Vol 3: HORROR BUSINESS
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
The tritone, also known as a diminished fifth, “The Devil’s Chord,” or diabolus in musica, is a harmonic interval that creates dissonance, hence its ominous nicknames. Where most chords adhere to traditional tonality— that is, a series of notes within the same scale that resolve in a satisfying way— the tritone suspends that resolution. The result can sound tense, ugly, or eerie, depending on the musical context. Composers largely avoided the interval during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, which led to an enduring rumor that the Church banned its usage. In reality, the supposed “ban” had more to do with taste than superstition, as religious authorities thought that music— just another medium in which to praise God— should sound beautiful and inspirational, not unsettling. Over the course of the Baroque and Romantic eras, however, the tritone became accepted not only on a technical level, but as a mode of artistic expression. Popular examples are too numerous to count— Tartini, Liszt, Wagner, Saint-Saëns, et al— but suffice it to say that, by the 19th century, the Devil had taken up full-time residence in music.
Flash forward to October 16th, 1969. Jimi Hendrix had already turned the tritone into a Top 10 hit with “Purple Haze” two years earlier, but four shaggy Brummies were about to maximize the interval’s true potential. Black Sabbath— the band, the song, the album— not only birthed heavy metal, but forged an association between rock music and horror cinema that would only deepen with time. Taking their name from the English title of Mario Bava’s I tre volti della paura (“The Three Faces of Fear”), a 1963 horror anthology featuring Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath channeled their love of the genre into an aesthetic that would set them apart from their peers in the British blues scene. While Cream and Led Zeppelin recycled Delta blues through Marshall stacks, Sabbath’s principal songwriters— guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Terence “Geezer” Butler— looked to Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1916) and the soundtracks of Hammer Film Productions instead. A British studio specializing in gothic horror, Hammer produced a string of monster movies starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, most of them scored by James Bernard, such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Next to the classical pieces favored by American filmmakers— director Tod Browning featured Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Schubert in the original Dracula (1931)— Bernard’s work is essentially an homage, firmly rooted in the tritonal explorations of the 19th century. These dissonant qualities assumed an even greater heft in the hands of Tony Iommi, who at age 17 lost the tips of his righthand middle and ring fingers while working in a sheet metal factory. Adjusting to his disability, Iommi start tuning his guitar down several steps to loosen the strings, lending Sabbath’s music a funereal vibe that later generations of metalheads would come to classify as ‘doom.’ As the music grew heavier, the films that inspired it grew spookier— an exponential dovetailing of mediums that continues to this day.
All the while, the sounds of horror would continue to evolve on their own terms. Mario Bava and his Italian peers were among the first to move past the genre’s Victorian roots and embrace modernity. Bava did so not only in terms of setting, but in his choice of Roberto Nicolosi, a jazz bassist and bandleader, as his go-to composer. Their fourth collaboration, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, is widely considered to be the first giallo film, a thriller/horror genre that evolved out of pulp novels, specifically the series Il Giallo Mondadori (“Mondadori Yellow”), featuring Italian translations of Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Chandler, et al. The Girl Who Knew Too Much features Nicolosi’s most jazz-forward score, with overtly Hitchcockian sequences set to bursts of big-band swing. This choice is not without precedent, given the predominance of jazz in crime films— Miles Davis in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), Martial Solal in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959)— but Bava and Nicolosi were among the first to edge these sounds out of noir and into horror. Rather than telegraph fear or danger through music cues, Nicolosi presages the age of ironic needle-drops, e.g. the torture scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs: unpleasant images set to pleasant music, an incongruity that only amplifies the horrific effect.
For the English-language release of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, however, US distributors retitled the film The Evil Eye and hired Les Baxter to replace Nicolosi’s score— as they had done with Black Sabbath— with all the familiar cues of neoclassical orchestration: tympani and brass to intimate doom, violin stings of shock, the ubiquitous tritone. Where the Italian versions of Bava’s films both looked and sounded modern, the English versions suffered from old-fashioned scores better suited to gothic horror a la Hammer, or Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations. As such, Bava and Nicolosi’s innovation— the juxtaposition of slasher thrills with contemporary jazz— was limited to a largely European audience. In the mid ‘60s, however, the continent was a hotbed for nascent auteurs, their filmmaking aspirations invigorated by Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, and the Polish Film School. It was only a matter of time before those sensibilities found their way into Hollywood, smuggled by immigrants and coopted by American film brats.
