FEATURE: Decomposition: The Modern Horror Film Soundtrack – and Why Less Can Mean More






The Modern Horror Film Soundtrack – and Why Less Can Mean More


PERHAPS it is quite in vogue…



and uber-cool these days but more and more musicians are moving into the world of soundtrack composition. I am seeing artists step from their Rock/Pop worlds and score music for the big screen. Whether they pen a chelating soundtrack that tackles tense moments or pen something stirring, scenic and of-the-ocean – it provides a new canvas and a fresh challenge. The phenomenon of popular musicians going more ‘Classical’ is nothing new. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is no stranger to film score and what it can elicit. From Bodysong (2003) to There Will Be Blood (2007) – which was disqualified from the Oscars because the soundtrack included music he had already released – there is much to love about his non-Radiohead cannon. The former film’s score uses limited transposition and impressionistic strings; Stockhausen-inspired movements and exposing Olivier Messiaen's theory of grouping melodies around interval groups. That film was a documentary about the course of a human life: from the unsure start of birth and fresh life right through to death. There Will Be Blood used expressionistically bold strings and sparser piano codas perfectly accompanied Daniel Day-Lewis playing an ambitious and will-stop-at-nothing fortune-maker in older-times America. Greenwood is nominated for this year’s Oscars: he composed the music for 2017’s Phantom Thread and, let’s hope, gets his just rewards. It is ironic I mention a ‘thread’ because it seems like I need to knit faster and come up with something focused.


IN THIS PHOTO: Thom Yorke/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I reference Jonny Greenwood because Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead, has been making the music news:

The first trailer for the remake of the 1977 cult horror movie Suspiria has been shared online, featuring new music from Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke.

The clip, which you can watch below, features Yorke’s eerie and anxious score against creepy images featuring a levitating possessed girl, blood and maggots.

The film is a remake of Dario Argento’s supernatural movie and stars Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, and Chloe Grace-Moretz. It is being remade by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your NameI Am Love) through Amazon Studios and is due out on November 2.

It is the first feature film Yorke has scored, although he has had some involvement in film soundtracks before, contributing to Velvet Goldmine and 2013’s The UK Gold, a documentary about tax avoidance”.

I cannot wait to hear how the score comes together and the way it interacts with the music. We think of the great horror film scores and we can do our research.  From John Williams’ Jaws tension to Bernard Herrmann’s peerless chills in Psycho – there have been some varied and interesting soundtracks through the years. Whether you learn towards John Carpenter’s Halloween score – which was composed without synchronising with the picture itself – or like a more expressive and flamboyant take on the horror film score; it seems like a hard medium to conquer. I think film scores are a challenge and a different discipline to ‘regular’ music. It takes different skills and more focus on mood and the visual elements – ensuring your notes fuse with the images on screen and provide something special to the listener. Romantic films and period dramas will have a different tone and objective to scores from action flicks and ramped-up slashers. Whilst I am a fan of the aggressive and cocaine-fuelled string stabs you might find on a horror score; the bulging bass and pizzicato strings that arrive when the murder lurks in the dark – is that type of composition confined to the past? Things of modern horror masterpieces like A Quiet Place (starring Emily Blunt) and Marco Beltrami’s score had a difficult job: trying to partner a film where silence was an issue – any creeks or voluminous motions would incur death and darkness; it is about remaining still and trying to be mouse-like.

The music, as such, could not be a whacked-out and raging score that employed epic orchestration and big bursts. There are some spine-tingling numbers on the soundtrack but, for the most part, it is about heightening and supporting that never-ending sense of being on the edge. Today, scores are about psychology and how the notes create a sense of unrest in the listen. There have been plenty of blood-splattered films where the music has been physically evocative and tried to force the blood down the throat. Whereas classic horror films like Psycho, too, relied on the fear of the unseen and subtle; we always associate horror films with guts and gore – as such, do we feel the score is going to be a minimalist and delicate beast? The 1970s and 1980s sounds were defined, as this article shows, a defined and distinct aspect:

