CD Review: The Horrors!
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Whether it’s the melodic fear of yesteryear, or the dissonant shock chords that seem to comprise much of modern horror scoring, a recent slew of soundtracks has much to offer fans of musical fear, beginning with Eye Of The Devil, an album that ranks as the most eerily unusual of the bunch. This 1966 occult film was one of the only scores to be produced by legendary jazz musician Gary McFarland (“The In Sound”), who brought aristocratic evil a creepy elegance. By crossing the worlds of Baroque horror with his hip vibe, McFarland gave Eye a unique sound that brought the usual symphonic Satanism into a new musical world – much in the same way that Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby updated the classic horror sound for with-it evildoers. That McFarland also died under truly bizarre circumstances after this Sharon Tate film came out further adds to the ghoulish mystique of Devil’s soundtrack, which has now been lovingly restored by Film Score Monthly.
Though composer Jerry Fielding would be far more prolific with such scores as The Wild Bunch, The Gauntlet and finally Funeral Home, 1972’s The Nightcomers (on Intrada) would give him a one-time opportunity of scoring a period horror film. In this case it’s a prequel to The Innocents, where the S&M antics of the deranged kids’ housekeepers give them plenty of reason to be haunted. Even if their beastly sexuality creates a sense of fear and repression, Fielding chose to take an unusually beautiful, and weirdly tender approach to the bodice ripping. The Nightcomers ranks as one of his most “conventionally” melodic scores with its bursts of classical energy and understated, somber menace. But then, perhaps only a composer best known for helping Sam Peckinpah make cinematic violence so memorable could bring unexpected lyricism to an exploding frog, rough trade and a woman frozen into a drowned statue.
Richard Band remains one of the horror’s most prolific composers, giving even the smallest chillers a big sense of macabre urgency, especially in for the Lovecraftian likes of Re-Animator and The Resurrected. The early 1980s were an especially busy time for Band’s symphonic sprucing up of low-budget shockers, particularly with Mutant (on Perseverance). Though this sci-fi thriller offered up nary a creature in sight beyond homicidal rednecks, you’d never figure that out from Band’s creepy piano runs, military percussion and ominous themes, all suspensefully building to some impressive horror-action set pieces that recall the experimental work of John Corigliano’s Altered States. Sure Mutant might not be in the same league, but it’s Band’s determination to play it big and scary that makes this a noteworthy score in his now Emmy-nominated repertoire.
Lakeshore Records might be the most prolific label for releasing today’s scores from medium-budget horror films on CD and iTunes, showing much that’s right, and wrong about the dissonant approach afflicting much genre scoring, where the alternately droning and shrieking sound of orchestras and samples don’t so much chill you to the bone as irritate the nerves. Johannes Kobilke and Robert William’s score for Pathology is mostly typical groaning stuff, with long patches of ambient strings and electronics not leading anywhere of particular interest. Ironically, the one piece that stands out is a nice bit of romantic resolution for the end, not exactly the kind of stuff that floats gorehounds’ boats, but one that does show a talent for melody that the composers will hopefully tap into more with their next effort. While nothing seems to happen at all in The Strangers’ soundtrack, Tomandandy have an undeniable way of creating creepy-as-shit samples, utilizing kind of metallic sound that also informed their far more active (if slightly more conventional) scores for The Mothman Prophecies and The Hills Have Eyes. Their chord-centric approach for The Strangers is like the thump of an EKG before the lights go out. Not exactly easily listening as such, but cool enough for people who are into this stuff. Ditto Ben Lovett’s score for The Signal, where unknown pulses turn the world into a crazed charnel house. There’s definitely something eerie about the tone here, which often goes in a haunting alt. rock direction. There’s unexpected humor as well in Lovett’s use of a waltz, as well as beauty in his ethereal vibe, a mixture of beauty and nerve-shredding beats that make for an unexpectedly striking score. On the far more traditional side, Hostel composer Nathan Barr creates a lyrical entry into J-horror territory with Shutter, with percussion and a light rock groove leading into strong, traditionally spooky melodies. While the approach here isn’t as ferocious as the torture tools he’s scored before, Barr’s found a real poetry to Shutter that brings to life the ghost of horror scoring’s melody-driven past.
With so many horror scores being released, it takes a special label to ferret out limited editions from the ones worth hearing, even if the pictures end up in DVD bins in two shakes of a bat’s wing. That’s precisely what’s going on in The Roost, where a crazed string quartet becomes the rabid critters. After the clever use of a “chiller theater” organ to intro The Roost’s “host,” composer Jeff Grace indulges in all sorts of shrieking string effects, which swarm about a growling synth underbelly. The result is a truly batshit-crazy score that will test your listening endurance. Yet those who can take this musical equivalent of the punishment poll will find a lot to admire in Grace’s atmospheric writing and use of shock-effect motifs, all of which like The Kronos Quartet playing after being infected with the rage virus (you can hear Grace’s equally interesting action writing on this CD’s companion score for Trigger Man). Far more “normal” horror scoring can be found in Nico Muhly’s eerily beautiful soundtrack for the killer kid film Joshua. As a protégé of Philip Glass, Muhly has learned a few things about hypnotic chamber writing. And the subtle, spare writing he employs for Joshua does much to convey a sense of deceptive innocence and growing madness, as stabbing violins, chamber suspense and ghostly pianos embody the most sweetly unbalanced child since Damien Thorne. As his twisted use of melody hides something unholy, Muhly proves himself as a composer to watch in the genre, let alone filmscoring itself.
Another especially impressive composer in MSM’s horror roster is Alfons Conde, who joins the ranks of Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) to show how Spaniards have a particular empathy for scoring the uncanny. And Conde couldn’t have asked for a scarier film to make his Hollywood splash in than The Abandoned, a No Exit ghost story by way of Russia. As twins find out they’re doomed to relive their ghastly fate on a foreboding island, Conde unleashes the whole dazzling spectrum of composing for the supernatural, from tragically lush orchestrations to modern dissonance worthy of 2001’s Gyorgy Ligeti – not to mention a real talent for lush eeriness and spectral voices that do such genre maestros as Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore and Christopher Young proud. Ditto Conde’s work on The Dark Hour, which imaginatively envisions subterranean life after the apocalypse with cold strings, an organ and child-like bells for an eight-year-old boy who’s been locked underground since birth. Though the Spanish-made The Dark Hour has yet to surface for American viewers, Conde’s creeping, Alien and Aliens-esque melodies and military percussion inspire the imagination with an unimaginable existence. And when outright terror strikes, Conde knows how to go for the throat with a full-on symphonic “Boo!” So if you indeed have to bang about for the unholy, then both The Abandoned and The Dark Hour show the way to do it, waking the dead with an elegance that’s all about the art of composing as opposed to the effects of it.