Category Archives: Alan Howarth

Rocks In The Attic #746: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Prince Of Darkness (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#746It’s a sad state of affairs when a horror film provokes not terror, but boredom. The first hour of this film easily qualifies as the worst of John Carpenter’s work up to that point. The audience is just as confused as the students in the film, as they try to understand who the central protagonist is (answer: there isn’t one), and why they’re setting up equipment in a creepy old church (answer: nobody knows, not even Carpenter).

Sandwiched between the director’s mainstream hit (Big Trouble In Little China) and his – in retrospect – return to form (They Live), Prince Of Darkness is an odd film. It’s clear that Carpenter is trying to revisit themes that have worked for him before – a band of individuals in a locked-off location (Assault On Precinct 13) slowly get picked off one by one (The Thing) – but this time, it just doesn’t work.

I admit that things do start to pick up in the second half of the film with some rip-roaring special effects, as the students are finally confronted by their possessed classmates (essentially zombies without the makeup), but by that point any emotional investment in the characters has dried out. Even a cameo appearance by the Godfather of Shock Rock, Alice Cooper, can’t make it right.

As always, the score by Carpenter himself, working alongside his now-regular collaborator Alan Howarth, is the film’s saving grace. A slow-burning synth workout.

Hit: Opening Titles

Hidden Gem: Hell Breaks Loose

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Rocks In The Attic #711: Alan Howarth – ‘Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (O.S.T.)’ (1988)

11183_JKTOne thing I’ve learnt from my discussions with fans of horror movies and horror soundtracks is that the majority of them have poor, poor taste in films. They might have jobs and families, but it’s like they have the mental age of a 7-year old when it comes to films.

The first Halloween is a stone-cold classic. It’s more than a little responsible for the popularity of the slasher genre of horror films. It was made a shoestring budget, and became one of the most profitable films of all time.

Halloween II gets by mainly because of the same cast, the involvement of John Carpenter (now in the producer’s chair), and its continuity (it takes place immediately after the events of the first film).

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is the outlier – a brilliant side-step away from the threat of murderous kid brother Michael Myers, into something far more terrifying. But there’s no accounting for taste, and its poor box-office performance almost killed the franchise.

John Carpenter walks away, and in steps Syrian-American film producer Moustapha Akkad, attempting to resurrect the series by returning Michael Myers to Haddonfield, Illinois.

Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers should have been subtitled The Disappearance Of The Roman Numerals. It is a bad film. The story is bad. The script is bad. The performances are bad – not least the dreadfully hammy acting by Donald Pleasance. The action sequences are bad. Everything is bad.

Probably the most unforgivable aspect of the whole film is the production design. Where Michael Myers once looked terrifying, he now looks comical. His white mask has changed since the earlier films. He now looks like a confused Asian businessman standing at a hotel buffet cart.

The only saving grace is the synth-laden soundtrack, by Carpenter’s musical collaborator, Alan Howarth. The Halloween theme, with its fantastically odd-time signature, makes a welcome return, and feels like the most Carpenterish element of the whole film.

Moustapha Akkad was killed along with his daughter in 2005, by a Al-Qaeda bomb in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Amman, Jordan. The Rob Zombie directed 2007 remake of Halloween was dedicated to his memory.

Hit: Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers

Hidden Gem: Halloween 4 Reprise

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Rocks In The Attic #707: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Big Trouble In Little China (O.S.T.)’ (1986)

RITA#707.jpgAcross the space of four years in the late ‘70s / early ‘80s, John Carpenter directed three of the strongest genre films ever to hit cinema screens. The mainstream success of low-budget horror Halloween (1978) awarded him with bigger budgets, which he used to depict dystopian cityscapes in Escape From New York (1981) and sci-fi paranoia in The Thing (1982). Over the same period he also directed 1980’s The Fog and produced the first two Halloween sequels. This was very much Carpenter’s golden period.

