He may have only made one movie in the past fifteen years, yet John Carpenter feels as relevant today as he did during his run of unseen prolificacy in the late 70s and through into the 80s. Netflix’s Stranger Things has undoubtedly been one of the cultural landmarks of 2016, and while it mined Spielberg and Amblin for its American suburbia setting and sense of wonder, when it needed to veer into the darkness, to the Upside Down, to confront the Demogorgon, it was pure Carpenter.
Whether self-anointed or not, the Horror Master is almost a reductive moniker for Carpenter. He’s been an iconoclast since his debut Dark Star, as much a mainstay of action and science fiction as the slashers he’s regularly associated with. He’s skipped out on directing, his last outing, The Ward, a rather wretched affair released back in 2010. In the past few years, he’s returned to meddling with his trusty Korg Triton, and released a duo of albums, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, to critical fanfare. And while he’s claimed that movie making is a young man’s game these days, he clearly doesn’t see touring the world and playing shows every night as such.
Flanked by his son on synths and godson on guitar, Carpenter shuffles onto the Vicar Street stage to the triumphant punch of Escape From New York’s main theme, backdropped by the sight of battle-hardened Snake Plissken. He’s clearly having fun, moving about stage in an awkward dad-dancing motion and continuously waving to a crowd as predominantly male and bearded as the research station workers in The Thing. Carpenter doesn’t say too much — he’s admittedly not a performer in the true sense – but still gees up the crowd, telling stories about looking for a girl with green eyes and getting into Big Trouble with Kurt Russell. Cuts from Lost Themes are introduced with the same guttural pleasure that Paul Heyman uses when promoting Brock Lesnar. Those tracks, particularly ‘Mystery’ with its haunting Goblin-esque chimes and the pulsing synths of ‘Vortex’, stand strong alongside his soundtrack work.
It’s those tracks that garner the largest response from the crowd, like the garish grooves of ‘Pork Chop Express’ and chilling incantations of ‘Darkness Begins’ from Prince of Darkness. When he states that, “I direct horror movies, I love horror movies, and horror movies will live forever,” that haunting Halloween piano is just as chilling as the first time you heard it. He allows himself a cover, the temperature dropping as he goes through the creeping menace of Ennio Morricone’s ‘Desolation’ from The Thing, paranoia hovering with every heartbeat thrum.
His band are rock solid, particularly guitarist Daniel Davies, who relishes in the Bayou swamp rock of ‘Going to L.A.’ from They Live. After its opening riff, Carpenter and cohorts don sunglasses like Roddy Piper’s Nada, a wonderfully kitsch and goofy move that invites the crowd to OBEY and CONSUME, which they do with glee.
An encore of ‘Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)’ sends the crowd out the door in a tailspin, a sudden, maddening urge to rewatch classics from his canon taking hold. Carpenter is a sorely missed figure in cinema, and it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for him. At 68, there’s still plenty of time to reconsider his semi-retirement. For the rest of us, why don’t we just wait here a little while, see what happens.