Friday, October 16, 2015

John Carpenter's Lost Themes makes anything sound exciting, whether it's paint drying or a plot summary of an unfinished horror short story of mine

She has no idea that she's flashing Michael Myers, the serial killer in that Captain Kirk Halloween costume mask that's still the second most immovable face in Hollywood, after Cher's.
P.J. Soles from John Carpenter's Halloween (Photo source: Popcorn Cinema)

The following is a repost of one of my most well-received pieces from earlier this year, originally posted on March 20, 2015. In between the time I wrote the piece and now, John Carpenter composed the main title theme for the CBS summer show Zoo.

The most significant and impressive piece of work John Carpenter has made in the last 15 years is neither a feature film nor a TV-movie. It's John Carpenter's Lost Themes, a new collection of original Carpenter instrumentals that, in the Albertus font-loving filmmaker/composer's own words, are "meant to score the movies in your head." The Sacred Bones Records album is Carpenter's entry into the imaginary soundtracks genre, where the likes of Black Dynamite composer Adrian Younge (2000's Venice Dawn) and the duo of Danger Mouse and Magic City composer Daniele Luppi (2011's Rome) have created score cues or theme tunes for movies that don't exist.

Lost Themes tracks like "Vortex" and "Abyss" resemble outtakes from Carpenter's scores to the 1988 cult favorite They Live and the mad-underrated In the Mouth of Madness, and except for the really cheesy Big Trouble in Little China end title theme sung by Carpenter himself, that Carpenter synth sound Lost Themes reacquaints us with has aged remarkably well. It's aged so well that Carpenter's pulsating and frequently sampled 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 main title theme--which Carpenter has said was influenced by Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and is in rotation during both the AFOS morning block "Beat Box" and "AFOS Prime"--sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, while the likes of Steven Price, frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes and It Follows composer Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace, dig the Carpenter sound so much that they borrow from Carpenter in their respective film scores.

I'd add some of the Lost Themes instrumentals to AFOS rotation, but the station format focuses only on score music written for movies and TV shows that aren't imaginary, and I don't have enough station hard drive space to launch a new imaginary soundtrack music block just to stream Lost Themes selections. For about a year, the station schedule included "Rome, Italian Style," an imaginary soundtrack music block I named after one of my favorite SCTV sketches (and a rare SCTV sketch that's not marred by an annoying laugh track). Younge's Venice Dawn tracks and Luppi's Rome tracks were part of the "Rome, Italian Style" playlist, and if the block still existed, those tracks would have shared space with the Lost Themes pieces. The Carpenter sound, which is basically '70s and '80s Italian film music, would have been a nice fit with the '60s Italian film vibe of the Venice Dawn and Rome tracks.

Junta Juleil's Culture Shock and Consequence of Sound both have gotten creative and used the Lost Themes instrumentals to fancast fictional Carpenter movies featuring those tracks. For example, in their movie idea built out of the Lost Themes track "Purgatory," Consequence of Sound imagined a 1988 murder mystery starring Kevin Dillon, Ernie Hudson and Daryl Hannah in her At Play in the Fields of the Lord skinny-dipping scene heyday, while "Purgatory" got Junta Juleil author Sean Gill to envision a completely implausible but much more enticing movie: a Big Trouble in Little China mini-reunion between Dennis Dun and Kurt Russell, who reprises his non-Carpenter role as Captain Ron.

I still haven't seen John Carpenter's made-for-TV Elvis biopic. The best way to make an Elvis biopic would be to totally go batshit crazy and allow that director who cast several different actors and actresses as Bob Dylan to run things and do whatever the fuck he wants with Elvis. Or just get Chuck D to direct it.
John Carpenter directs Victor Wong and Donald Pleasence on the set of Prince of Darkness, one of seven big-screen Carpenter movies I haven't seen yet. All those remaining seven movies do not star Kurt Russell, Carpenter's muse.

I'd indulge in some Lost Themes-inspired fancasting too, but I don't want to bite Junta Juleil and Consequence of Sound's style, so I'm going to do a completely different approach to playing around with Lost Themes and demonstrating how Carpenter's new instrumentals can make anything sound exciting and atmospheric. I'm going to unearth a plot synopsis I wrote three years ago for a never-finished horror short story and spice it up--or rather, Carpenter it up--with Lost Themes selections.

"The Pet" was my attempt to create a new Filipino monster that would have joined the creepy likes of the aswang and the manananggal. The story would have mixed Filipino monster folklore with one of the most unsettling horror tropes, eye trauma. Here's a good example of how unsettling that trope can be: I was so bothered by a Lasik operation-gone-wrong episode of the short-lived early '00s supernatural show The Others (no relation to the Nicole Kidman haunted house flick of the same name) that I've refused to undergo Lasik surgery to improve my eyesight. At the time I was trying to write "The Pet" as a submission to a Filipino YA horror anthology (it was called HORROR, with the title in all caps, as if it were a book by Meek Mill), I thought, "Eye trauma is terrifying, so how do I work that into the creation of a new monster?"

The result was a story where I only got as far as completing four pages. I ended up missing the anthology submission deadline because I was never satisfied with both the dialogue I wrote and the legal hurdles the story's characters would have overcome in order to acquire the titular creature. Also, I think "The Pet" would be better off as either an episode of a horror comedy anthology show or a short film rather than as a short story in print. I always imagined it as a Joe Dante suburban comedy/thriller with a John Carpenter score--and a Filipino American backdrop.

