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.

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