Success always attracts attention, and Carpenter was courted by the major studios. As a result, his films of the mid-1980s – Christine (1983), Starman (1984) and Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – all feel like they’re missing something. All of the ingredients are there, but the end results just aren’t as satisfying as his earlier work.

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I’ve written about Christine before, and I’ve always been a big fan of Starman (despite it feeling like the least Carpenteresque of Carpenter’s films). But the real disappointment was Big Touble In Little China. After its commercial failure, Carpenter continually struggled to get films financed, and the rest of his work is patchy. Only 1988’s They Live could be considered as strong as his breakthrough successes.

Big Trouble In Little China should be great. It has a tried and tested Carpenter leading man in Kurt Russell, awesome optical effects, and a terrifically grimy underworld feel. But the plotting is loose, the script is poor, and the performances of the principal actors leave a lot to be desired. Only the soundtrack music – always one of the stronger elements of Carpenter’s work – is up to standard, even if it’s nowhere near his best.

RITA#707cI first saw the film far too young (which is becoming a common theme of this blog). I can vividly recall the first showdown in the alley between Kurt Russell’s character and the Three Storms. This was scary enough, but the appearance of James Hong’s villain – and particularly the light emitted from his mouth and eyes – proved too much and the film was swiftly turned off.

In retrospect, it’s the best part of the film, and one of the great cinematic showdowns of the 1980s. It’s just a shame the rest of the film couldn’t live up to its promise.

Hit: Pork Chop Express (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: Tenement / White Tiger

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Rocks In The Attic #639: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Christine’ (1983)

RITA#639Christine wins the award for the worst John Carpenter film with the best John Carpenter score. Well, it’s not a bad film – it just isn’t anything special, especially when it follows the John Carpenter high-water mark of Escape From New York and The Thing.

Perhaps it’s the source material – choosing to adapt a slice of Stephen King Americana, rather than focusing on an original screenplay. King adaptations can be a hard thing to get right – he’s the master at writing characters, which doesn’t always translate very well to the screen. The old saying goes that a picture paints a thousand words; this doesn’t apply when the words are coming from Stephen King’s typewriter.

The film is a little confused as to who the lead protagonist is. First we start with the varsity jacket-wearing jock, Dennis (John Stockwell) who is – inexplicably – best friends with Arnie (Keith Gordon, typecast as the same hopeless character as he portrayed in 1978’s Jaws 2). The two, despite Dennis’ jock status, are relentlessly bullied by the tough kids at school – a bunch of reprobates (including the naive gum-chewing subject of Venkman’s ESP test in 1984’s Ghostbusters) led by Buddy (William Ostrander), who appears to have been kept back at school for about 25 years, and looks like he’s just escaped from the local prison.

RITA#639aOnce Arnie buys a beat-up old car, the titular Christine, we then experience the film through his eyes, as he uses Christine’s unexplained magical powers to hunt down and seek revenge on his tormentors. The film then abandons Arnie – positioning him as the antagonist, under the influence of his car – and switches back to the viewpoint of Dennis, who defeats Christine and saves the film’s only lead female (this film does not pass the Bechdel test), Leigh (Alexandra Paul, who would later play the virgin Connie Swails in 1987’s Dragnet, before finding fame on TV’s Baywatch), from the murderous car.

Where Escape From New York and The Thing were high on concept, but followed through spectacularly on their respective promises, Christine stalls as soon as the key is turned. Its saving grace, of course, is the soundtrack; a slow-burning synth score by Carpenter and his composing partner Alan Howarth.

Hit: The Rape

Hidden Gem: Moochie’s Death

Rocks In The Attic #416: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

RITA#416John Carpenter films are everything an adolescent boy needs growing up. I can’t remember which of his films I saw first – probably Big Trouble In Little China, as it seemed to reach a more mainstream audience when it was released – but Escape From New York will always be my favourite.