In the first Gremlins--most recently referenced on Community when the show amusingly imagined a Portuguese Gremlins ripoff called Knee-High Mischief--Keye Luke shows up in the suburbs to take Gizmo back with him to Chinatown and tells Billy, "You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature's gifts! You do not understand! You are not ready." I wanted to take a Filipino American divorcee and his son and put them in the place of Billy. Their inability to "be ready" for handling a Filipino monster and their assumption that it would be okay to keep the creature as a pet both wreak havoc on the suburbs. But very little of the type of suburbia we would have seen in "The Pet" would have been worth saving. Like what Dante conveyed in the Gremlins movies or The 'Burbs and what Carpenter was getting at in the anti-Republican, anti-yuppie They Live, suburbia is a part of America that's always asking for Gremlins-style havoc, whether it's because of its delusional, George Zimmerman-ish authority figures or the mindless consumerism of suburbanites like the ones who were going to be depicted in "The Pet," particularly the white husband of the dad's Filipino ex-wife.

The white husband character's first name was Tucker, and the vacuous character was going to be my way of riffing on a few things, like--in the only line I'm going to show from the story's four completed pages--someone who's "sporting a fauxhawk that doesn't belong on a man of his age" or white people who use "Tucker" as a first name. That's such a white name I could easily see it written on an order for a cup of pumpkin spice latte. Whenever I hear "Tucker" being used as a first name, it reminds me of a great George Carlin routine where he made fun of common white names like Todd and, of course, Tucker. Anyway, here, from 2012, is the synopsis of the anti-Tucker-as-a-first-name "Pet"--enhanced by the lost themes of John Carpenter.

Albertus font, yay!

Cue up "Abyss" from John Carpenter's Lost Themes, starting at 3:25.

Underneath a pet store in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown section, gamblers bet on underground cockfights that are held there at night. They're organized by Rodolfo, the store owner's son, without his father's knowledge.

Neil Dizon is a divorced 43-year-old L.A. graphic artist who has custody of his 12- or-13-year-old-ish son Allen on weekends. He takes his son to the pet store one afternoon. Neil also frequently takes Allen to the cockfights below the store. This afternoon, Allen spots in one of the cages behind the counter a blind bat-like animal neither he nor Neil have ever seen before. Rodolfo says it's a rare creature known as a bulagyakukkulatnit.

Allen likes the demure-looking bulagyakukkulatnit and wants Neil to buy it for him. Rodolfo's grandfather, who's wearing an eyepatch, tells Rodolfo in Tagalog that he's not allowed to sell the bulagyakukkulatnit. Rodolfo ignores his grandfather and sells the bulagyakukkulatnit to Neil. Allen names his blind pet Murdock, after the blind Marvel superhero Daredevil, whose secret identity is Matt Murdock. Around Allen and Neil, Murdock is demure and unassuming.

But when neither Allen nor Neil are around, the bulagyakukkulatnit is far from friendly. As Allen discovers later in the story, Murdock sucks people's eyeballs out of their sockets in order to have eyesight. Murdock absorbs its victims' sight but can only see temporarily, so it has to constantly deprive people of their eyes in order to be able to see at all times.

Neil's ex-wife Sharon, who remarried and whose white husband Tucker Saunders runs a flagging chain of DVD rental stores, isn't charmed by Murdock and argues with Neil over buying Allen a pet that might be dangerous. "No," says Sharon to Neil, "we're not adding a bat house to our yard." Then Tucker says to Sharon, "It's okay, honey. I can install one. I know your son doesn't like me. Just let me get on his good side for once."

Allen takes Murdock along with him to the senior citizens' home where Sharon has placed her father, and Allen's grandfather Pong reacts in horror to Murdock because he remembers a Filipino monster story about bulagyakukkulatnits that was told to him as a kid.

Cue up "Mystery" from Lost Themes. Let it play until 2:31.

Pong dismissed the bulagyakukkulatnit as a not-so-scary Filipino monster when he first heard it as a kid, so he can't believe this lesser monster from Filipino folklore actually exists. He snaps at his grandson for being unfamiliar with the bulagyakukkulatnit. Allen tells Pong that Neil never told him any Filipino monster stories, and he had never heard of aswangs or manananggals until friends at school told him about them. "The only stories Dad told me at bedtime were the second half of The Empire Strikes Back," Allen says, "and what turned out to have been a Cliffs Notes synopsis of Road House."

"Why do so many Filipino monsters prey on unborn kids?," Allen wonders aloud. "Why don't they try snacking on full-sized people for a change? Are these monsters on a diet?"

Cue up "Vortex" from Lost Themes. Let it play until 0:13.

Then Murdock, who senses hostility from Pong, attacks the old man, presses its mouth over his left eye and sucks his eyeball out of its socket. Pong survives the attack but becomes unconscious.

An upset Sharon wants Murdock out of her house. Allen refuses to let Murdock go and yells back at his mother (while also sneaking in a jab at her decision to send her father away), "You never cared about Lolo. Why the hell do you care about him now?!" He sneaks out of Sharon and Tucker's house and runs away to Neil's apartment, taking Murdock with him.

The next day at school, Allen takes Murdock to show-and-tell. Bringing this bulagyakukkulatnit turns out to be a bad idea as it proceeds to attack each and every one of Allen's enemies at school (from a teacher who thinks Allen is a troublemaker to a Pinoy jock who's trying to put the moves on a girl Allen likes) and yank their eyeballs out of them.

Cue up "Obsidian" from Lost Themes.

The police is forced to intervene as Murdock goes on a winged rampage, which ends when Murdock is shot down and killed by Animal Control. The story concludes with the revelation--which none of the characters are aware of--that Murdock was raising a child in a cavern below the cockfight ring that's underneath the pet store.

The bulagyakukkulatnit offspring is now looking for its mother: Murdock, whose offspring develop at an accelerated rate.

Cue up "Purgatory" from Lost Themes, starting at 2:25.

Her favorite movie is probably that rejected version of Little Shop of Horrors that ends with Audrey II taking over the world.
"Snake Plissken? I thought you were dead."

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