It’s that time of year when some people dress up like Star Wars characters and pop culture icons, but if you’re a freak like me, you cozy up and settle in for some creature features. I love a great horror film (not a fan of shitty ones, never bought into the whole re-discovered exploitation craze – give me the good shit) for many reasons, one of them being the soundtrack.
A well-composed soundtrack in a horror film matches the mood and intensity of the imagery on the screen, filling in the blanks with sound where image can’t. So here’s my thoughts on a few of the most iconic, creative uses of sound in horror. Watch some Argento and Carpenter this week!
Horns and Strings
Although its not a horror film by genre standards, Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film Vertigo has moments of nightmarish terror, right from the outset. One of composer Bernard Hermann’s finest scores is rooted in percussive strings, punctuated by blaring brass, creating this incredible musical illusion (in tandem with fantastic animation) of descending into an out-of-body, dream-like state.
One of the iconic and imitated horror film composers and directors, John Carpenter ushered in generations of terror with simplicity: one piano, an octave, a half-step, and an odd time-signature. The 5/4 time was inspired by Carpenter’s father, himself a musician and percussionist, who taught Carpenter about African and American jazz polyrhythms at a young age.
Italian progressive rock band Goblin made their name scoring films for giallo master Dario Argento, one of the finest filmmakers of the 70’s – regardless of genre. The giallo films are pretty interesting pieces of art, a kind of exciting re-imagining of American genre films of the 40’s and 50’s, and Argento’s are the most sensual and exciting. He teamed with Goblin for a number of his films, including Tenebrae, Deep Red, and Suspiria, often applying their music in dramatic, heaving servings. My favorite aspects of Goblin’s music in these films is the organ, which takes on a varied tactile feeling, like Argento’s style itself.
Although I’m not the biggest Howard Shore fan in the world, his work on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is pretty fantastic. Written for orchestra but scored on synthesizers and the then-popular Synclavier, Videodrome flexes the synthetic and organic possibilities of digital music.
Like Vertigo (and in large part inspired by Hitchcock’s work), David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a thriller, not a horror film, but its music seems to draw on work the work of composers like John Carpenter, but then take it in another direction. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote and performed the score with spa music in mind, with the idea of creating a dreamy, airy, hollow kind of sound that plays beautifully alongside the film’s grammar and themes of how people present themselves to one another, the lies they tell each other, and the images of the other that they build up to mask the truth.
Ennio Morricone’s score to John Carpenter’s The Thing – his best film and in my opinion the best horror film ever made – draws heavily on Carpenter’s work on Halloween, Escape From New York, and Assault on Precinct 13. It’s so simple – one pumping note – and set to the tundras of the antarctic as Norwegian scientists chase and shoot at a mysterious dog, it forms one of the most terrifying openings ever set to celluloid.
Carpenter himself discovered early on that without the budget to hire an orchestra or composer like Bernard Hermann, he could achieve a huge cinematic feeling through the use of synthesizers. Morricone’s riffing on Carpenter’s style showcases the only instance the director ever had the budget to hire a great composer, and is proof that simplicity can often generate the best results – the audience fills in the blanks of what they don’t hear, like they do with the imagery on screen (although Carpenter is often mis-credited as a master of splatter and gore, he rarely shows actual violence on screen, everything happens off-camera).