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John Carpenter plays the theme from 'They Live' (1988) Photo: Elise Mravunac
John Carpenter plays the theme from "They Live" (1988) Photo: Elise Mravunac

Director John Carpenter’s “Lost Themes” at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall - 6/15

By MATT HANSEN // Horror master plays his first time ever in Portland.


The many film works of director John Carpenter contain some of the most suspenseful and grotesque images ever to appear in thrillers and horror movies. And with the release of Carpenter’s two solo albums of original material entitled Lost Themes, it would seem that the iconic director, at 76, is trying to now make his name synonymous with ‘musician’ rather than simply ‘film composer.’

 His storied career of composing film music innovated the landscape of horror movies in 1978 with the title theme to “Halloween,” giving him both visual and aural control of his projects, where other directors would just hire out. Now in 2016, Carpenter is having a go at touring; playing not only his original material but also the movie themes that he began writing way back in his days of student films.

Transitioning the name John Carpenter from “legendary director” to “live touring act” didn’t come without a few hiccups during last Wednesday’s performance at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Nevertheless the overall spectacle made you warm and giddy like the first time you ever held one of his movies on VHS.

 There is a caveat to seeing John Carpenter live; your eyes will constantly veer from the band to the projected visuals. With every theme you’re seeing a unique cut of the film’s pivotal scenes, all hand selected to accentuate each movement and bring the tone of the movie to life. “Assault On Precinct 13” is really just a drum machine with simple synth lines; yet live, the track is a retro-futurist blending of old west reckoning and shimmering keys that seem to stretch on like the gritty sprawl of 1970s Los Angeles.

 Like most of his work, Carpenter’s prowess is in stimulating a psychological reaction with his synthesizers. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’re moved by his adeptness at knowing just what a secret mission to save the president would actually sound like: “Escape From New York” (1981). Toss in serial killers, aliens, and apocalyptic events, and musically Carpenter always comes out on top. It’s not so much a cinematic nostalgia, as it is championing the many talents of a dark and bizarre visionary.


 On stage, however, Carpenter is far less imposing than the characters of his films. With his sunglasses and gentle swaying dance moves it was evident that he had honed his craft in a home studio rather than in a packed concert hall. Free from any rock star posturing, this was indeed a very special opportunity to see the filmmaker as we never have before – not at a sci-fi convention signing autographs – but as a band leader working the crowd and steadily chewing gum.  

 Rounding out his set were tracks from Lost Themes I & II which often had more of a push toward rock then the slow, icy crawl of some of his film work. The track “Vortex” off of Lost Themes had uplifting plods of Carpenter’s piano and nebulous synths. Close your eyes and ask yourself, what would a boxing movie sound like on another planet?

 Likewise, the theme to “Pork Chop Express” from the film "Big Trouble in Little China" was a scorcher of guitar rock representing the two fisted antics of character Jack Burton, played by long time Carpenter collaborator, Kurt Russell.

 The fact that Carpenter’s set was a tad short seems to suggest there was far more he could have played, but very little he was proud of post-1988. In fact, the filmmaker was often the subject of ridicule by critics in the 90s. While he may be old and grey, Carpenter’s retrospective of work insists that his age doesn’t imply he has any less to give, though he’s never been in any rush for recognition as a musician. The sight of fans coming to a concert hall rather than the box office to show their support and admiration could be enough for him, despite past film critiques.

 “I love Horror movies,” Carpenter bellowed from the microphone in between songs. “Horror movies will live forever.”

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