A review of the John Carpenter show at the U.K’s Brighton Dome on October 20th
As I took my place with the crowd who had come to worship at the haunted chapel of John Carpenter I was aware of a shared sense of child-like excitement. A lady near me was giggling with anticipation. Most of us fitted into the same age bracket, perhaps best described as the young end of middle age, and it was pretty clear from the atmosphere that we were here tonight to reconnect with experiences from our childhoods, to relive moments of simple sensation as we gazed afresh at images that had long been seared into our memories and thrilled to the musical refrains that had come to define our spirit of horror.
The ten year old whose life was changed by Halloween back in 1982 was certainly awake in me as the stage was bathed in a blue wash for the entrance of the man in black with the magnificent electric white ponytail. As cheers erupted around me I had to stop myself calling out, ‘Is it the boogeyman?!’
Carpenter and his band kicked off the evening with a bang, firing the sonic bullets of his two action classics, Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13. The main synth phrase of the theme to that 40 year old masterpiece was of course played by Carpenter himself, punching the notes with a gleeful energy that refreshed and renewed the music. At the same time a montage of key brutal images from the film was projected on screens behind and around him in a crisp, vivid, high definition that forced us to look at them perhaps more clearly than we ever had done before. Assault may be a modern Western but it also has so much of Carpenter’s signature horror imagery; in particular I was struck by the similarities between the eerily creeping clouds of gunsmoke and the malevolent mists of later films.
Next up was the track that announced Carpenter’s new artistic direction a couple of years ago, Vortex from Lost Themes. The great thing about hearing the new albums in this context was that we projected images from our own imaginary films onto the screen behind the band as they played. This pounding piece, with its cracked, wailing guitar and delirious, woozy synth, took me to the mouth of madness, suggesting an angry, desperate struggle to cling on to sanity, powered by a drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in a Survivor song! Rocky versus the forces of darkness!
I emerged from the vortex to another Lost Theme, this time with deep pulses and a church organ gradually breaking into discord, a wall of guitar driven noise evoking the rising of some sort of demonic force. I imagined the fabric of our reality tearing and unholy things swirling among us! All of which was wonderfully apt because it served as a lead-in to The Fog!
This clever interplay of new pieces and film themes characterized the evening. The paranoia of They Live fed into the sense of panic conjured by Distant Dream from Lost Themes II. There is nothing very distant about this urgent, thrashing number, a screaming, suffering plea for escape from some unnameable horror.
As Carpenter introduced the theme to Big Trouble in Little China he told us that of all the films he had made with the great Kurt Russell this had been the most fun. The montage for this film spoke for the whole concert. With its fog-like smoke effects, light bursting from heads and hideously stretched, rubbery faces it was like a child’s fantasy version of Carpenter’s greatest hits. This was of course the point of the evening and Carpenter was now ready to move in for the kill, preparing us for the very greatest hit, the music we were all feverishly anticipating. He led in gracefully with two more Lost Themes, both expertly balancing thrilling darkness and sheer fun.
The first of these two themes, Wraith, conveyed a sense of neon-lit urban trance, a journey through a cold nocturnal world of steel and glass with sinister figures emerging from behind tinted windows, coming from all corners, approaching, pursuing…
The second theme, NIGHT, expressed real pain and terror. I imagined a girl, already wounded and bleeding, trying to evade a malevolent shape, a demonic figure in human form, silhouetted against mocking moonlight.
Now we were ready. Now he had us exactly where he wanted us. As we were still experiencing the pleasant shudders of Night Carpenter cried, ‘I LOVE horror! Horror movies will live forever!’ And then it came. That glorious mock piano pulse that has echoed throughout the chambers of my soul for years. The heart beat of the horror fan. The music of our passion. Halloween. I think it is fair to say we all attained a state of communal rapture as we felt that pulse in our veins, staring in a blissful trance at the gorgeous, iconic images in the montage. And God the film looked so fresh! There is something of the spirit of eternal youth in that film and sharing its music and images with its creator like this was a transcendent experience.
Carpenter’s horror movies will indeed live forever. This evening was a great testament to that, an evening in which we felt our youth restored, our passions renewed. The evening ended with two elegant statements on this theme. In the penultimate performance the lights on Carpenter dimmed for an elegiac, piano-led meditation. The only lit figure was Carpenter’s son, Cody. I wondered if this was a reflection on the idea of passing the artistic and spiritual baton. Perhaps so. But then Carpenter re-emerged in a ghostly beam that also picked out band member Daniel Davies just as his guitar began to emit a powerful, nerve-shattering, wonderful shriek. These ghouls will always be heard!
Carpenter’s final elegant statement began with the words, ‘Please drive carefully – Christine is out there!’ In every respect this was the concluding theme of the evening, the delicate notes of teenage love deepening and darkening into something heavier, more monstrous. On the screen Christine’s headlights stared out at us from a typical Carpenter mist while on stage that electric hair glowed through the dry ice. Thus the delicate notes of our own pre-teen love for the Master of Horror darkened into our final ecstatic cheer.
Tread carefully, kids. Carpenter is out there, in the mists of our distant dreams, keeping us young. Forever.