Longtime Carpenter fans will find much to love here.
John Carpenter is that rare talent who has managed to not only write and direct a number of influential films but also provide their often equally recognizable scores (imagine Stephen Spielberg and John Williams being one in the same). Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 collects all of his best works in one convenient place, offering a sort of de facto greatest hits package. Curiously, the 13-track collection opens not with one of his more well-known themes or even his first—in fact, it forgoes any focus on chronology altogether—but rather with the theme from 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Mixing metal guitars with his trademark atmospheric synths, it sets the tone for much of what is to follow.
The problem, however, is that the searing electric guitar work on “In the Mouth of Madness” sounds very much of its time (see also: “Porkchop Express (Big Trouble in Little China)”) whereas the very next track, “Assault on Precinct 13,” feels contemporary in its synthwave approach. As more and more modern artists find inspiration in these retro synthesizer sounds and primitive electronics—think the “Stranger Things” theme or those vinyl-only horror soundtrack reissue labels like Waxworks, Death Waltz, Mondo, et. al.—these dated elements are used to create something fresh and new.
So those coming to Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 for just these reasons might be initially put off by “In the Mouth of Madness,” but it’s very much in keeping with Carpenter’s aesthetic, merely swapping the creeping dread inherent in “The Fog” (or even “The Thing”) for an appropriately schizophrenic vibe courtesy of a seemingly incongruous electric guitar. Best known for his work in horror, Carpenter has an appropriately creepy approach to mood-setting composition, playing with atonalities and slow, lumbering passages that help underscore the ideas present within the visual context of the film. By taking such a hands-on approach, he is able to perfectly capture the mood he intends to bring to the screen. It’s a brilliant approach and a wonder that few, if any, other directors have ventured to do the same.
Longtime Carpenter fans will of course find much to love here, with all his best-known themes accounted for. What would Halloween be without its overly simplistic yet tonally perfect piano theme and aggressive synths stabs, clearly meant to mirror the horror and violence about to transpire onscreen? Or Escape from New York, with its dystopian backdrop and appropriately futuristic, martial synths and incessantly driving beat underscoring Snake Plissken’s general bad-assery? It’s only fitting that these two are paired smack dab in the middle of the lineup, anchoring the recognizable with the more eclectic.
Some of these themes, however, are more nuanced, almost bordering on Windham Hill-style New Age and stylistic pastiche that nearly edges over into the parodic. “Santiago (Vampires)” sounds like Yanni on a particularly dark day, while the wandering blues of “They Live” sounds like it belongs in a Cinemax-after-dark softcore skin flick. Definitely not some of his best work, but there’s enough here to make up for any perceived shortcomings that can be chalked up to being a product of a very specific time and place in cinematic history. In all, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 is a fine summation of a unique talent, one who has managed to perfectly meld both sound and vision into a cohesive whole for decades.