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How John Carpenter’s Lost Themes Warrant Nine Films

Producer's Chair

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producerschair 3 How John Carpenters Lost Themes Warrant Nine FilmsWelcome to Producer’s Chair, a new mini-column in which Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman offers his own career advice to artists and various figures in the film and music industry. In this installment, Senior Staff Writer Dan Caffrey has assembled a crew of writers to conceptualize John Carpenter’s debut album, Lost Themes, into nine films from the veteran director.

When I heard that John Carpenter’s first studio album was called Lost Themes, I of course assumed it was made up of older film scores that got scrapped for one reason or another. But the director/composer soon revealed the record is meant to “score the movies in your head.” In light of that quote, we couldn’t resist plotting out the images, stories, and actors that come to our minds when listening to Lost Themes.

Nine of CoS’ finest took one song apiece and built an imaginary movie around it, including a release year (many of these are decidedly retro), plot synopsis, casting breakdown, and key musical moment, where they describe how a specific section of the song gets used in a memorable scene. Keep in mind that these are made-up Carpenter films, so expect lots of atmosphere, lots of genre-bending, and lots of monsters. And who knows? Maybe you’ll one day see some of these at a theater near you.

–Dan Caffrey
Senior Staff Writer

1. “Vortex”

Year Released: 1977

Plot: A young model arrives in Los Angeles with a mysterious background. He doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t have a home. He doesn’t know anyone. But he has an agenda: At dawn, he hustles from shoot to shoot, and by night, he haunts club after club, starving for flesh and blood. His prey? Whoever he can charm and whenever he can have them. And they say models never eat.

Cast: Dennis Quaid plays the nameless beauty, aka The Model; Austin Stoker chews up the scenery as the head of a modeling center (a role inspired by John Casablancas); Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, and Laurie Zimmer are all models-turned-victims; and a vicious Peter Cushing pursues the macabre action as the intuitive Detective Gray.

Key Musical Moment: “Vortex” plays over the film’s opening credits, which cross-cuts between The Model driving his 1964 Ford Thunderbolt through Los Angeles’ bright city streets and a collection of shiny modeling B-roll. There are a number of close shots, from tail lights to flickering eyes, spinning wheels to pursed lips, but they slowly drift away in lieu of more wide-angle flare. By the end of the sequence, we’re sitting alone with The Model in his car as he watches people drift in and out of clubs. Then, it quickly cuts to his first morning gig.

–Michael Roffman

2. “Obsidian”

Year Released: 2016

Plot: Drawing inspiration from ’90s disaster movies (Dante’s Peak, Volcano) and late-aught monster flicks (Cloverfield, The Host) alike, “Obsidian” centers on a despot who rises to power in Indonesia and begins constructing a powerful, new seismic bomb. However, the test explosions create an earthquake that disturbs Mount Merapi, an active volcano on the island of Java.

Even worse, a superstitious village elder warns government officials of a mythological demon rumored to reside deep within the molten lava. When the volcano finally erupts, a young, local geologist and his American colleague rush to evacuate the towns and cities in the path of destruction, only to discover that the old man was right — a terrifying monster has emerged amid the volcanic ash and lava, hellbent on destroying humanity.

Cast: After shining as The Raid 2’s ruthless mob boss, Tio Pakusadewo plays the maniacal despot Sutaryo. Fellow Raid alum Yayan Ruhian (who mastered the look of unkempt killing machines in both of Gareth Evans’ films) portrays the village elder Waskita. Yoshi Sudarso, who’s acted as a stunt double in The Maze Runner and stars in the latest reboot of the Power Rangers franchise, gets his first lead role as geologist Irwan alongside Rooney Mara, his American colleague Karen.

Key Musical Moment: “During the dreamlike opening moments of “Obsidian”, Irwan and Karen wake up in a daze after being knocked unconscious by the monster. Despite sustaining minor injuries, the two make their way to a helicopter to follow the beast because they have discovered how to defeat it. From the air, the scientists see that the creature has cut a wide swath of destruction through the countryside, with the pulsing drums and adventurous keys soundtracking their hasty pursuit.

In the slow, piano-driven lull in the middle of the track, the pair reaches the end of the trail: the Jakarta. Irwan and Karen cautiously land and walk through the deserted capital city, which has been largely reduced to rubble and smoldering ash. The duo finally spots the monster about to crush the president’s home of Merdeka Palace. Irwan holds Karen back and lets the beast go. When the track intensifies again, the creature wreaks havoc on the estate and kills Sutaryo.

The monster reemerges outside and roars, and Irwan pierces the creature with a spear cooled to a temperature near absolute zero. Lava spills out from the wound as the beast solidifies into obsidian. The screen fades to black, and the credits roll as the song picks up at the end.

