Film and Television Features

Keeping Score Vol. 2: Halloween Edition


Halloween is a particularly special occasion for me. It’s a time where we witness a sort of collective liberation - a rare time where it is not only socially acceptable, but damn near required that our unwieldy inner-child comes forth completely blitzed on the sugary confections, spooky nostalgia, and horror-fuelled adrenaline that has become utterly synonymous with the season itself. Best of all, it’s a great time to be listening to soundtracks and scores! Yes, that’s right, we’re going to something a little different with this edition of Keeping Score. To celebrate the season right, we’re going to take a look at the greatest horror soundtracks of yesteryear. As always, read, enjoy, and don’t hesitate to sound off in the comments section with your own thoughts.


Godzilla -- Akira Ifukube’s masterful score for the original Godzilla literally sets the tone for a decade rife with Nuclear paranoia and drive-in ‘B’-pictures of the man-in-suit variety. At this point, I’ve pretty much lost count of how many times I’ve heard this score copied and re-tooled by other composers for far lesser films of the same age. Honestly, I really can’t blame any of those musicians either. With its heavy use of low brass and it’s subtle dynamic quips emanating from the orchestra, Ifukube’s treatment is the added ingredient that transforms Godzilla from a cheap rubber suit to a looming, effervescent representation of atomic power. But perhaps more understated are the score's less bombastic moments, those intimate spaces where the orchestra calms and passion takes center stage. Scenes of wanton destruction are joined with a symphonic score that equals (if not amplifies) the film’s underlying themes of somber loss and sorrowfulness, making it a particularly powerful listen.


The Exorcist -- After months of rummaging through numerous composers (and quite a few rough copies of scores), Warner Bros. finally settled on Jack Nitzsche to deliver the original music on The Exorcist, and boy, was that a good call. Although Nitzsche’s contributions are mostly heard during scene transitions, they serve as an appropriately elegant picture frame for an otherwise horrifying piece of cinema. The use of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as the main theme also evokes something sinister in the film’s opening credits, something that particularly resonates with viewers, a uniquely alluring evil. I mean can you really imagine the film with any other score? Would you feel the same about it if, say, Lalo Schifrin or Tangerine Dream were allowed to supply the film with their own soundscape visions? I can’t. 


The Fog -- Bolt your windows! Lock your doors! There’s something in the fog! Something SINISTER! Something EVIL! Something delightfully MUSICAL! Let’s face it, John Carpenter’s pulsating, electronic scores were just too ahead of their time to be appreciated at the time of their release. But here in 2013, where electronic music is the norm and synthesized scores are almost a standard in film, we can sit back and enjoy them for the aural masterpieces they truly are. However, The Fog is unlike any of Carpenter’s other work, it relies less on droning synth and more on the distant chime of a piano to set the mood. While the synthesizer is omnipresent in the score itself, it’s more or less for contrapuntal texture rather than rhythmic kick. Ultimately, we’re left with an incredibly listenable, yet nonetheless malefic dirge -- rich in harmonies, but light on production.


Suspiria -- Goblin's score to Dario Argento's Suspiria is a timeless, horrifying ride into crazed, colorful vibes and buzzing jolting dissonance, much like the film itself. Goblin channels a score that rings like a demonic version of the score to The Exorcist, but grooves like Sorgini’s dizzying, psych-rock work on The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue. The film’s main theme is quite literally the most unnerving piece of music I’ve ever been subjected to. Its wicked voice chants and hums along to an utterly diabolical lute melody, before taking an intense detour into avant-rock nearly three minutes in. The piece turns into something that Sorgini himself or maybe even Goblin’s fellow progressive rock contemporaries might formulate on a better day. But in that sense, Goblin's music is more than just a great score -- it’s a monument to mankind’s ability to channel tension and suspense through strictly auditory methods.


