Composer Alan Howarth Discusses Legendary Scores Ahead Of Coolidge Horrorthon

By Andrew Crump · @agracru · October 29, 2021, 3:00 PM EDT
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If you know Alan Howarth's name, you may know him for his work with one of horror's all-time greats, John Carpenter: Escape from New York, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live. You may know him less for his work anywhere else, but if you've ever seen a Star Trek movie, or if you have seen (heard, really) Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lost Empire, Total Recall, or Poltergeist, then you know his sound design work, too, even if you don't know that you know. On top of these accomplishments, he and his team won the Academy Award for Best Sound Effects for The Hunt For Red October and Bram Stoker's Dracula. That's the stuff of legend.

This weekend, Howarth's legend combines with a local Boston legend, the Coolidge Corner Theatre's annual Halloween Horror Marathon, twelve hours of horror movies from 12 AM to 12 PM, curated by Program Manager and Director of Special Programming Mark Anastasio. In its twentieth year, the Horror Marathon honors Howarth's work, kicking things off with Howarth himself in attendance, performing his scores ahead of the night's commencing screening – Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The Marathon is a one-of-a-kind event made that much more memorable in 2021 by Howarth's participation.

FANGORIA spoke with Howarth about the Marathon's imminence, the excitement that surrounds this beloved spooky celebration, and the long, strange trip his career has taken him on from his earliest days opening for bands like Cream, working with Weather Report, and walking into a job on Star Trek: The Motion Picture before his first encounter with John Carpenter.

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The Horrorthon is, of course, a celebration of horror based around one particular theme, but this is different; the way the event will be set up, it sounds like a celebration of you. Is that something that you're accustomed to?

No, no. That hardly ever happens. When I do a horror movie convention, it's focused on horror movies, and that's fine. Obviously, I have a large cache of horror movies, and it's Halloween, and it's mischief night on top of that, which is great. And all these great movies are going to be running throughout the evening and round to 12 o'clock the next day. It's a big hang for everybody. So that's really cool. And I'm going to bring other elements of Alan Howarth's career into focus, at least for where I am, and then everybody's free to do what they to want to do.

Do you wish more people thought about you in terms of the sound designs and not just the scores, the soundtracks? Is that your experience – that people hear your name, and that's where their heads go?

Yeah, exactly. Because the music that I did with John Carpenter, that's much more famous. And certainly, the fact that we're still talking about these movies thirty-plus years later, that they withstood the test of time and are still popular, is huge. Then obviously, they've revived the Halloween franchise with Jamie Lee Curtis coming back and doing a whole change in the narrative of what happened with Michael, which Carpenter loved. I mean, that's why he jumped on board. He liked the idea of abandoning all sequels and picking up the story with fresh eyes. Blumhouse has done a great job with all that stuff. So that's really cool.

I was at Chiller [Theatre Expo] a couple of years ago, and a fellow named Josh Clark was sitting at my table with me, and he specializes in autographs; he knew me because of [my music], and he actually suggested that when I signed autographs, I put two bars of music, which was a nice little bonus on the autographs. And then I said, "Hey, Josh, you ever looked at my resume?" He goes, "No." So he looked at IMDB, and he goes, "Oh my God, you did Raiders! You did Back to the Future, and Star Trek!" It's never really been exploited. Let me put it that way. My career in the eighties was the two pillars: Working with John Carpenter and all of his works, and also as a sound designer. Sound designer being a specialist; much like ILM is a special house that makes special visual effects, I was making special sound effects. So warp drives, Enterprises, monsters, the hoverboard, the time train, snakes and statues and mummies in Raiders, Poltergeist sound effects – they were never really exploited. They just kind of laid there. So I'm trying to broaden the palate of Alan and what he's got to offer as we move forward here.

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Do you feel like people don't celebrate scores and sound compared to the other aspects of movies? I mean, the sound is a big part of everything in any movie, but of course, it's the writers or the actors or the directors who get the emphasis. I feel like the sound is not always celebrated the same way. How often do we actually embrace the value of sound in cinema?

