Friday, July 3, 2015

A Decidedly Non-Definitive History Of Music In Horror

Earlier this week I read on Daily Dead that Broadcast Music Inc. will be hosting a panel at San Diego Comic Con entitled "“The Character of Music: Classic Horror Special Edition."  A group of influential horror composers will be discussing the impact of music the genre and then doing some Q and A.  This is one of the many times that I've been bummed that I live on the east coast and can't make it to Comic-Con.  I love horror soundtracks and I think they are integral components of a great movie. The announcement of this panel got me thinking of the musical landmarks of the genre.

First, a disclaimer:  my entire musical education consists of one semester of basic music history as an undergrad in college.  I'm musically illiterate and I'm pretty sure the term tone deaf was coined specifically for me.  But that won't stop me from having opinions, because I'm an American.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Full Disclosure:  I have not seen Bride of Frankenstein.  My horror wheelhouse is really the 70s and 80s, and while I've seen a number of the Universal Studios monster movies, I've yet to catch this one, so most of what follows comes from some research that I did.  Composed by Franz Waxman, the score to Bride of Frankenstein is momentous because it came in a time when Universal Studios (as well as other studios at the time) were still tinkering with the whole notion of soundtracks.  Dracula, for example, only has music during the opening and ending credits aside from music playing during a concert in one of the scenes.  Bride of Frankenstein, however, presents a full, operatic score that blends the feel of classical music with the ominous tone of horror.

The Blob (1958)
I haven't actually seen this either, but screw it.  This is a movie about killer jello.  And as for the theme song...what in the holy hell is this? I defy anyone to listen to The Blob theme and predict that they're about to see a horror movie.  Although, given the fact that The Blob's "horror" element is a gigantic gelatinous mass from outer space, I suppose we can't really blame writers Burt Bacharach and Mack David for taking the song to a goofy place.

Blacula (1972)
The soundtrack for Blacula was composed by Gene Page, whose work outside of Blacula was more in pop music circles than in horror.  He's arranged music for artists ranging from The Righteous Brothers to Kenny Rogers.  He's worked with Phil Spector.  Hell, he loaned Barry White money when White was still early in his career.  This was not a guy that one would associate with the horror scene.  And frankly, I think if you listened to the Blacula album out of context, you could be forgiven if you didn't recognize it as a horror soundtrack.  It is, however, a very fun listen if you enjoy funk from the early 70s, and I think it fits very well with Blacula's tone.

Exorcist (1973)
The song most associated with The Exorcist,"Tubular Bells," is particularly interesting considering it wasn't written for the movie.  Written by Mike Oldfield in 1973, the song was released on an album of the same name with no connection to William Freidkin's horror classic.  It's difficult to separate the music from the film at this point, but I'd be interested to know if people would find it creepy on its own or if it's scary because you can't hear it without picturing Linda Blair's head spinning around on her shoulders.

Sugar Hill (1974)
I'll be honest, I don't remember any of the rest of this soundtrack other than The Original's "Supernatural Voodoo Woman."  But frankly, that's all that really matters.  I'm gonna leave this here, and you enjoy having it stuck in your head for at least the next week.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director Tobe Hooper worked with Wayne Bell to create the film's soundtrack.  It's funny, though, because before I started writing this article I could have been easily convinced that Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't even have a soundtrack.  The only aural cues I remember from the movie are the creepy faux-camera noises used at various points in the film (and, of course, a revving chainsaw).  But there is indeed a soundtrack, and it's one that some, including The Guardian's Stephen Thrower, count among their favorites in the genre.  I suppose the reason that I don't recall it myself is that it's almost not music, but rather a collection of off-putting yet barely melodic sounds that lend themselves well to the documentary vibe of the movie.

Suspiria (1977)
I'm sure that the members of Italian electronic rock band Goblin are normal, well-adjusted fellows.  However, when I listed to their work, especially the music from the soundtrack for Dario Argento's Suspiria, part of me believes these dudes are actual goblins who make their music so that they have something playing in the background during their many sacrifice rituals.  But damned if their weird ass shenanigans don't come together for some fun music.

Halloween (1978)
Making movies must be an exhausting process for John Carpenter.  In addition to writing and directing his own stuff, he also composes the score.  Such was the case with Halloween.  I'm quite sure any horror fan reading this is very familiar with the simple yet extremely effective hook of the main theme.  And I wonder, would this movie have been half as scary without its score?  I suppose the same could be said of most horror movies, but I think it's particularly true in the case of Halloween.  Every note foreshadows impending doom, yet somehow also remains easy to listen to and darkly beautiful.  Not a bad feat from a guy who can't read or write music, but rather finds his hooks through improvisation.

Phantasm (1979)
Fred Myrow's score to Don Coscarelli's cult-classic is my favorite horror soundtrack of all time.  It screams 70s.  It screams low-budget.  But fuck it's so damn good.  The hook of the main theme has a hypnotic effect on me that fits perfectly with the movie's tone.  This is a film where we don't know what's real or what's a dream, and it seems like the soundtrack was created specifically to put the viewer in that frame of mind.  I found out recently that a company recently released the soundtrack on vinyl, but of course they've already sold out.  If anyone is looking for a good Christmas present for me, just help me track this thing down because it must be mine.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Here's a soundtrack to rival Halloween in its iconic status, as just like with Halloween, it's nearly impossible to separate the movie from its classic music.  Composer Charles Bernstein, like Carpenter, makes use of a synthesizer, but Bernstein's tracks are much more busy and layered than Carpenter.  Not to say that it's necessarily better, because Carpenter was clearly going for simplicity.  But Bernstein shows how dynamic a single musician can be when given the right tools.

It Follows (2015)
After the 80s, horror movies tended to either A) forgo original compositions for slapping together a half-assed mixed tape to sell as a soundtrack or B) settle for generic, vaguely scary music-like tones.  That's why I was so happy to see this year's horror darling, It Follows, extend it's throwback vibe to the soundtrack.  Composer Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece) has a decidedly Carpenteresque vibe in his soundtrack, with a synth-heavy playlist that ramps up the tension of the movie significantly.  I can only hope that this ignites a trend to put some real focus on music in the horror genre, as I feel like it's been lacking as of late.

OK, so now that I've given my abridged history, here's the part where you comment on my glaring omissions.  No, seriously,  Please do.  I'm not going to pretend that the brief list above is in any way exhaustive, and I'd love to hear comments about anything that I've excluded.  Shoot a comment below and let me know about some of your favorite music from the genre.  

Further Reading

"Interview: Charles Bernstein on His Score for 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'"  Man in the Warmest Place to Hide.  May 21, 2012.

Masters, Marc.  "First Listen: John Carpenter, 'Lost Themes.'" NPR Online. January 25, 2015.

Perrone, Pierre.  "Obituary: Gene Page."  The Independent Online.  September 21, 1998.

Rosar, William H.  "Music for the Monsters:  Universal Pictures Horror Film Scores of the Thirties."  The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress.  Fall 1983.

Stewart, Craig.  "Ten Best Horror Scores in Cinematic History." What Culture.  Feburary 11, 2013.

Thrower, Stephen.  "From Goblin to Morricone: the art of horror movie music."  The Guardian Online.  August 18, 2011.

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