A graduate of the National Film School in Poland, Roman Polanski enlisted jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda to score several of his films, starting with his debut, Knife in the Water (1962). The film tells the story of a young couple who impulsively invite a hitchhiker on a sailing trip. An ensuing rivalry between the men leads to acts of sex, violence, and betrayal, all of them belied by Komeda’s score, a sophisticated blend of hard bop and modal jazz that never intrudes into the realm of plot. Polanski took much the same approach on Repulsion (1965), for which he recruited drummer/bandleader Chico Hamilton, a former sideman for the likes of Lester Young, Count Basie, and Lena Horne (to name a few). In contrast to its hip jazz soundtrack, Repulsion takes one step closer to horror— albeit the psychological sort— in its depiction of a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) with a murderous contempt for men’s sexual advances. The film is unsettling enough— especially in hindsight— but it wasn’t until three years later that Polanksi would make the full transition to the genre and, in doing so, craft one of its most enduring classics. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) features Komeda at his most unconventional, mixing jazz and orchestral flourishes with haunting lullabies and chants. At last, the two modes of horror score— the traditional and the modern, the plot-driven and the aloof— had merged into a single sound, and a stylistic principle that Polanski’s peers both in the States and abroad were quick to adopt.
Often cited as the greatest horror film of all time, The Exorcist (1973) is nothing short of a cinematic landmark, and a rare instance of a genre becoming more mature and more popular at the same time. The film was a certified blockbuster, grossing over $112 million in its original theatrical run, second only to The Sting that year. Critical reception, on the other hand, was mixed: the New York Times’ Vincent Canby famously called the film “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap” while Roger Ebert hailed it a 4-star masterpiece, his enthusiasm mitigated only by his concern that the film didn’t get the X rating it deserved. While not as fraught as the making of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist’s journey from best-selling novel to the big screen had its own share of hiccups. Director William Friedkin initially wanted to hire Bernard Herrmann— Hitchcock’s composer— but the latter was so vocal in his disdain for the working cut that Friedkin had no choice but to move on. Enter Lalo Schifrin, an equally prolific film & TV composer perhaps best known for the Mission: Impossible theme, as well the scores for Bullitt and Dirty Harry. “What happened is that (Friedkin) hired me to write the music for the trailer, six minutes were recorded for the Warner’s edition of the trailer,” Schifrin says in a 2005 interview with Score Magazine. “The people who saw the trailer reacted against the film, because the scenes were heavy and frightening, so most of them went to the toilet to vomit. The trailer was terrific, but the mix of those frightening scenes and my music, which was also a very difficult and heavy score, scared the audiences away. So, the Warner Brothers executives said Friedkin to tell me that I must write less dramatic and softer score… but Friedkin didn’t tell me what they said. I’m sure he did it deliberately.” Legend has it that, upon hearing the next pass of Schifrin’s score, Friedkin unceremoniously threw the tapes into the trash on his way out of the studio. What survives of that infamous trailer music shows Schifrin channeling Krzysztof Penderecki, a contemporary Polish composer who excelled in sonorism, an avant-garde style prioritizing timbre and texture over melody. The hair-raising tone clusters and shrieking glissandos favored by Penderecki— see Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) for a prime example— have crept into the horror canon via the films of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Friedkin himself, who went on to include multiple Penderecki pieces in The Exorcist after rejecting Schifrin’s sonoristic score. Go figure.
In addition, Friedkin featured an excerpt of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells, Part One,” one of two side-long epics on the 1973 album of the same name. Tubular Bells was the inaugural release on Virgin Records, co-founded just a year prior by 22-year-old entrepreneur Richard Branson. “One day, an engineer from the Manor (Virgin’s recording studio) rang me and said he'd heard this incredible instrumental demo tape by a teenager called Mike Oldfield,” Branson recalls in The Guardian. “By the time I heard the tape, he was the second reserve guitarist in the musical Hair, and was frustrated and desperate to get an album out. I took the tape to record companies: Mercury said they'd release it if Mike added vocals, which he didn't want at all. Eventually, we decided to just set up our own record company.” With the help of influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, Tubular Bells began its slow but steady climb to the top of the album charts, reaching #1 in the UK and #3 in the US— no small feat for an instrumental record divided into 25-minute suites. In ’74, a single version of “Part One”— the first three sections edited down to just under 4 minutes— charted at #7 in the US. The fact that Oldfield tapped into progressive rock at the height of the its popularity— Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon also debuted in ’73— explains much of Tubular Bells’ convention-defying success, as does as its inclusion in The Exorcist. To this day, most people remember the haunting piano figure that opens “Part One” as the film’s de facto theme, and perhaps the prime example of the sound Komeda helped pioneer with Rosemary’s Baby.