Yeah! And back to what you said, in the world of movies, there's what's called above the line and below the line; the actors, the writers, the directors, the producers, and the composers, and the editors are all considered above the line, whereas the sound people are more part of the crew, the below the line, post-production activity. However, when we watch a movie, certainly the information that's communicated visually is one thing, and then the soundtrack, being the dialogue, the sound effects, and the music, are the other parts of the experience. Even Spielberg says it's really a 50-50 split. If you turn off the sound and watch the movie, you'll get so much information. If you turn off the visual and listen to the sound, you can pretty much tell everything that's going on. There's a lot of information in the soundtrack.

Then there's the idea of the sound effects, especially for things that don't exist in reality. It's one thing when a tree falls down and goes "crash," but it's another thing in Poltergeist when the tree is reaching into the kid's room in a haunted way, trying to pick up the kid and grab them. Now, that's a whole other job. What I did is I used my cello to animate the tree's effects, the groaning, and everything. I'll be honest, it wasn't a very useful effect, but it was something that I could perform.

I'm a musician. When I was a kid, I was an artist, a drawing artist. In fact, I was the president of the art class, and music was a sidebar until I got bit by rock and roll and ran away with the circus. My band opened for Cream and The Who; my hair was down to the middle of my back. I was a major hippie dude. This would be late sixties, early seventies. Then I got hooked up with a jazz band, Weather Report. In this case, I was sort of the keyboard technician butler guy who set it all up, got it all working. But then my first movie ever was Star Trek. A burly biker buddy of mine from Cleveland was working at Paramount. These two sound effects editors, Richard Anderson, and Stephen Flick, were having a conversation about how they needed somebody who knew about synthesizers. [My buddy] leaned over, and he said, "Oh man, you gotta talk to my buddy Alan, man, he knows Weather Report and he knows all about synthesizers."

They looked at him, and they said: "Is that the one at seven o'clock or 11 o'clock?" They were thinking about the weather report, of course.

But nonetheless, they took my number and gave me a call, and I went down and met with them. They said, "We're doing Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we're taking Star Trek from TV to feature film, and we want to build a new sound effects library. Can you make us an audition tape? Make us the sound of the starship Enterprise going from warp one to warp seven."

It was just very humble stuff. I had a Prophet 5 synthesizer and a four-track tape recorder. So I had a little bit of overdubbing, and I did the sound design of the Enterprise on that synthesizer; I made this sound effect that continuously undulated [makes whooshing sound] and climbed. I turned in that tape, and that tape became the sound of the Enterprise. Boom: I'm in the movie business.

I went on to do six more Star Treks because I had the magic formula for the Enterprise. So basically for every Star Trek, I was in charge of tracking the Enterprise. Remember, this was before computers and the sound effects editors were still on Moviolas with 35-millimeter stuff. They had no sound manipulation. So I would literally sit there and be Sulu tracking the Enterprise's sound and speeding up, slowing down, and then I would give that tape to the sound effects editor, and they would just drop it right in. The interesting twist on that is the picture editor of the first Star Trek, a guy named Todd Ramsey; his next movie was Escape From New York. While I was doing Star Trek, I kept promoting myself, and I gave Todd audio cassettes of my music. He liked me. He thought I was a cool guy. So he said, "You and John Carpenter would really, really get along. You guys should meet."

So he got John to come out to my little dining room studio, and that had gone from a four-track and a Prophet 5 to Star Trek grade. Well, John sat there with me for about 3 three hours, and we talked a lot, and I played him sounds, and I played some of my music at the end of that visit. He goes, "Oh yeah, let's do it." Now all of a sudden, my first score is Escape From New York with John Carpenter. Talk about being blessed. I am so blessed in this lifetime that these things were never planned. People liked me, and they referred me to the next thing and the next thing. I never had an agent. My idea was, just do great work, and that will find you more stuff. It's been that way for forty years now.

