John Carpenter is no stranger to Toronto. In recent years, he graced the city for TIFF to present his 2010 film The Ward, and two years later greeted horror fans at Fan Expo. But for this occasion, the acclaimed filmmaker came as a musician, to present the theme music he's composed over the years for his wildly imaginative cinematic portfolio.
Following the rise of the horror score/soundtrack that emerged thanks to reissue labels like Death Waltz, Mondo and Waxwork, Carpenter has experienced a surprising late-career resurgence. His music from films such as Escape from New York, Prince of Darkness, They Live and, of course, Halloween (in part made with former collaborator Alan Howarth) has become a hot commodity with both vinyl and horror enthusiasts. This newfound trend then inspired Carpenter to re-evaluate his work as a musician to the point of recording new music, which he released as the Lost Themes series.
Touring in support of his most recent album, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, which collects 13 of his most recognizable themes re-recorded with his band, the ever-so-punctual Carpenter walked onstage to an emphatic hero's welcome, as the beyond sold-out (seriously, I've never seen the Danforth so packed) crowd applauded with reverence. Accompanied by his band, which includes son Cody, he was front and centre on his synthesizer, lapping it all up by pointing and smiling at fans.
With Carpenter's music came a real treat: a selection of visual montages from the movies played on a screen behind him. And so as soon as the main title theme from Escape from New York appeared, so did Kurt Russell's iconic Snake Plissken, to huge cheers. This was followed by the theme from Assault on Precinct 13, before the man himself announced, "We're gonna play some songs from my movies tonight." Then came the lesser-known "March of the Children" from his 1995 Village of the Damned remake, along with the main title theme from The Fog.
Carpenter also took this opportunity to plug Lost Themes, slipping a handful of cuts from the two albums, beginning with single "Vortex," into the mix. It was a chance for him and his band to stand out sans movie clips, aided instead by flashing lights to help accentuate the drama. And in this moment, it became apparent that John Carpenter and his band are, secretly, a well-rehearsed, tight prog rock band.
When they got back into the theme music, they donned sunglasses and launched into "Coming to L.A." from They Live (sadly without any bubblegum chewing). Then, for a brief respite they went soft and covered the cosmic synth odyssey "Starman Leaves" from 1984's Starman, which Carpenter acknowledged was his only love song, written by the "late, great" Jack Nitzsche. Another cover came in the form of Ennio Morricone's minimal "Desolation," the title theme for The Thing, which was subsequently bolstered by Big Trouble in Little China's '80s rock bonanza, "Porkchop Express."
The biggest response from the crowd came when Carpenter teased, "It feels like love is in the air. I believe that love will last forever." Just then, a young, distraught Michael Myers in a clown suit appeared onscreen, accompanied by that famous 5/4 piano riff, and it became Halloween all over again. Carpenter ended the set with the theme from his cult favourite, In the Mouth of Madness.
When the band returned, they dug deeper into Carpenter's catalogue and pulled out a tune not from the new album, but from his obscure 1993 TV movie, the Mark Hamill-starring Body Bags. He followed that up with another little-known theme, "Santiago," from the under-appreciated Vampires. Then he upped the creep factor with "Darkness Begins," the chilling theme from Prince of Darkness.
When the night came to an end, Carpenter bid his fans farewell by saying, "We had a great time up here, but we have one thing to leave you with. Please drive carefully because Christine is out there," which segued into "Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)."
John Carpenter and his band took the concert experience to the next level with this audio-visual style of performance. This was a night for all kinds of fans, from horror nerds and film score buffs, to aspiring synth wizards and prog rock lifers. And if you ask any of them, seeing the legendary filmmaker in this capacity far surpassed a quick handshake and autograph at any convention.