Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Horror Film Music 101

Hesher Christmas is quickly approaching. Being the antisocial kind, I'm not going going out this Halloween week-end, preferring instead to hole myself up in my bunker with a bunch of old friends like Evil Dead and Reanimator. [Also I'm in Malaysia, where there's zero percent chance of running into slutty Laffy Taffy.] But before I hit play on my Panasonic reel-to-reel, some thoughts on horror movie music.

The music in a horror movie sets the mood, builds tension, and drives home the scares. At their best, horror film scores stand separate from their film counterparts as albums/songs of their own merit. Here are ten of the best - most of which have been used by metal bands in one form or another.

Christopher Young - Hellraiser

While it was inevitable that Clive Barker's blood and viscera covered Hellraiser would find a place in the hearts of heshers, its music alone was bound to strike a metal chord as well. At times oppressive, at others eerie and ethereal, Christopher Young's score may be the maestro's most accomplished work - and possibly his most metal. White Zombie, Suffocation, and Entombed have all used it, the latter going out of their way to re-record and re-assemble the score for their Hollowman EP.

John Carpenter - Halloween

If a horror theme is meant to represent the movie's villain, then the theme for John Carpenter's genre-defining Halloween is the perfect summation of Michael Meyers - creepy, unrelenting, simple but brutally effective. The theme was written and performed by the director himself, foreshadowing his future musical endeavors. Former Astro Creep Rob Zombie directed a remake of the movie in 2007, though he thankfully kept his electro-pop hands off the theme.

 Goblin - Suspiria

It speaks volumes about The Seventies that prog rock band Goblin sold millions of copies of their horror film scores. The Italians created several celebrated soundtracks during their heyday, but perhaps none more than the one for Dario Argento's Suspiria, filled with child-like singing, unconventional percussion and Moog keyboards. [Like I said: The Seventies.] Goblin would go on to influence a whole generation of instrumental bands, some of whom have released their own horror scores.

Fabio Frizzi - City of the Living Dead

Lucio Fulci is a horror fans' horror director - I doubt anyone but die hards can overlook his films' bad dubbing, crude practical effects, and nonsensical plots. But what Fulci did better than most was create atmosphere, smartly employing music to make up for his deficits in budget. Case in point: Fabio Frizzi's score for City of the Living Dead. Swedish grindcore band Regurgitate used part of the score (along with the accompanying grunts and screams) as the intro to their Effortless Regurgitation compilation.

Mike Oldfield - "Tubular Bells" (The Exorcist)

Mike Oldfield's prog epic "Tubular Bells" has had an improbable life: When it debuted in 1973, it was the first hit for a then fledgling Virgin Records. John Peel, who a decade later would champion the emerging British grindcore scene, played the entire album on his radio show, praising it as "one of the most impressive LPs I ever had the chance to play on the radio". But its use as the title theme for The Exorcist would change its perception forever. For horror fans, it's synonymous with the possessed; for metal fans, it's with Possessed, who used it as the intro to their landmark Seven Churches album (on a song titled "The Exorcist", natch). Fellow Bay Area band Death Angel re-recorded and modified it slightly as the intro to The Ultraviolence, cementing its association with evil and violence. Who knew a glockenspiel could signal so much mayhem?

Jerry Goldsmith - "Ave Satani" (The Omen)

Unlike "Tubular Bells", The Omen's haunting theme was actually created with the devil in mind. "Ave Satani", written by Jerry Goldsmith, is a demonic Gregorian chant, with a choir singing (in somewhat corrupted Latin) "We eat the flesh, we drink the blood", "Hail Antichrist" and "Hail Satan". Satan may have taken notice, as the film's production was marred with bizarre and tragic events, leading to claims that it was cursed. Both Cradle of Filth (who have a thing for satanic chants and symphonies) and Vader have used it regularly as intros at concerts.

Walter Carlos - The Shining

Stephen King was famously contentious about the casting of Jack Nicholson as the lead in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, arguing it telegraphed to viewers the madness to come. But long before Nicholson utters a line, the film's introductory theme, delivered over a long helicopter shot as the family drives to the Overlook Hotel, practically blares their fate over a bullhorn: Doom, cold and inexorable.

Disasterpiece - It Follows

It appears we're in the midst of a new golden age of horror films - and with it, a new golden age of horror film music. Disasterpiece have gained considerable acclaim for their music to the instant horror classic It Follows, which recalls John Carpenter's classic film themes (particularly Halloween) and characterizes the antagonists with the same kind of slow relentlessness as Michael Myers.

John Williams - Jaws

With an unconvincing (and uncooperative) mechanical shark threatening to sink his movie, Stephen Spielberg made the best decision a horror movie director can make, keeping the monster mostly off-screen and using the power of suggestion to frighten viewers. As with most of his career, Spielberg was helped immeasurably by John Williams' driving score, which dwells in the deep as much as the monster it accompanies. It's hard to think of a more well known horror theme, except...

Bernard Herrmann - Psycho

The music set to Psycho's infamous shower scene is the grand-daddy of slasher theme music, with the violins' screeching almost drowning out Janet Leigh's own. Unbelievably, one of the most iconic pieces of movie scoring almost didn't happen: Hitchcock originally planned to have the scene without music, but Bernard Herrmann, his frequent collaborator, decided to write some anyways. When Hitchcock was unhappy with the way the scoreless scene was playing, Herrmann revealed that he had written music for the scene anyways - which Hitchcock gladly accepted. The rest is cinema history. Sepultura shamelessly appropriated it in the intro to their own paean to madness and violence, Schizophrenia.

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Coil - The Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser

An unconventional mind like Clive Barker would be drawn to unconventional music - and so, in the early stages of Hellraiser's production, he reached out to seminal industrial band Coil to create the music. The producers, wary of the band's lack of experience in scoring movies, went with Christopher Young instead. It's hard to argue that the music Coil created is on par with Young's (which sits at the very top of this list for a reason), but the idea of it announcing the Cenobites' arrival provides a fascinating "what if".

John Carpenter's Lost Themes

The once prolific horror auteur has slowed down his output; Carpenter's last film was 2010's widely panned The Ward, and it was only his second film of the new millenium. But fans can take solace in his debut album Lost Themes, which captures the emotions of the best Carpenter films, and only lacks some choice one-liners from Kurt Russell and Rowdy Roddy Piper to stand with his best work. He may be out of the multiplex, but he's not done kicking ass.

Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave - Phantasm

How great is the theme music to Don Coscarelli's under-appreciated Phantasm? Just ask Entombed.