JOHN CARPENTER London Troxy 31st October 2016
At 68, and 22 years since he made his last utterly great movie, in the bonkers “In The Mouth of Madness”, and John Carpenter is playing his first ever concert tour. This is perhaps a more fitting way to see a true artist in his domain ; certainly more dignified than when I saw Terry Gilliam have spaghetti poured on his head.
Carpenter is one of the most commercially unappreciated filmmakers there is ; if his films weren't mostly horror and Sci-fi, if they weren't often made on shoestring budgets, and if they weren't aware of a beautiful self-depreciating humour, Carpenter would be up there with Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. (To me, and some others, he is though). This is not to undersell his other skills. Carpenter is a musician, who – through necessity to start with – wrote the music that accompanied almost all of his films, giving his work a unique, otherworldly effect of electronic pulses in weird time signatures. His films didn't sound like other films. They didn't look like other films. They weren't like other films.
These days, Carpenter has made only a handful of films in the past twenty years, largely unable to gain the even meagre funding for small scale work and having to crush his talent into undeserving scripts. Like Romero, Carpenter has fallen victim, like many of us have, to the changing nature of consumption economy. In film, revenue streams have been sliced to the bone, money has once again moved to the middle men, the bureaucrats and the visionless cash slicers, who expect us to work for free, or 'exposure', unwilling to invest in something that lasts, only chasing the balance-sheet-profitable. Which explains why a cinematic dwarf like Zack Snyder gets $300,000,000 to make brain dead drivel like Spaceboy vs Orphan Billionaire Punchy Punchy, and Carpenter can't even get 3% of that to make anything at all. Films aren't cheap, but some of the most expensive films are the cheapest intellectually of them all.
Built on his side-career, tonight sees Carpenter play his first live show in the capital – incidentally the second live show he ever announced – and, given the accents around us, and the nature of the audience ; horror pilgrims from many countries, alongside a large number of themed Halloween costumes, are here. There's several They Live aliens. A note perfect Snake Plissken. A few Mike Myers. And at least two people dressed in white sheets.
Carpenter is accompanied by a five piece band, of a live rhythm section and guitarist (all borrowed from Tenacious D), lead guitarist and keyboard player, alongside his son Cody on all manner of trademark electronics. Carpenter himself is almost the 'Fletch' of the band, a band leader who sometimes barely plays much. Daniel Davis the guitar player, offers a squall of noise which accurately mimics the now-obselete and probably unreproducable old synth textures and sounds of some of the material.
And whilst I would say most of the sound comes from the backing band, and therefore... how much of this is John Carpenter... that's imitation... the band deserve credit for a note perfect re-creation. The drummer in particular takes the offkilter rhythms no human has ever played and replicates them to perfection. The only variation is the addition of a solid bass drum beat that adds a compelling rhythm to the material and pushes the atmosphere further. It is though, undeniably, a selection of largely atmospheric, minimal material, built on a handful of recurrent motifs, like a terrifying, electronic Ramones, that builds and escalates in dynamics to a generally compelling climax. The songs though are clearly designed around a set of recurrent musical imagery, as film soundtracks, layered in tension/release, with odd timings, somewhat experimental structures, and clearly not your conventional material. Were these not soundtracks, Carpenter would be hailed as a small selling, avant-garde experimental composer in revered tones.
Sound aside, the Carpenter experience is – as you would expect – very strong visually. For most of the set, the backdrop is a projection of key imagery from his films : taken out of context, he's selected the iconic moments and visuals, taking perhaps the approach of Every Frame A Painting. Some of these images are not just iconic, but also utterly bizarre. Some of them ; The Things "Crawling Head", Big Trouble In Little China's "Shadow Battle", The Fogs "Pirate Ghosts In A Church", for example, would sit as lone, classic images of terror, fantasy, and outlandish reality beyond the accepted world. What is strange is I used to watch these on VHS recorded from late night TV, and the theme of those movies, the nature of reality, identity, the fear of the bogeyman, the unusual and the questioning of the accepted convention of the 'real' is the kind of themes that, had Martin Scorcese's name been attached to the films, be viewed as peerless works of genius. Even allegedly lesser films such as the confounding In The Mouth of Madness are, in themselves, only lesser by recognition, not by vision. In this re-presentation, Carpenter as a painter of celluloid visions of the bizarre and unusual is heightened as the images aren't within a context but as visions that would be framed in a museum of the unsettling. Horror and suspense as a genre relies on the sense of … somehow not belonging... of the alien inside the familiar and the mundane, of a world where motives are obscure, and monsters hide the normal, inscrutable.
The other world – of wraiths, of spirits, of a consciousness and existence beyond that which we see with eyes and ears and feel with our flesh – is real. It has touched me. The imagery, and the stories within the films, are part of how I see the world. A world where the terrors that stalk the normal are sometimes incomprehensible in motive or method, and where the reason is not what it seems, or there is no reason at all. There was often no reason in his work, which is much like life itself. We give life the reasons we need even if they are absent.
It's a short show. Carpenter is on stage by 8.32, and it's finished 85 minutes later. We're queuing for toilets by 9.50. It feels slight. And, with an unchanging set being played in the same order something like 26 times in a row, it's also somewhat predictable. But at 68, this might be the once in a lifetime moment. Loving film is a sometimes solitary experience, rigid, controlled : tonight was more a celebration – of fear, of own fragility, of a community that existed in front of the screen. Of facing the manifest of terror, and taking back the joy as an act of defiance.
Also. Bloody Hell. John Carpenter is playing the theme from Escape From New York live in front of my own eyes and ears. Bloody hell. I never thought that would happen.
Escape From New York Theme
Assault On Precinct 13
They Live / Coming To LA
The Thing / Desolation
Big Trouble In Little China / Pork Chop Express
In The Mouth of Madness
Prince Of Darkness / Darkness Begins
Christine Attacks / The Plymouth Fury