The 1970s and ‘80s, and the rise of the synthesiser, brought fresh blood to the scene; this phase has also fuelled a recent resurgent passion for horror music. Modern hits such as the Netflix series Stranger Thingspay homage to the era right through to their pulsing electronic sounds. The alluringly eerie original score for the show, created by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (of Austin outfit SURVIVE), also evokes pioneers like director/composer John Carpenter (who soundtracked many of his own films including 1978’s Halloween, and 1987’s Prince of Darknessas well as enlisting composer Ennio Morricone for 1982’s The Thing)”.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

The score, in a way, is a way of involving the film-goer in the action and providing a sense of surprise. There is plenty of action and suspense in horror but, if you wallop them with blood and punchy musical interjections; that is not as unexpected and impactful as a score that brings you in and pulls you away. Whether there are violent violins or elegant piano notes; a blend of rousing horns or a delicate and eerie viola working away – providing a sonic rollercoaster (or a less wanky definition) is proving more affecting. Modern horror films are also being produced using less money and studio resources. An historical look at horror shows you (the genre) has always been a bit under-the-radar compared to the big-budget flicks that have money to splurge. Composers might have an orchestra to work with but the time and money they have to make music can be restricted. Because of this, composers are getting more innovative and priding psychological impact over sound-force and steamrolling the public. Look at classic films like Halloween and you can see the way simple and everyday instruments are used in different ways to explore all the psychological twists and contortions we’d expect. Exploring the haunt of a creaking door or the disturbed mind of a killer – the biggest delights arrive when the music is more subtle and textural.

I am looking forward to seeing what Thom Yorke does with the upcoming Suspiria. Listen to the haunt of certain songs on Radiohead’s Kid A (How to Disappear Completely) to the beauty and elegance many overlook when it comes to the band – the man knows what he is doing and is not someone who goes for the obvious. I still love those scores that keep things quiet and light before exploding into a cacophony of darting strings and scared pitches. I am seeing modern horror rely more on notes not played – if that makes sense – and creating frights by experimentation and evolution as opposed to volume and might. Some stuffier musicians might feel a mainstream artist is not fit to score films – they might not possess the right education or any sort of formal upbringing. That, to me, is what makes the new venture of Thom Yorke so appealing. He can bring something unique to films and help make the music cross-pollinating and accessible. I know he will throw in some explosive compositions but it is those stripped-back and disturbing sounds that leave the biggest mark. Whether less is really more – can you create true fear and epicness without an orchestra all rising together?! – is up to the individual but I think one can affect someone more overtly by leaving something to the imagination. I am glad the horror score remains as interesting and varied as it was back in the 1960s and 1970s.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

The 2018 scene might not have legends like John Carpenter and Bernard Herrmann working and creating masterpieces – there are plenty of older and new composers continuing their legacy and producing brilliant pieces. Hereditary, another film that is tussling with A Quiet Place for the best flick of this year gong, boasts a varied and exceptional film. It is one of the most disturbing and genius films we have seen in years and rely on that mix of psychological trauma and big-time frights. Listen to the music and, on its own, it is a fascinating and staggering work. Colin Stetson, the saxophone virtuoso, talked to FACT about composing the score and how he approached the music:

In this case, that was a joy, as the acting performances in the film are tremendous and really inspired the sonic character of the music from moment to moment. In terms of instrumentation, I relied on a stable of acoustic sound sources almost exclusively. Clarinets were used extensively, both contrabass and Bb, as well as some bass clarinet, as well. Of course the more obvious cornerstones of my signature solo sounds are there in the forms of bass and alto saxophones, as well as deriving all of the film’s percussive sounds from the saxophones themselves, as I do in my solo composition. But I also utilized a bit of the brass world, both french horn and trumpet make appearances and a key melodic and sonic element was provided by the Lyricon, a rare analog wind synth from the 1970s”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Colin Stetson/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It seems like horror films are still a big draw and bringing the very best out of directors/actors. Even if, for the most part, we have moved away from the classic era and seeing a more eclectic and variable scene – from the cliché horror films of high-school kids getting cut to ribbons to the brilliant psychological pictures that shock the sh*t out of the unsuspecting viewer – the music that soundtracks the films is not dropping in terms of quality. There is a lot to be said for the fireworks-laden compositions but, to me, the sounds that are committed to memory longest are those that take away the breath…

WITHOUT pulling out the tongue.