–Killian Young

3. “Fallen”

Year Released: 1994

Plot: In rural Illinois, Farmer Vern Bledsoe and his two children go to check on their elderly neighbor, McClintock, a man known for his eccentricities and raising exotic animals. They haven’t heard from him in weeks, and when they find him in his animal stables, their worst fears come true. McClintock lies there, bleeding on the ground with his entire menagerie around him, eviscerated. He uses his last breaths to utter three words: “It…got…out.” A shrill caw echoes in the distance, and the Bledsoe family soon discovers just what “it” is: a giant vulture that chases them into the surrounding woods. Will they defeat the fell beast and make it home safely? Or will they become nothing more than carrion? 

Cast: Ray Wise has always excelled at playing tough yet understanding roughnecks, even venturing into a rural setting at one point (see Jeepers Creepers 2). And in their post Jurassic Park fame, who better to play his kids than Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards? Rounding things out, Roberts Blossom portrays McClintock, a role similar to his part in John Carpenter’s Christine, only much less perverted.

Key Musical Moment: In Carpenter’s signature slow-burn fashion, we’d see many hints of the vulture before we actually see the vulture itself — slaughtered giraffes and ostriches, the stable where McClintock kept it shackled, enormous feathers scattered across the grounds, etc. Then, as the Bledsoes are venturing away from the farm to alert the authorities, we see a dark shape ascend from the treeline behind them. There’s no music at first, but as it gets closer and the flaps of its wings become deafening, “Fallen” kicks in at the 2:36 mark when the tempo increases and the synths start screeching, much like a bird of prey. The song plays through the end until the vulture has chased the family into the pines. Only when they find shelter in a hemlock tree does it let up.

–Dan Caffrey

4. “Domain”

Year Released: 1990

Plot:  Marshall and Betty have inherited an old, shutdown Nova Scotia lighthouse from Marshall’s grandfather. The married couple are tired of the L.A. scene and decide to spend a summer vacation in the Canadian province with their two children. Shortly after arriving, their young daughter begins exhibiting abnormal behavior, bordering on psychopathic. The truth lies within the suddenly active light in the lighthouse. And just who is it that truly owns the lighthouse? Who truly owns … the domain?

Cast: Jameson Parker (Prince of Darkness, TV’s Simon & Simon) as Marshall, Crystal Bernard (TV’s Wings) as Betty, Ivyann Schwan (Problem Child 2) as the possessed Mathilda, and Keith David as Benny, the former lighthouse keeper.

Key Musical Moment: The film’s climax, featuring the distraught parents overcoming every obstacle standing in their way (NO SPOILERS) to save their daughter, who has been trapped atop the lighthouse by (NO SPOILERS). The relentless score, which begins as the climax mounts, continues straight through into the credits as a nod to fellow horror maestro Dario Argento (see the finales of Suspiria and Tenebre). Who cares! Domain sucks!

–Justin Gerber

5. “Mystery”

Year Released: 1985

Plot: A young archeologist becomes comatose after exposure to an unearthed totem. It’s up to her trusted colleague Dr. North and his estranged, churlish brother Bean to discover the source of her ailment — a world beneath the surface that’s a twisted version of our own. The brothers must fight past their doppelgangers with wits and weapons to reach the girl’s counterpart, who holds the key to her survival. A suspicious vagrant leads the path to redemption, but is it a trap?

Cast: Phoebe Cates as the doe-eyed, virginal archaeologist; Jeff Bridges as the hapless yet heroic Dr. North; Kurt Russell as Bean North, the doctor’s raucous and ravishing younger brother; and a begrimed Harry Dean Stanton as the enigmatic Vagrant. Keep an eye out for a pre-They Live “Rowdy” Roddy Piper making a cameo appearance as a Televangelist.

Key Musical Moment: The synth tempo whips into a fury once it’s revealed that Dr. North had orchestrated the plot to trap Bean in the underworld. “I just kicked my own ass, and I’ll be happy to kick both of yours!” shouts Russell at the double Bridges he’s crossed. The beat vibrates to the pulse of the two (or four?) men chasing each other down a spiral staircase, torches in hand. Down is up and North heads South to evade the grasp of his wily brother who’s drunk on revenge.

–Alex Czysz

6. “Abyss”

Year Released: 2017

Plot: A father and son are condemned to a Siberian Gulag during 1937’s Great Purge. The camp’s inattentive Commandant — once a high-ranking spiritual adviser to Stalin — is rarely spotted and instead leaves oversight to a pair of ruthless guards who pit inmates against one another in sadistic gladiator matches.

As our duo adjust to this new life, they befriend a former mafioso and catch whispers of a hidden chamber built into the side of a granite quarry, known by the inmates as Abyss (пропасть). Otherworldly creatures from Russian folklore are historically linked to the spot. It’s said any man who enters Abyss ages 20 hard years and loses his mind. After his father is spirited to Abyss, it’s up to the son to find a way in to free his father and escape the barbarous camp once and for all.

Cast: Anton Yelchin plays a young man raised on a collective farm by his former revolutionary father Vincent Cassel. A villainous Ben Mendelsohn and a wicked Russell Harvard portray sadists who masquerade as guards, while the camp’s taciturn commandant – Roman Madyanov – hides behind his diligent experiments. Stellan Skarsgard is also attached to depict an aging prisoner and former mob leader whose spiritual guidance helps the son prepare for the mythological horrors that abound within Abyss.