With jazz and prog rock already at the forefront of filmic fright, the ‘70s would usher in a new wave of crossovers between horror cinema and popular music— in both directions. Back in Italy, gialli were growing in popularity thanks to writer/director Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) brought new levels of violence, sexuality, and stylization to the genre. In Argento’s syrup-stained hands, the giallo became the Italian equivalent of the American slasher flick— the Spaghetti Slasher, if you will. In ’75, Argento hired jazz pianist Giorgio Gaslini and an obscure prog band called Cherry Five to collaborate on an original score for Deep Reed, another giallo about a pianist (David Hemmings) investigating a series of grisly murders. Gaslini soon dropped out due to creative tensions with Argento, leaving Cherry Five to complete the score on a 24-hour deadline. With the challenge came a change of name, one better suited to the project itself— Goblin, often credited as 'The Goblins.' Led by guitarist Massimo Morante and keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, Goblin more than rose to the occasion with their groundbreaking score, which ironically has more in common with the sections of Tubular Bells not featured in The Exorcist. In place of a traditional orchestra, the band stuck to their prog guns— electric guitar, synthesizers, bass, drums— and further mined the tritonal connection between rock and horror that Black Sabbath built back in ‘69.
Goblin went on to collaborate with Argento on multiple films, including his magnum opus, Suspiria (1977). The film marks a departure from the giallo style, telling the story of an American ballet student (Jessica Harper) who exposes— and ultimately falls prey to— an evil coven at a German dance academy. The score features all the core ingredients of Deep Red, this time with semi-orchestral flourishes— celesta, bells, and choral chants a la Rosemary’s Baby— to amplify the film’s occult themes. Goblin started to drift apart thereafter, but various members would stick around to score George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)— co-written by Argento and released as Zombi in Europe— plus Argento’s return to giallo, Tenebrae (1982). The director kept at it with a host of prominent rock musicians throughout the '80s: Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer on Inferno (1980)— the thematic sequel to Suspiria— as well as Brian Eno and The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman on the synth-heavy Opera (1987).
Meanwhile, in Germany, another auteur— the enigmatic Werner Herzog— had found his own Goblin in the form of Popol Vuh. Named after an ancient Mayan (K’iche’) text that loosely translates to “Book of the People,” the band was part of an ‘60s-‘70s avant-rock movement known as “krautrock” or— more descriptively— “Kosmische Musik.” Other practitioners included Can, Neu!, Faust, and Tangerine Dream, who went on to score Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). At turns hypnotic and ethereal, electronic and organic, the genre shares qualities with prog and psychedelia before it, a key distinction being the Germans’ commitment to ambience— as befits a certain kind of film score. When Popol Vuh moved away from the Moog synthesizer experiments of their first two albums in favor of more varied instrumentation, their music became more cinematic. In ’72, Herzog commissioned Popol Vuh to score Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the story of Spanish conquistadores who lose their minds (and lives) searching for El Dorado in the Amazon rainforest. Herzog and the band’s founder, Florian Fricke, were already friends— the director had even cast Fricke in Signs of Life (1968)— and on Aguirre they proved a match made in heaven.
Like Argento and Goblin, Herzog and Popol Vuh seemed inspired by their own creative chemistry, reuniting for several films— among them, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), a remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 take on Dracula. With the inimitable Klaus Kinski in the iconic Max Schreck role, the film itself is more oblique and atmospheric than any vampire film before it, and Popol Vuh delivered on that demand. Their score adheres to no single genre, but encompasses many: Romanticism by way of contemplative piano, oboe, and choir; folksy acoustic guitar a la Fairport Convention; sitar & tanpura “Mantras” lifted from Hindustani classical music; ambient Moog passages; electrified eruptions of Mike Oldfield-style prog. Such experimentation took the sonic precedents of Oldfield and Goblin a step further, albeit beyond the confines of popular music— strictly speaking— and into the looming shadows of postmodernism.