It was always a goal to see the film when I was growing up, right from when I first knew the film existed. I have a clear memory of seeing the front cover of the video that somebody had rented – the great image of Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance and Adrienne Barbeau running away from a horde of nasties, down a dark New York City street dwarfed by the decapitated head of the Statue Of Liberty. I don’t know who rented it – maybe my parents, maybe a neighbour – but I remember being told that ‘it wasn’t for me’. I must have been really young – maybe four or five when it was released on VHS in the UK. It’s funny when you’re not allowed something; it just makes you want it more. The Statue Of Liberty image must have stuck in my head because as soon as I could, I sought it out.

The set-up is brilliant:

In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.

Add to that the marvellous minimalistic score by John Carpenter – possibly my favourite film score of all time – and you have the perfect launching-off point for a science-fiction film. The ingredients are perfect: a Han Solo-esque lead character, an anti-hero in a future without heroes; a futuristic setting in a well-known location; and a premise – the rescue of the President of the United States of America, and a McGuffin involving plans for a powerful new weapon – that the whole world can invest in.

Over time, it’s become even more endearing. The film is set in 1997 – now eighteen years in the past. What was once so futuristic – the last dying years of the twentieth century – now seem so lodged in the past. Yet the film still makes sense. It’s still within the realms of possibility that crime in the America would get to such an irreversible point that the authorities would wash their hands of it and create a super-prison. I’ve often thought about the chances of the New Zealand government sending the inmates of our overflowing prisons to the barren wastes of Stewart Island – who hasn’t? Although the cynical twenty-first century motivation behind this would probably be the government wanting to turn the resulting empty prisons into luxury apartment blocks.

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre even make an appearance in Escape From New York, being the landing point for Snake’s entrance into New York – another facet of the film that firmly places it in the past. Even the music could now be considered out of date. In 1981, it would have sounded futuristic – sequenced computer music to appeal to the video-game generation. Today, it still sounds like the future, just a version of the future that’s now locked in the past.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: The Bank Robbery

Rocks In The Attic #373: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘They Live (O.S.T.)’ (1988)

RITA#373This night not be my favourite John Carpenter soundtrack, but it’s definitely one of my favourite John Carpenter films. It’s the antithesis of all those happy-go-lucky, optimistic ‘80s films – where the subtext was that in America, everything was yours for the taking. In They Live, we find that America belongs to somebody else and the sleeping majority are majorly asleep.

I probably first saw the film in 1990. I had been rapidly consuming American films around that time, and I had already started watching John Carpenter’s back catalogue – pretty much starting at the beginning with Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13, and moving on through Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York.

In April of1990, on the advice of a school friend, I watched the live broadcast of Wrestlmania VI. I was in the right place at the right time – my family had just got Sky TV, and the flashy, new WWF wrestling was one of its big draws. My favourite wrestler, ever since I saw him pitched against Bad News Brown at Wrestlemania was Rowdy Roddy Piper. He didn’t seem as fake as all the others and he seemed genuinely pleased to use humour to defeat his opponents.

So when the next John Carpenter film on my list came along, and I found out that Roddy Piper was the star, it just seemed like a great combination – films and WWF, it couldn’t get any better. I didn’t have any reservations that Piper couldn’t act – because, well, they’re all actors at the end of the day aren’t they? – I just accepted him as Nada, the loner hero of the film. I’d seen a film – No Holds Barred, starring Hulk Hogan – around the same time, and while that film wasn’t anything to write home about, They Live had the mark of a great director.

It’s probably one of my favourite films of the 1980s. There are many popular classics of that decade – The Blues Brothers, E.T., Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future – but They Live wins points because it flew under the radar. To this day, I still meet people well versed in half a dozen of the more well known Carpenter films, but who have never seen They Live.

I have to get me some more of these fantastic John Carpenter soundtrack reissues. This particular one is a lovely transparent vinyl.

Hit: Coming To L.A.

Hidden Gem: Wake Up