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Event Review: John Carpenter – Live Retrospective

“I’m a director of horror movies.
I love horror movies.
Horror movies will live forever.” 

 

After thirty years, John Carpenter is finally getting his due. And he’s having fun again.

For those who have followed the trials and tribulations of the cult director, everyone knows that he’s a man who has consistently proven to be ahead of the times. One of his most celebrated films, Halloween, was met with critical dismissal and audience disinterest upon its initial release, but which saw a total reversal on both of those fronts over the coming months. It was “the little indie film that could,” as the dearly departed co-producer/co-writer Debra Hill once put it, and it would go on to become one of the most respected horror films of all time and spawn a franchise comprising ten films, with an eleventh on its way. A similar fate would befall The Thing, perhaps the director’s most respected film, which would not only have its own reversal in the minds of critics and hearts of audiences, but nearly derail Carpenter’s career, putting him on a different path of safer studio fare (Christine, Starman) to show audiences he was capable of telling less icky, mean-spirited stories.

john carpenter lifeBut the 2010s have shown that Carpenter’s impact hasn’t just been on audiences, for whom he’s provided decades of nightmares, but on a legion of filmmakers who have grown up under his tutelage. Adam Wingard with The Guest. Jim Mickle with Cold in July. Jeff Nichols with Midnight Special. David Robert Mitchell with It Follows. And this list is endless, as new films are announced all the time that cite Carpenter as the sole inspiration. None of these filmmakers hide their love and respect for a man who, for much of his career, received too little of both. The current iteration of Hollywood, which so far has remade four of Carpenter’s best efforts, with more on the way, and where Halloween and Vampires have been sequelled into mediocrity, is the same land where Carpenter can’t find funding for his own projects. To film fans, that can be especially aggravating. But as he’s so far proven during his John Carpenter: Live Retrospective tour, he has gotten the last laugh, night after night. Because try as producers might to keep re-purposing Carpenter films through remakes or sequels in a blind effort to achieve mastery through affiliation, they will never even begin to touch the majesty of seeing him perform his most famous themes as part of a six-piece band (which includes his son Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies, John Konesky, Scott Seiver, and John Spiker).

CarpenterLive

Saturday, July 9, at the Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA. Image from the Official John Carpenter Facebook.

Much like Carpenter’s filmmaking style, musical style, and much like the man himself, John Carpenter: Live Retrospective featured zero bullshit. There was no opening act, and no intermission. There were no pyrotechnics, no surprise guests, no gimmicks. The presentation was simplistic, to the point, and somewhat dorky (said in the lovingest way possible). During performances of his film themes, a large screen behind the band played a muted montage of the appropriate title. And for cuts from his two Lost Themes albums, that screen either displayed abstract light shows, or nothing at all. During The Fog, the stage filled with…you guessed it…fog. For They Live, the band paused after the song’s intro to slip on some Ray-Bans. During Big Trouble in Little China, which Carpenter introduced as being a search for “the girl with green eyes,” the lights illuminated solid green. And for every single one of these tracks, film themes or otherwise, Carpenter was chewing gum and dancing adorably behind his keyboard. He was beckoning to the crowd for rhythmic hand claps, the hand horns, and during Big Trouble in Little China‘s “Porkchop Express,” the hand gesture shown off by several of its characters, known as the “Buddha finger.” And the crowd, who waited with bated breath for the most recognizable horror theme of all time, lost their minds as the band launched into the main titles for Halloween, which they followed up with In the Mouth of Madness, likely the closest thing to rock ‘n roll the director has ever scored. Even cuts from the surprise album Lost Themes II, which is quite different from its predecessor, demanded new evaluation when presented so intimately and enthusiastically by its musical personnel. “Distant Dream” alone proved this.

In a night filled with surprises, the band chose to end the show with an unexpected choice: a track from Christine, a less celebrated title with a less celebrated soundtrack. But as the band performed, you could see why: because they enjoy the hell out of themselves as they play it–more than any other song in their set list.

Some film tracks, such as The Fog, are as you remember them. But so many others, now with the use of a full band, sound electrifying new. Never have the main titles from Escape From New York, confined so long to merely synthesizer, sounded so full and tremendous and utterly bad-ass. And with scenes from the film playing out on screen featuring Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain and Donald Pleasence’s President of the United States, the crowd was reminded that they don’t just love Carpenter’s films, and they don’t just love his music, but they love his music because of his films, and they love his films because of his music.

Seeing John Carpenter embark on a tour during which he honors his own legacy–one so often disregarded unless it’s being exploited–offered another stark reminder: in this world of endless sequels, remakes, and loving cinema homages, there will only ever be one John Carpenter. Don’t miss your chance to see John Carpenter: Live Retrospective for yourself.

Future tour dates and venues can be found here.

Set List

Escape From New York (Main Title)
Assault on Precinct 13 (Main Title)
Vortex (from Lost Themes)
Mystery (from Lost Themes)
The Fog (Main Title)
They Live (Coming To L.A.)
The Thing (Main Theme – Desolation) (Ennio Morricone cover)
Distant Dream (from Lost Themes II)
Big Trouble in Little China (Pork Chop Express)
Wraith (from Lost Themes II)
Night (Daniel Davies solo; from Lost Themes)
Halloween (Main Title)
In the Mouth of Madness (Main Title)
Encore:
Prince of Darkness (Darkness Begins)
Virtual Survivor (from Lost Themes II)
Purgatory (from Lost Themes)
Christine: Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)

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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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