Yesterday, we talked about how the lack of music shaped one of my favorite films. Today, I’d like to talk about what the perfect score did for another favorite.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is a simple film. It’s the story of a boy who stabs his sister on Halloween night, then comes back 15 years later to stab some more people. He wears a mask. His doctor may be just as crazy as he his. That’s it. That’s all you need. Simple, but effective.
But it wasn’t so effective in its first cut. In the liner notes to the 1983 soundtrack release, John Carpenter talks about showing the unscored film to an executive and being disheartened when she didn’t find it scary. He then became determined to “save it with music.”
I’d argue that the movie wasn’t as much “saved” with music as it was completed by the music. To say that the music makes Halloween would be to discount the fact that the movie has more than one shot that would not be out of place in a museum. Instead, it all works together as a complete package.
Most slasher films are filled with people you can’t wait to see killed. This is why the audience ends up identifying with the killer; it’s more fun. Halloween spends a long time setting up the characters before knocking them down. After the opening killing, the movie spends a lot of time showing a normal, almost boring day in the lives of three teenage girls, girls that for the most part avoid becoming caricatures (I suppose if you want to nitpick, Lynda is debatable. Just know that you’re wrong). Sure, it’s Halloween and some guy is being creepy, but there’s little to indicate that 2/3rds of them will end up dead by the end of the night.
The music is what turns these scenes from “Oh, someone’s just having some Halloween fun” to “Yeah, he’s going to kill everyone.” The movie knows that we know what happens at the end, so it doesn’t spend a lot of time pretending that people aren’t going to die. You know what’s coming, you just don’t know when it’s going to start. That tension–the dissonance between the sedate imagery and the nervous energy of the score–is what makes the movie (this tension could very well be the by product of the fact that John Carpenter wasn’t able to see the film while he was scoring it. No matter the source, it works wonderfully).
When everything goes to shit, it does so in spectacular fashion. Michael Myers remains just this side of supernatural, the thing you always worry is waiting in the darkness. His presence jumps from ethereal to savage (as in the closet scene), but the score grounds this transition by playing off of the victim’s (and audience’s) response to him. Michael Myers makes very deliberate, emotionless moves, which the score sometimes underlines (such as in the scene where he kills Annie), but it’s more often used to add a musical quality to the sound of a racing heart. It’s hard to imagine Michael thinking of a 5/4 piano lick while stalking the streets of Haddonfield. But that theme—along with the rest of the score—helps us to suspend our disbelief by using dissonance (“Laurie’s Theme”) and rhythm (the artificial heartbeat of “The Shape Stalks”) to hit us on a visceral level.
It’s easy to mistake the iconography of the score for simplicity (Pauline Kael doesn’t seemed impressed in her review). Of course, these days we have the benefit of knowing that back before your ring tone could be whatever you wanted it to be, the Halloween theme was the go-to ringtone for people who were sick of that goddamn Nokia tune. At the time of release, no one could have known that there would be a day when millions of tinny speakers would beep out that piano riff. And it still works, muffled in your pocket, rattling around with three quarters and a stick of gum. Not because it’s simple, but because it’s iconic; making it both memorable and just as recognizable in sketch form as it is in full detail.
The score for Halloween, like the story for Halloween, consists of exactly as much as it needs to. A full orchestra would be as detrimental to the film as a full backstory would be. It’s no surprise that John Carpenter took inspiration from Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score; both films are able to do more with less. They don’t want you to think about what’s happening; they want you to feel it. But it also never feels like manipulation. The score for Halloween is just as blank as the killer’s mask, giving you just enough form while still allowing you to project on it. That’s what makes it scary; you’re part of it.
End note: Here’s a guitar based Halloween medley I made a couple of years ago. If you just want to skip straight to the main theme, it shows up at the 4:55 mark.