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Blessed is the right word. We're talking about a lot of range here. I mean, Star Trek to Escape from New York and then Halloween 2; you did sound design for the Back to the Future movies and The Little Mermaid. That, to me, takes a lot of creativity, encompassing a range like that.

As an artist, I'm sitting in the same room with equipment, right? Whether I was making music or a sound design, it was an assignment: Make me an Enterprise, make me a music cue, make me a ghost, make me creepy noises. Everything was a challenge, and I love pioneering. I loved being the first kid on my block to play with something and figure it out. Once it gets figured out and organized, I'm looking for the next thing. It's just part of my personality,

What sounds are the most fun to make? My preference is clearly horror; I did some work this morning and listened to the Halloween II soundtrack as my background music. There's something about creepiness that, for me, is a lot of fun to imagine. If you have a specific passion or preference, where does that lie?

Well, I can paint dark, and I can paint light. I had a client with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and I did ten years' worth of beautiful music for birds and trees and wind and all kinds of stuff. It's not a fixed thing. Career-wise, this idea of being with John Carpenter put me in a whole thing. I have nothing but gratitude for that time. It was me and John Carpenter sitting in my studio, just the two of us, for about eight years. I worked with the master of horror, and he's a good musician. It was his movie. He wrote it, he directed, he edited, and the music was like the icing on the cake.

John used to say that doing the music for his movies was like a vacation. All of a sudden, he could turn the phone off, all that other stuff, and just have fun making music for his own movie. I got to watch a master like him do his thing, and at a certain point, we're buddies, and he's letting me contribute because he never wanted to know about the technology - that was my job. "Make sure it all works. I don't want it. I don't even want to know about that stuff." I would make sure that when the red light's on it's recording, and we're going.

Nothing was written. It was all improvised. Every now and then, Carpenter would have a theme, a little musical phrase, like Escape from New York – that's something he worked out, that's his theme, and he put that in the movie. Or Halloween, obviously the classic. But that was before I even met him. His themes are tailored to his movies, and he's got enough musical chops. Now he's a musician with his band, with his son, Cody, and his godson Daniel, and they're out touring. His music lives on beyond the movie, which is cool.

But yeah, I went to the John Carpenter school of one. I went to the guild of him. So it's easy for me to do more of that. Now I have my own skill set, and it's great because people ask me to do scores, and it's not like they're asking me to imitate Hans Zimmer or James Horner, or Jerry Goldsmith, or John Williams, no. The last two movies, they came in and said, "I want you to do what you did in the '80s. I want all analog synthesizers. I don't want any digital samples. I hear that in every TV show, do what you used to do." So golly, what an honor. I already know how to do it. And it's fun!

Getting back to what you talked about, about being the guy who likes to pioneer and be the first — John is known for being the first, too. Halloween was a major first in horror. Do you feel like that's one of the reasons that you guys collaborated so well together, because you're both pioneers in your own rights?

Yeah, for sure. For sure. And he's his own guy. I went through the experience, when we made The Thing, the scoring was done by Ennio [Morricone], and there were two sessions to get it right. I do believe that Ennio listened to what John and I did for Escape from New York, and was influenced especially by that great opening scene. So there was an orchestral score, and then there was another set of scoring where he went back and got a couple of synth guys and went into a studio and did the music. And it's funny, while we were finishing Escape from New York, we're in the mix, and John was talking about how he was going to be really busy doing this movie, The Thing, and Halloween II was going to be done at the same time.

So he literally looked at me, and he says, "Hey, listen, I'm going to be busy on The Thing, you're going to have to do Halloween." It was like a class assignment: "Your next homework is to do Halloween II." It's just been quite the journey. And my score to Halloween II is the score to Halloween, but with me overdubbing more synthesizers and bringing a different texture, a more Gothic, darker, sinister element to that music. And there was some new music that I wrote to it, but the main theme was already established as one of the greatest scores of all time. So why change it? I just wanted to dress it up a little bit better.