One can only speculate as to whether Stanley Kubrick had seen Herzog’s Nosferatu when he made The Shining a year later, but the similarity between the films’ musical themes is striking. The latter, a 13th century Gregorian chant called “Dies irae,” was arranged & performed by Moog pioneers Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, whom Kubrick had featured before— see their electronic interpretations of Beethoven and Rossini in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Here, Carlos & Elkind make a Medieval funeral mass sound at once modern and ancient, in keeping with the (sometimes literal) bleeding of time that takes place at the Overlook Hotel throughout the film. The score also evokes The Exorcist, as the iconic opening of “Tubular Bells” is itself a reworking of “Dies irae.” Spooky synths, eerie chanting, a four-note minor figure almost as ominous (and ubiquitous) as the tritone— in so many ways, Wendy Carlos’s “Dies irae” is the apotheosis of this particular mode of horror score.
Of course, this cultural intersection is more of a traffic circle than a two-way stop, and one can’t put the words “rock” and “horror” together without mentioning The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Adapted from the ‘73 musical of the same name (minus the word “Picture”), Rocky Horror is the campy quintessence of a midnight movie, and its cult following has only grown over time, in large part due to the film's significance in the LGBTQ+ community. To this day, fans of every stripe turn out to singalong screenings, often dressed as their favorite characters— Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter being the perennial favorite, and easily Rocky Horror’s most iconic role. The film was shot partly on location at Oakley Court, a Victorian Gothic manor in the English countryside featured in several Hammer films. This visual homage underscores the creators’ intent, as director Jim Sharman and writer Richard O’Brien fashioned the musical as a loving parody of Hammer and its ilk. The opening number, “Science Fiction / Double Feature,” even namechecks a laundry list of vintage horror and sci-fi: The Invisible Man, King Kong, The Day The Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, Forbidden Planet, Night of the Demon, and The Day of the Triffids.
Contrary to its cultural impact, however, Rocky Horror wasn’t the first film to attempt this unwieldy balance of horror, comedy, and rock music. That distinction belongs to Phantom of The Paradise (1974), written & directed by Brian DePalma. Having dabbled in the slasher subgenre with Sisters two years earlier, DePalma hatched this bizarrely entertaining rock opera, a trifold pastiche of Faust, Dorian Gray, and The Phantom of the Opera set in the modern music industry. Paul Williams— the A-list songwriter behind “Rainbow Connection” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”— not only wrote the music, but also plays the villain, a record producer named Swan who makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for eternal youth. The film also stars Sisters’ William Finley as the titular Phantom, a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as the love interest, and Gerrit Graham as Beef, a glam-rock divo who bears a suspicious likeness to Frank N. Furter. Did Sharman & O’Brien rip off Phantom, or had DePalma caught the original Rocky Horror production in London the year before? More likely than not, both camps were referencing David Bowie— right down to hiring Pierre La Roche, Bowie’s makeup artist, for Rocky Horror. The uncanny parallels extend to the films’ music: both Frank N. Furter’s “Sweet Transvestite” and Beef’s “Life At Last” could pass for New York Dolls B-sides. In general, the songs on each soundtrack sound less like traditional showtunes than what was popular at the time: Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (1971), Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack (1974). Bowie himself had covered Williams’ “Fill Your Heart” on Hunky Dory (1971), minting a sound— equal parts glam and baroque pop— that would become a template of sorts for Phantom. Likewise, the fact that a pre-fame Meat Loaf sang “Hot Patootie (Bless My Soul)” in Rocky Horror two years ahead of his operatic debut, Bat Out Of Hell (1977), shows the degree to which O’Brien had tapped into the rock & roll zeitgeist.
That influence continued to flow both ways, however, as more and more rock musicians sought to séance the specters of the silver screen. In ‘75, six months before Rocky Horror hit theaters, Alice Cooper released Welcome to My Nightmare, a concept album influenced by Broadway and Hollywood alike. The album marked Cooper’s fifth collaboration with producer Bob Ezrin, who had just finished working on another concept album, Lou Reed’s Berlin (1973); Ezrin’s subsequent involvement in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) speaks to his affinity for this sprawling format. For Nightmare, Ezrin brought aboard many of the session musicians from Berlin— including guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner— to replace Cooper’s band, which had broken up the year before. The result is an immaculately produced oddity of rock record, framed as a narrative journey through a child’s nightmares, with an abundance of theatrical elements— orchestra, cabaret piano, spoken word— to complicate Cooper’s deceptively poppy brand of glam. The outro of “Devil’s Food” contains the album’s most cinema-savvy cameo: the one and only Vincent Price— a bona fide horror idol— provides a sinister, purring monologue about killer spiders that sets up the next track, “The Black Widow.” Price legitimizes Cooper & Ezrin’s vision even as he emphasizes the fundamental campiness of it all— a welcome sense of humor in a medium that often takes itself too seriously. In keeping with its theatrical ambitions, the album spawned a touring stage show— directed & choregraphed by David Winters of Viva Las Vegas fame— along with a 1976 concert film and a TV special featuring Price in the flesh. The film was a commercial flop, though it would eventually return from the grave as a midnight movie, playing on the same bills as Phantom of the Paradise and Rocky Horror.
