The Scoring Session - ARKTOBER EDITION - Halloween (1978)
The Scoring Session
Happy Halloween to all my movie score fans, in this special holiday bonus issue we’re going to shift gears to look at one of the simplest and most effective film scores in horror movie history. I’m of course talking about the brilliantly constructed synth score to John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”
John Carpenter often tells the story of how he screened an incomplete version of Halloween to an executive at Universal studios in an attempt to get hired for a job, and the producer on seeing the completed film told Carpenter that the film was in no way scary. The same studio exec watched the film after Carpenter had added the soundtrack, and praised it as terrifying. Part of that is down to the use of the music itself, and the other part to Carpenter’s usage of stinger effects to point out and heighten jump scares when they happen through the course of the film.
We spend a lot of time here at The Scoring Session talking about leitmotif and the way a score element can signify a change in the story or directly clue us in to a specific character – Carpenter’s score is not that kind of score by any stretch of the imagination. The score is a thematic score that uses musical tone to augment the action playing out at the time. Halloween as an overarching score is effectively just four tracks that repeat at various points throughout the film.
The most well known of these repeated tracks is the Halloween Main Theme, the hard driving horror movie ear worm that gets stuck in your head no matter how hard you try to get it out. This piece is elegant in its simplicity, derived from what is effectively taking a 4/4 rhythm measure and playing it on the piano while playing minor chord scales. The effect is a rhythmic piece that instantly starts to raise the audiences pulse, which in itself is a brilliant way to kick off any film – but it serves as a unique credit sequence that leaves the audience off balance as we get to the 1963 cold open of the film where the young Michael Myers will claim his first victim. This piece reoccurs when Michael stalks little Tommy Doyle, and several other times throughout the film.
“Halloween 1963” is the slow eerie piano chord that collapses ever downward as young Michael stalks his sister Judith throughout the doomed Myers house before putting his clown mask on and stabbing her in her bedroom. This piece reoccurs when Michael stalks the girls through the streets of Haddonfield, and again as Michael stalks Annie in and around the Wallace household
“Halloween 1978” is the off kilter piano motif that is often referred to as “Laurie’s theme” because it often ties to moments where Laurie is acting on her own initiative. As she is walking the streets of Haddonfield to deliver a key to the Myers house, or staring out the window at school seeing Michael across the street, or gathering up her keys to walk across the street to the Wallace house to check on poor doomed Annie, Linda and Bob.
“Last Assault” is the Michael Myers’ active chase music. Every other piece of music has been a subtle usage of the same chords and phrases that are part and parcel of the main Halloween theme, which has served to kind of give each kill in the film the sensation that Michael possesses the upper hand. “The Last Assault” chase is used only in connection with Michael attempting to kill Laurie, and it primes the audience for the idea that this one instance where The Shape is going after this girl is the important exchange in the film. This has the purpose of letting the audience know that Laurie is the one who might have a chance of escaping Michael. It also ratchets up the tension, creating a rising tension that does not release until Dr. Loomis finally arrives and shoots Michael, queuing up Michael’s fall from the balcony and his disappearance set to the final reprise of the Halloween theme as we revisit shots of all the places Michael has been over the course of the film set to the escalating breathing of the killer.
Leaving us to wonder, is he still out there? Is he stalking Laurie Strode to this day? Has he moved on to other babysitters? Is he maybe closer to us than we realize, like perhaps outside our door, lurking like some dark shape ready to prove once and for all that the Boogeyman is real?