For me, the most powerful moment of a horror film is when the action goes beyond sensorial experience. It’s the moment when the thing you are seeing is unleashed from the image and runs rampant in your imagination, taking on a life of its own.
This moment where the horror comes alive is undoubtedly the aim for all horror film makers and the key to any good horror is atmosphere. How the monster is revealed or not revealed, how much blood you see and how the story unfolds; all of these elements pale in comparison to the ambience, which must be lovingly crafted in order to smash it to pieces. Mise-en-scène and music help to create the tone and atmosphere of any film. Some of the scariest and most memorable horror films are the ones that take a chance on both, choosing the less obvious, the less invested.
Some fine examples of films that have done this are Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby scored by Polish jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist that used a selection of music by modern composers, most noteably Mike Oldfield’s piano solo from his debut album Tubular Bells. Some other examples are Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula scored by Italian electronic musician Claudio Gizzi and Robin Hardy’s 70’s cult film The Wicker Man , scored by Paul Giovanni and performed by rock/folk outfit Magnet.
While the scores for any of these films might bow politely to convention, they were created by artists who were not conventionalised by film music and it’s for this very reason that their musical contributions have such impact. Film soundtracks are a huge genre that cover a lot of ground in terms of style, content and sheer volume. Horror soundtracks are no different and in the end it becomes a sea of sameness and expectation resulting in horror films that aren’t very horrifying at all.
Claudio Gizzi’s main theme and introduction in Blood for Dracula unfolds more like a Nino Rota score. A gentle piano melody, taken over by strings and a plaintive clarinet, infers nothing more than an innocent romance and later becomes playful and not at all indicative of what lies ahead, much like Luboš Fišer’s score for the 1970’s surrealist Czech film by Jaromil Jireš Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Building sympathy for the devil is a powerful narrative tool and Gizzi’s score delivers.
A similarly valuable contribution to the impact of the horror on screen is Komeda’s music for Rosemary’s Baby. Krzysztof Komeda, born Krzysztof Trzciński, was a progressive and experimental jazz pianist, you can listen to and buy some of his crazy cool music online at Trunk Records. However, for Rosemary’s Baby, the score is based on a lullaby theme sung by Mia Farrow and for the most part, plays out with the richness and sentimentality of a Maurice Jarre score or Elmer Bernstein, sweeping and romantic. All the better to cushion the blow. The stand-out track though, titled What Have You Done, is the most outstanding piece in the score. Featured in the clip below, the use of comic and billowing brass, playful and yet terrifying when coupled with the climactic reveal, is one of horror cinema’s finest moments.
Rarely does a piece of music become so irrevocably entwined with its cinematic companion as in the case of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Not inherently terrifying in any conceivable way, it’s ironic how Oldfield’s tune, has for all time become associated with the film, because in actuality the film contains hardly any ‘music’ at all. ‘I wanted the overall effect to be like a cold hand on the back of the neck’, Friedkin said of the soundtrack, calling the music ‘almost imperceptible‘ as it was designed to blend in with the more important sound scape of the film. ‘Never controlling a scene,‘ Friedkin felt that the significant scenes carried themselves.
There is an excellent article about the sound of the film on the official Warner Bros. The Exorcist website. In the article, Friedkin talks about how he failed to attract Bernard Herrmann to score his film, how he rejected Lalo Schifrin’s offering and explains why the sound effects were so essential to the film’s narrative. Believing that soundtracks should provide not a complement but a contrast to what is on screen, Friedkin said that ‘the soundtrack should have a dynamic that swings between very loud, piercing oppressive noises, and absolute, total dead silence‘ to reflect his thematic conception that the ‘whole film alternates between the forces of light and dark.’
Funnily enough, only a small phrase from Oldfield’s song is used in the film, alongside snippets from other unlikely but fitting selections from composers like Penderecki, Crumb, Hans Werner Henze and Anton Webern. And yet it was those few phrases that made Oldfield a household name and a catalyst for the Virgin media juggernaut.
In contrast to the previous examples is Paul Giovanni’s involvement in Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult film, The Wicker Man. Utterly British in conception, it was only fitting to dig up the sound of pre-Christian folk for this thrilling classic. While the music for this film is based largely upon existing folk tunes from Robbie Burns and a variety of Scottish, Welsh and Irish tunes and rhymes; American playwright, director, actor and musician Paul Giovanni is credited as writer. The music was performed by Peter Brewis, Michael Cole, Andrew Tompkins, Ian Cutler, Bernard Murray and Gary Carpenter who called their assemblage Magnet. Unlike most horror films, the music for The Wicker Man is diegetic and essential to the narrative, creating an eerily passive ambience. The quaint tunes sung and performed by the actors creates wonderful tension because we know evil is lurking under the surface, we just don’t know exactly where or how it will manifest. Thanks to the champion of buried treasure and the forgotten, Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, released the first ever issue of The Wicker Man soundtrack in 1998. To celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary it was re-released in stereo in 2009 by Silva Screen Records with re-imagined artwork by Richey Beckett.
Like all of the music included in this discussion, the soundtrack to The Wicker Man is not fundamentally scary or tense, not even close. In fact all of the music cited here is undoubtedly beautiful, making the horror, by contrast, all the more potent. The juxtaposition of innocence and thrill, beauty as an accomplice to abomination reveals the power of horror cinema to create fresh understandings, form lasting memories and reach new heights of terror.