Nightmares have a soundtrack
From M to Psycho to Halloween to It Follows, some seriously creepy movie (and TV) music
Everyone has a different personal definition of the “sound of terror.”
It could be the eerie creak of a door or a staircase in the dead of night, something unseen scrabbling against a darkened window, a sudden snap in the underbrush just beyond the light of your campfire, the whine of a dentist’s drill, Kevin O’Leary’s voice, Imagine Dragons. Anything, really.
I routinely torment my partner with an impersonation of the warped Aleister Crowley chant from the end of House of 1,000 Corpses (“Buuuuuuury me in a nameless grave . . .”), but I also have a friend who gets legitimately creeped out if she’s within earshot of you brushing your teeth. The sound of terror is relative.
Anyway, as any horror-film aficionado knows, a fright flick can throw all the depraved images and buckets of blood at its disposal at the screen, but they’re as worthless without good sound as without a sharp editor. And unless you can find a nifty way around it, à la “found-footage” freak-outs such as The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal
Activity, the right soundtrack — be it an original score or the right, spine-tingling tunes at the right moment or a combination of both — is equally indispensable.
Some of our favourite scares, in fact, are inseparable from those soundtracks and Toronto has rather bravely welcomed the creators of some of those spooky sounds into the city limits to recreate them live onstage. Veteran Italo-horror go-to scorers Goblin returned to the Opera House on Oct .26, for instance, while Stranger Things soundtrack composers SURVIVE fête last weekend’ s release of the series’ second season with a performance of selections from the score at the Bluma Appel Theatre as part of the Unsound festival’s “Halloween Hangover” show this Friday,
And horror-movie maestro John Carpenter turns up at the Danforth Music Hall on Nov. 12 with a two-piece band in tow to conjure some of the classic, spine-tingling, synth-y themes he’s penned for Halloween, The Thing, Prince of Darkness, The Fog and more.
As the chill of All Hallows’ Eve descends upon us, then, might I — as a music writer who watches pretty much nothing but horror films in his spare time — share some cinematic offerings whose scares are absolutely synonymous with their soundtracks.
M(1931) German silent-film auteur Fritz Lang ( Metropolis) proved no slouch in the “talkie” department when he subtly deployed a whistled refrain from Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as a stand-in for the evils committed — or about to be committed — by pathetic child murderer Hans Beckert. Lead actor Peter Lorre, by the way, was no good at whistling, so that’s Lang himself you hear making your skin crawl on the sound reel.
Psycho (1960) Seriously, can you even read the title Psycho without hearing the screechy, stabbing Bernard Herrmann strings that usher poor Janet Leigh to her terrible fate in the shower at the Bates Motel? Believe it or not, director Alfred Hitchcock originally intended this sequence, arguably the most seminal marriage of mayhem and music in Hollywood history, to be totally silent.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Reasonably perceptive viewers should have an inkling poor Rosemary Woodhouse’s impending pregnancy isn’t going to go entirely as planned long before the Satanists (and Satan) enter the picture when they hear composer/jazzman Krzysztof Komeda’s unsettling lullaby “Sleep Safe and Warm” playing over the opening credits. Mia Farrow, Rosemary herself, is the voice behind those haunting “la-la-lalaaaaas.”
The Exorcist (1973) Mike Oldfield has been dining out on two tinklingly creepy minutes’ worth of his 25-minute 1973 prog composition “Tubular Bells” since a green-vomit-spewing Linda Blair helped bore it into the permanent collective consciousness nearly 45 years ago. I smell a deal with the devil.
Jaws (1975) Props to Steven Spielberg for delivering the jolts back in the day using essentially nothing but a disembodied shark fin and two repeated notes (“Duh-DUH”) deployed with expert precision by composer John Williams, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his laziest day at the office ever.
Suspiria (1977) Italian grand guignol goremeister Dario Argento and gonzo-prog outfit Goblin have tended to deliver their best work when joined — pardon me, sutured — together at the hip, from 1975’s Profondo rosso ( Deep Red) through 2001’s Non ho sonno ( Sleepless). Suspiria is acknowledged as the most iconic collision of their complementary artistic pathologies.
Halloween (1978) With the original Halloween, John Carpenter could lay claim to not only directing the prototypical American slasher film, but also to penning the prototypical American slasher-film soundtrack. Those distant, dancing keyboard notes, an echo of “Tubular Bells,” are as crucial to Halloween’s chills as Michael Myers himself.
Carpenter remains a master horror composer, as evidenced by the works collected on the recent Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 set.
Friday the 13th (1980) Sexy teens, beware: if you hear someone breathing “Ki-ki-ki / Ma-mama” behind the bushes or outside the outhouse at Camp Crystal Lake, you are about to be murdered by a large man wearing a hockey mask. Harry Manfredini’s stabby synth strings? Pure Psycho.
The Thing (1982) Can it be mere coincidence that a John Carpenter film about an insidious alien life form capable of replicating the humans who’ve thawed it free from the Antarctic ice inspired soundtrack god Ennio Morricone to turn in his own more-Carpenterthan-Carpenter soundtrack?
Videodrome (1983) To complement David Cronenberg’s vision of a man driven to a paranoid blurring of reality and hallucination by pornographic mind-control TV signals, composer Howard Shore took his original orchestral score and programmed it into a synthesizer and then chopped the two versions together into a final mix that is neither entirely “real” nor entirely “synthetic.” Get it?
Angel Heart (1987) One-time Casa Loma Orchestra bandleader Glen Gray’s 1937 single “Girl of My Dreams” provides the recurring musical motif, often eerily reprised in the Angel Heart score by Trevor Jones and jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine, that ushers Mickey Rourke’s doomed gumshoe toward a dark reckoning with fate in this underrated Satano-noir pic by Alan Parker. Dr. John’s “Zu Zu Mamou” also makes a memorable appearance.
Hardware (1990) Ambient-industrial soundscapes mingle with twanging slide guitar, Ministry’s “Stigmata” and Public Image Ltd.’s “The Order of Death” to give Richard Stanley’s cult-classic, postapocalyptic sci-fi bloodbath — easily the darkest Christmas movie of all time — a singular sense of lateMTV-era style.
The X-Files (1996) Johnny Mathis was so disturbed by the use of his “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in the X-Files episode “Home,” about a murderous family of deformed inbreeds, that an alternate version of the song had to be recorded.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) Not a lot of dialogue going on in this overlooked Canadian brain-melter, so it’s left to Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt’s washedout electronic soundtrack — audibly steeped in the work of Carpenter and Cronenberg — to contribute much of the lysergic vibe.
Under the Skin (2013) Another film where the score — this one by Mica Levi of U.K. bentpop outfit Micachu and the Shapes, performing well above expectations — does most of the talking.
Mostly it lets you know that whatever seductive alien Scarlett Johansson is up to on the streets of darkest Scotland is kind of wrong, but eventually it makes you feel more for a monster than you thought possible.
It Follows (2014) This unstuck-in-time exercise in dread over the worst STD imaginable knows damn well it would not exist had the John Carpenter oeuvre not laid the groundwork during the 1970s, so it’s fitting that composer Richard “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s appropriately, methodically creeping score falls in line.
American actor Janet Leigh screams in the shower in the famous scene from Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Maika Monroe in It Follows, which draws inspiration from John Carpenter.