “The Shape Stalks” features another 3-note piano motif that’s unwavering, lumbering and relentless. Supplemented with additional synth ostinatos as well as various synth drones, that are added one-by-one to ramp up the tension, builds the score and the film to a grand finale.

Carpenter’s score for Halloween is a masterclass on how to use a limited palette of instruments and musical techniques to fashion a powerful and memorable score (the theme for Halloween surely is one of those themes that has made the transition from the film to the outside world as a recognisable piece of music?) And it is funny to think that the intention was to have no music in the film at all. Apparently, Carpenter changed his mind when he realised that the film was not as scary as he wanted it to be. Varese’s mid-1980s release of the score to Halloween has been heavily edited from the original score in order to make for a better listening experience (“Myers’ House”, for example, is quite an effective suite of themes). In fact, Carpenter has added a beat (a trudging, muted drum beat) to the main theme is heard that does not feature on the original soundtrack recording. These changes have added a lot to the score’s enjoyment as a listening experience and this album manages to show off Carpenter’s themes and musical ideas in an excellent manner. John Carpenter’s Halloween theme deserves its place as being an iconic movie theme and this album deserves to be in everyone’s collection as an example of how memorable and inventive film composers can be. This 30+ minute release of Halloween is available both as a digital download and as a physical CD.

Rating: ****½

  1. Halloween Theme – Main Title (2:55)
  2. Laurie’s Theme (2:04)
  3. Shape Escapes (1:42)
  4. Myers’ House (5:35)
  5. Michael Kills Judith (3:11)
  6. Loomis and Shape’s Car (3:31)
  7. The Haunted House (3:32)
  8. The Shape Lurks (1:34)
  9. Laurie Knows (3:01)
  10. Better Check The Kids (3:26)
  11. The Shape Stalks (3:09)

Running Time: 33:47

Varese Sarabande VCD 47230 (1985)

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Comments

  1. Excellent review…shame about the score. 🙂
    Can’t help it: I honestly like a lot of Carpenter’s work…it’s just that the score for Halloween (and especially its theme) really annoys me somehow. I fear it has a lot to do with the fact that when I first saw the movie, I thought it was the worst bit of trash it had ever been my misfortune to have to watch.

    Obviously I have mellowed with age, and would now contend it’s merely shit.

    • Thanks for the thumbs up for the review. Nice for someone to take note of my request! Shame that the emotions associated with the film translate so strongly to the music.

      • Well, usually they don’t. I own *many* scores I enjoy immensely of absolutely horrible films (Rambo: First Blood II, anyone? 😉 ).
        But as you have noted, the theme is repeated over and over and over again in the film. So the link is pretty much inseverable.
        It doesn’t help that the very first version I ever owned of this theme was on a compilation album of horror themes…and it was the only track to run roughly 6 minutes! Which was an absolute overkill regarding the austerity of it.
        Anyway, enough of my own frustrations.

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