John Carpenter is just awesome. Even when his movies stunk, he usually wrote a score that was the creepiest imaginable. HALLOWEEN III is a great example of an icily scary score buried by a movie that is only enjoyed on an ironic level. DARK STAR is kind of hard to listen to, I admit. It’s got some great synth work, but it seems like it’s pulled straight off the film transfer (dialogue and all), or the master really had all that stuff and it was all folded together. It’s still pretty amazing for a student film from 1973. CHRISTINE is also a great score that seems pretty underrated, I never see it mentioned alongside the others.
When you’re in a record shop looking through the soundtracks section, you might see two different versions of a movie’s score. One will be a SUPER DELUXE EXTENDED ANNIVERSARY EDITION with two discs. The other is basic looking, has a fairly standard tracklisting that looks like it’s under forty minutes or so, put out in the early to mid 1980s by a company called VARÉSE SARABANDE. The Super Extended Mega version might even be cheaper, as the VS versions are mostly out of print. Grab the older version and don’t look back.
I am finding that Varèse Sarabande always does a bangup job with a film score, and get it right the first time. Avoid 20th, 30th whatever-th anniversary editions of scores, it usually means they’re bogged down with a ton of unnecessary bonus material. Not every little nugget of sound John Carpenter or Wendy Carlos left on the cutting room floor was meant to be picked up again. 75% of these leftovers end up being shorter, cue-length repetitions on the score’s main themes, or bits of dialogue inserted between tracks, which I guess is their idea of an “immersive experience”. Sorry dudes, I saw ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK already, just give me John Carpenter’s synth work from the movie. I don’t need to hear Harry Dean Stanton talking to Kurt Russell.
Another reason Varèse Sarabande got these scores right the first time? They’re all under 45 minutes. Basically the length of a vinyl LP, because that’s the master they were transferring. Forty-five minutes is just about the maximum amount of time my brain really wants to be immersed in a single film’s atmosphere, don’t you agree?
Last: the mastering. Comparing the mastering jobs between the original Varèse Sarabande rips and the remastering on those Super Extended Anniversary Editions, I find that the newer versions are JACKED UP and SHRILL. I’m imagining some cheapo AV company just brickwalling these haphazardly in between novelty records that end up on the Dr. Demento Show. Carpenter made some chilling soundtracks out of some WARM OLD SYNTHS. Cranking everything up in these masters makes it sound like you’re running an ARP 2600 through cheap distortion pedal. Actually that sounds fun to do, but I probably wouldn’t want to listen to somebody else do it.
I’d like to point out that Alan Howarth gets swept under the rug often, Carpenter’s scores became more lush, almost gothic, when Howarth stepped onboard. Check out HALLOWEEN II, which is often overshadowed by the first. I included a “suite” version of the score to II from another version because I did like its sequencing.