Psycho -- Everything about Bernard Herrmann’s career embodies the very essence of “originality”. I mean, this is the same guy who scored the very first American cinema classic, Citizen Kane, and virtually all of Hitchcock’s previous flicks. With that said, although he scored a range of genre films early on, it seems most of his scores evolved from a similar musical disposition. To be specific, Herrmann’s early work had a distinctly jazz bent, each imbued with a keen sense of soothing melody and raucous adventure. However, on Psycho, Herrmann infuses his score with subtle, dark cues built upon layered permutations of thematic motives and sonic motif -- a practice more in line with the fledgling minimalist movement, than the grand orchestration of the day. Through a spectacular use of scene-by-scene subversion, descent, crescendo, and retrograde he gently reaffirms the audience’s suspicions as to what is actually going on underneath the scenes. Themes are recycled, inverted, and even flipped backwards for alarming effect during sequences that would otherwise seem rather benign. Perhaps even more important are the visceral qualities to his arrangements. Seriously, can you imagine the famous shower stabbing scene being anywhere near as staggeringly effective without the use of screeching strings? Even Hitchcock himself admitted that "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." How can you argue with that?


Bride of Frankenstein -- It’s rather curious that the original Frankenstein didn’t have much music to work with. Coming off the massive financial success of Dracula, you would think that the studio would lend considerable resources to Bernhard Kaun’s orchestral work on Frankenstein. But alas, there were only about 12 minutes or so of original material composed for the flick, which still seems like a major lost opportunity in hindsight. On the other hand, Bride of Frankenstein is a real coming out party for the studio on an entirely musical level. Franz Waxman’s score is not only more fleshed out than Kaun’s work, but it explores the Frankenstein story with immense emotional depth and clever musical phrasing. Perhaps more than Boris Karloff’s body language, Waxman’s score takes strides in capturing the monster as a tragic and sympathetic figure -- one who’s longing and sense of abandonment is near suffocating. Waxman even creates separate aural spaces for the characters to occupy -- painting the normal world with standard classical forms and Romantic-era counterpoint, but setting the unnatural world in a whole-tone scale, where movements slide from one tonal colour to another with an ethereal ease. It’s simply a brilliant score. 


Halloween -- Ah, the immortal classic! Halloween is perhaps the most recognizable theme ever created, right next to Star Wars and Jaws. That sparse 5/4 piano melody has essentially leapt off the screen and found its way into the greater pop-culture subconscious of every man, woman, and child in America, which is probably (or at least partially) why it was selected for preservation in the country’s National Film Registry. In any case, the music itself is extremely disquieting. Acoustic and Electronic instrumentation act as a sort of musical chiaroscuro. Where murky piano notes blind us to the underlying evil at every turn, piercing electronic stabs break through to remind us of the brutal consequences of our ignorance -- illuminating the horrors that encroach upon us while bedding the scene with exquisite aural eccentricities. This all adds up to an amazingly visceral experience, both in conjunction with the film and without it.


Trick ‘r Treat -- When a movie like Trick 'r Treat comes along, it isn't just the visuals of falling leaves and rich golden hues, the on-screen presence of werewolves and jack-o-lanterns, or the bulbous-headed mascot Sam, that sets the autumnal tone of the film. The music has to equally translate the inherent eeriness and haunting qualities of Halloween without losing a distinct sense of playfulness. It’s a tight rope to travel, but the light-as-a-feather touch of composer Douglas Pipes almost makes it look easy. Instead of using synthesizers (as is almost standard affair nowadays), Pipes employs an 85-piece orchestra along with a small children's choir and a few aural eccentricities that defy any and all description. Pipes’ very own piano work centers the score, providing all of the integral themes that drive Trick ‘r Treat forward. Low-end instruments furnish the experience with a heartbeat, a clever way of cueing the listener's nerves while subverting the traditional use of a cattle-prod or harsh stinger. But the score’s greatest strength lies in its willingness to draw from the very themes that we subconsciously associate with Halloween. Sprinkled throughout the work is a nursery rhyme melody that we’ve heard every year around Samhain. “Trick or treat / Smell my feet / Give me something good to eat”, the score never verbalizes the lyrics at all, but it doesn’t need to, its our knee-jerk reaction to insert them over the tune. It’s a simple, yet wholly ingenious score. The perfect Halloween music, plain and simple.