Key Musical Moment: The instrumental track inches toward the foreground as the son skulks through the rocky corridors of Abyss. He encounters a series of bizarre etchings that depict beasts with the heads of wolves and bodies of bears, devouring men and committing unspeakable acts. The anxious speed of the track races as the paintings spiral deeper into abstractions of malice and sexual violence.

–Dan Pfleegor

7. “Wraith”

Year Released: 1992

Plot: Aliens have landed, but it’s not humans they’re interested in. Both their bodies and ships appear as fog-like wisps, not dissimilar to that of the spirits that reside on Earth. Aliens, it would appear, occupy the same alternate dimension as these spirits, and a war between the two has been brewing for years. Earth? Their battlefield. Humans? Collateral damage. As the action bleeds between dimensions, humanity’s only hope appears to be a disgraced small-town Mayor, a cerebral FBI agent, and a teenage waitress studying parapsychology — can they put an end to an age-old war?

Cast: Tom Skerritt plays small-town mayor and former Air Force Lieutenant Gary Ludwig, a shell of a man who’s currently being investigated for smuggling city funds. Agent Mayfield, the FBI agent in charge of his case, is played by Laurence Fishburne, whose steely intensity is offset by Lori Petty’s spunky young waitress Emma Ellery. Jeff Fahey also turns in a memorable role as a local gravedigger who sacrifices himself to save our heroes.

Key Musical Moment: “Wraith”’s moaning synths and spastic bloops evoke a flicker of unnatural light, a roiling mass of slowly parting clouds. But then, 50 seconds in, that triumphant electric guitar kicks in to slice the sky in two, offering audiences their first glimpse at the alien craft. As townspeople stare in awe, the patient riffs add grandeur to the spaceship, a translucent entity made from fog, lightning, and the shadows of the thousands that reside inside it.

–Randall Colburn

8. “Purgatory”

Year Released: 1988

Plot: Jim and Hayley Cooper are two young newlyweds celebrating their honeymoon at a lake cottage in upstate Maine. After a romantic night, Hayley’s body is found floating near the opposite shore. As detectives seek evidence to convict Jim, he spends his last days as a free man searching the grounds for an explanation of how it happened … or why he did it.

Cast: A young Kevin Dillon plays the “hero” Jim, while Daryl Hannah is the inexplicable victim. Ernie Hudson does one of the most notable dramatic roles of his career as Sheriff Jenkins, a policeman with zero faith in Jim’s innocence and zero sanity, seemingly forging evidence and badgering every witness around. Carpenter himself makes a brief cameo as the nonchalant police officer who discovers the body while smoking cigarillos in his boat.

Key Musical Moment: Jim finds clues throughout the house that their honeymoon may not have been as private as they thought. As Jenkins threatens him, literally saying he has 24 hours to figure out another person to pin the crime on, Jim finds a secret doorway in his own basement that leads down another flight of stairs. He creeps slowly, inching his way down, when he is struck on the head. The music switches from its ominous piano and strings to its more action theme as we cut to the next and final scene: Jim’s body, too, floating across the water.

–Dan Bogosian

9. “Night”

Year Released: 2018

Plot: A long-haired, chatty high school janitor just minds his own business in a the Valley-area, 2016 A.D. He’s cagey; he’s got a past. What is it? He talks and talks about weird, old experiences, and staff and students scoff at his likely bogus escapades. His exploits as a trucker? Ancient mystics? A monkey monster hiding in his truck? Puh-lease. But one night, some horned-up teens release some sort of slithering monsters and demons through a spell book in the school’s pool, and it’s up to the janitor to get them out alive. His weapons? Total confidence, ego, and his lucky mop,

But! But but but, and you’ll love this – it’s not revealed until the end of the first act that this is a full-fledged Jack Burton sequel. It’s Jack freaking Burton, and he’s been hiding for years! That’s right, we’ll get Kurt Russell himself to play the unglamorous and mysterious mop man role that gets forced into haphazard greatness yet again. We gotta get it right and avoid that in marketing; people can think he’s like Jack Burton, but let the movie get the big reveal. Eh?

Cast: Kurt Russell and standard-model teen actors. Really, Russell’s the key. Without him, you’ve just got another dumb slasher/ghoulie flick on your hands.

Key Musical Moment: Why, the opening credits. We open on a tired teacher’s face while locking up an A.V. room, and we hear a distinct voice going on and on about the crazy stuff he saw in the old days. The larger-than-life stories only a total bull shitter could tell. We reveal in a deadpan shot that it’s Russell as Burton. The teacher doesn’t even bother to acknowledge the tall tale, just says good night and bolts.

John Carpenter’s “Night” starts playing while the halls darken, and the janitor gets to work on his night shift. We get a nice and darkly comical montage of a lone janitor, just scrubbing away at toilets, filling the pool with chlorine, eating leftover Chinese food in the teacher’s lounge.

Carpenter’s Albertus typeface present with: “A John Carpenter film.” “Kurt Russell.” “Night.”

–Blake Goble

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