Alan Howarth on Morricone’s score for The Thing

Soundtrack CD for The ThingLast Saturday night I went along to Sound Of Fear, a two-part event at London’s Southbank Centre. The main draw for me was a 45-minute set from Alan Howarth, the musician and composer who collaborated with John Carpenter on many of his much-loved ’80s scores, such as Escape From New York, Halloween III: Season Of The Witch and Prince Of Darkness.

The performance in the venue’s Purcell Room, which I loved every pulsating second of, covered all these scores, plus Big Trouble In Little China, Halloween II, Christine, They Live, and even Ennio Morricone’s brooding music for The Thing. Howarth was accompanied on stage by a woman whose name I didn’t catch, who appeared to be operating a live video mixer. It was an understandable addition, given that this music was designed to accompany images, but one I found distracting at times – the repetition, intrusive effects and speed changes mostly failing to capture the mood of the original films. I’d have preferred some simple compilation clips.

Later, in the larger but vastly undersold Queen Elizabeth Hall, Howarth took part in a panel discussion about the history of horror film music, along with musician and author Stephen Thrower, composer Harry Manfredini and author, journalist and critic Kim Newman. Howarth wasn’t billed as a participant, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him walk on stage for a second time. Compared to his fellow guests – especially Manfredini, who made even the ever-confident Newman look like a wallflower – Howarth was an occasional contributor to the discussion, but when he did offer some thoughts they were worth the wait. And it’s one of these thoughts I bring you now.

Discussion panel at Sound Of Fear, Southbank Centre, 4 September 2011. L-R: Interviewer, Stephen Thrower, Harry Manfredini, Alan Howarth, Kim Newman“I have a quick Morricone story regarding The Thing,” began Howarth. “So, here’s John Carpenter, who did Escape From New York, and he gets this big opportunity to do a remake of his favourite director Howard Hawks’ The Thing* and the bandwidth is there to hire Ennio Morricone. So he goes ahead, makes his movie – it’s a very difficult movie to make; it had a lot of challenges – and Ennio goes off and scores it. The score comes back, and John kind of wrote it off to: ‘How do I tell my hero that I don’t like what he did?’

“It was the English to Italian, and he didn’t understand it. So then he plays for Morricone the score we did for Escape From New York. And there’s another version where the Thing theme is very successful. And even after that, Ennio gave it out two passes. John comes from the other side; he says: ‘Hmm, there’s a couple of things I really need. You mind if we just kind of go to the studio for a day and sneak this one in?’ We did three more cues, making it more John Carpenter-esque…”

On hearing this, my ears pricked up – as, seemingly, did Stephen Thrower’s. “I was going to ask,” he said, “because I’ve never read anything about that before. It seems strange that Morricone arrives on a John Carpenter film and then apparently makes a score that sounds like John Carpenter, so it’s interesting to know the story.”

“That’s kind of how it went,” replied Howarth. “The director has a vision – the director’s going to make this movie. That’s why these choices were made. And in this case, it worked for a part but it didn’t hit the core moment of John Carpenter until he… had him [Morricone] imitate John Carpenter.”

Intriguing. I couldn’t recall hearing any such stories surrounding the score for The Thing, though like many admirers I’ve long been fascinated by its likeness in (significant) parts to John Carpenter’s own work. When I got home I pulled a book off my shelf (John Carpenter: The Prince Of Darkness by Gilles Boulenger, 2001) to see what, if anything, Carpenter had said about the music in The Thing. And – whad’ya know? – he had touched on the subject publicly before.

John Carpenter: The Prince Of Darkness by Gilles BoulengerCarpenter told Boulenger: “[Morricone] had written several pieces for The Thing, and I told him that he was using too many notes for the title track and that he should simplify it. He did simplify it, and the title track that you hear is his. He did all the orchestrations and recorded for me 20 minutes of music I could use wherever I wished but without seeing any footage. I cut his music into the film and realised that there were places, mostly scenes of tension, in which his music would not work.

“Since we needed something, I secretly ran off and recorded in a couple of days a few pieces to use. My pieces were very simple electronic pieces – it was almost tones. It was not really music at all but just background sounds, something today you might even consider as sound effects. I used these pieces as unifying moments because structurally we had to redo The Thing at one point in the centre. I put them in there to glue together the film, but in no way was I trying to compete with Ennio’s score. The score is his.”

So there we go – an interesting little peek at the birth of The Thing’s soundtrack and some answers to the question: why does it sound like it does? Like you, I’m still waiting for that CD reissue…

* That’s The Thing From Another World (1951), directed by Christian Nyby and produced by Howard Hawks, but largely accepted to be a Howard Hawks film.

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