Sound is horror. A loud crack of noise is guaranteed to fire up a person's sympathetic nervous system and activate a fight-or-flight response. Music is mood-setting. Jittery violins accelerate heartbeats. Eerie synth chords tighten stomach muscles. Great film composers manipulate their audiences. They make them jump. They make them cry. They make them fall in love. Even with the most visionary directors, a horror movie on mute simply isn't as scary.
Inspired by this, I'm offering a different film score review for every day of October. There is much to explore…
October 1st: Psycho - Bernard Hermann (1960)
This is where it starts. There were other horror soundtracks before Psycho, but none were quite as effective. Alfred Hitchcock’s low-budget proto-slasher masterpiece set a new standard. Bernard Hermann’s score is a pivotal part of this. The song “The Murder” and its corresponding shower scene is arguably the most iconic moment in horror film history. The short stabs of strings hit with terror. They move as if Hermann’s violinists were wielding weapons of their own. But even beyond this, the soundtrack kills. At the beginning of the movie, Hermann introduces tight melodies of tension. From here, he moves on, shifting tempos while keeping the same ominous mood. Hermann plants nervousness in the viewer which Hitchcock exploits and builds on. Together, they created a film that changed the perception of the genre.
October 2nd: Ganja and Hess - Sam Waymon (1973)
Nina Simone was a legendary artist. She was one of the most influential songwriters and singers of the 20th century. But she wasn’t the only gifted performer in that family. While Sam Wyamon never achieved the same level of fame as his sister, he was a gifted writer and performer himself. His work on Bill Gunn’s 1973 vampire movie, Ganja and Hess, is a prime example of his ability. The film’s loose structure and dreamlike feel delivered its story with essence rather than straight account. It moves far beyond traditional vampirism and ties religion, history, and black culture into the fabric of the narrative. Waymon’s soundtrack, which incorporates gospel, jazz, R&B, and a traditional African chant, strengthens the film’s identity. The instrumental segments add a feel of cohesion to the film’s serpentine flow while the vocal pieces add lyrical content that help explain the film’s storyline mythology.
October 3rd: Videodrome - Howard Shore (1983)
In the early 2000's, Howard Shore won multiple awards for his soundtracks to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But decades before he littered his fireplace mantel with trophies, he was earning admiration from a different crowd. His early career saw him partnering with David Cronenberg, supplying the music to some of the director’s creepiest films. Of these soundtracks, Videodrome is the best. In this movie, deadly subliminal messages are coded into videos. Characters who witness these messages fall under a spell of mind-control. They become confused, unable to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. Shore took this concept and converted it to music. This soundtrack is a blend of John Carpenter and John Williams. It combines heavy synths with theatric orchestration. The live strings and synthesized keyboards are interwound so tightly that listeners are left wondering which sounds are organic and which were synthetic. Reality is an illusion.
October 4th: All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio) - Bruno Nicolai (1972)
Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark is unconventional giallo. The movie features a few of the expected clichés; a whodunit mystery, an obligatory chase scene, a bottle of J&B scotch. But it goes beyond the tropes, moving the story from the streets to the occult, and spending time inside the protagonist’s head with a psychological focus. Bruno Nicolai, then, goes beyond the typical giallo soundtrack. Like Martino, Nicolai plays to some of the genre stereotypes. The opening theme, reprised throughout, is a warm romantic piece. Higher-tension moments tumble with typical frantic bass and dark jazz. But the music also adds movements of psychedelic sitar, electric guitar licks, and experimental vocal work (by the always great Edda dell’Orso). Nicolai adds just enough sonic similarities among the conflicting song styles to bond them while still giving each enough personality to surprise the listener.
October 5th: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - Angelo Badalamenti (1992)
Angelo Badalamenti had already been working in music for decades before he partnered with David Lynch. He was a fully realized composer, an expert pianist, and a master of the French horn. But his pairing with Lynch brought him to an even higher level. Badalamenti’s musical style fits perfectly into Lynch’s strange world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The film is about a high school girl who suffers horrendous abuse and tries to cope with conflicting feelings as she moves towards her death. It is Lynch at his most ghastly. Badalamenti backs him up with a rich score of dreary low synth, industrial-tinged mind-bending space-rock, etherial dream pop, and dusky, late-night jazz. Lynch is such a distinct artist and he paints with such a heavy brush that his signature threatens overshadow everything. Even so, Badalamenti is a strong presence himself. His music is striking. The connection between them is clear. The audience feels it.
October 6th: The Legend of Hell House - Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (1973)
Women are underrepresented in film music. Through the history of the medium, a substantial majority of film scores were assigned to men. And while some of these guys did a fine job, opportunities for women were missed. Delia Derbyshire was one of the few who managed to overcome male bias and prove herself as a gifted composer. Her resume was long and impressive. She was a pioneer in early electronic music. But for horror fans, her chef-d’œu·vre was her work on John Hough’s 1973 ghost story, The Legend of Hell House. Collaborating with frequent partner Brian Hodgson – a talent in his own right – the two created a score that blended music with sound design. It moves at a slow pace. Volatile organs, echoey drums, and mumbling baritone saxophones are drowned in murky electronica. Vocal samples, heavy breathing, and eerie sound effects push through, creating atmospheric terror.