As other artists began to emulate horror the way Black Sabbath did on their eponymous debut, the music itself grew harder and heavier. On Spectres (1977), Blue Öyster Cult packed “Godzilla” and “Nosferatu” with guitar riffs worthy of their monstrous namesakes— sensibilities would come to define the first wave of heavy metal proper and its film-literate adherents. Among them, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were perhaps the first to achieve a sound that truly matched the spectacle. On Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), Judas Priest coopted the perspective of England’s most famous serial killer— “The Ripper,” as in Jack. The Whitechapel Murderer had already been immortalized by novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes in The Lodger (1913) and its three film adaptations, the first directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. At this point, Jack the Ripper was as embedded in pop culture as his fictional counterparts, Dracula and Frankenstein. Priest’s own axemen, Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing, channel their subject via twin-guitar harmonies— a NWOBHM signature— locked into a suitably gothic A-minor riff, while vocalist Rob Halford approximates the victims’ screams with his own operatic shriek.
Hot on Priest’s heels, Iron Maiden released their self-titled debut in ‘80, and on it, “Phantom of the Opera,” a tribute either to the 1910 novel of the same name, written by Gaston Leroux, or the 1925 film adaptation starring Lon Chaney (likely both).
“You’re standing in the wings
There you wait for the curtain to fall
And knowing the terror and holding you have on us all”
Bassist/chief songwriter Steve Harris not only references the story in his lyrics, but also evokes its chilling climax with an epic 4-minute instrumental suite. Both the novel and the film end with the Phantom abducting the object of his desire, Christine, and torturing her would-be rescuers in his dungeon beneath the Paris Opera House. The song mirrors these stakes as Dave Murray & Dennis Stratton’s Priestian guitarmonies— wire choir!— build like a maelstrom to the outro: “You haunt me, you taunt me / You torture me back at your lair.” Like Sabbath before them, Maiden honored their extratextual influences with a sound and a look every bit as sinister.
Meanwhile, in Lodi, New Jersey, a strain of rock music even more indebted to horror was taking shape. The Misfits— named after the last film to star Marilyn Monroe— fused early hardcore, Elvis, and schlock cinema into ‘horror punk.’ Their third single, “Horror Business” (1978), reframes the murder of Nancy Spungen— allegedly at the hands of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious— as a slasher story, with the skull-faced villain from The Crimson Ghost (1946) as the cover art. This figure would become the band’s mascot, and the lynchpin of a goth aesthetic that encompassed the bands’ fashion sense: black leather, biker gloves, and devilocks. They continued to express their movie tastes as a general rule of songwriting, from “Night of the Living Dead,” inspired by George Romero’s 1968 zombie classic, to “Return of the Fly,” in which lead singer Glenn Danzig— a.k.a. Evil Elvis— namedrops Vincent Price, who starred in both The Fly (1958) and its sequel (1959). The original Misfits lineup disbanded in ’83, though Danzig would go on to lead a successful solo career with similar thematic preoccupations.
On the Misfits’ Walk Among Us (1982), Danzig penned a love letter to “Vampira,” otherwise known as Maila Nurmi, television’s first horror host. The Vampira Show aired on LA’s KABC-TV— channel 7— from ’54 to ’55, broadcasting classic horror flicks with live introductions by Nurmi’s ghoulish yet sultry alter ego. As Vampira, Nurmi took her iconic look from Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons a decade before they were adapted into The Addams Family. Her show gained a cult following despite its short run and local audience, eventually spawning an ‘80s reboot, Elvira’s Movie Macabre, with Cassandra Peterson as the titular host. Three years ahead of the Misfits, The Damned— the UK’s first punk band— commemorated the real-life friendship between Nurmi and James Dean on “Plan 9 Channel 7” from Machine Gun Etiquette (1979). The song’s title references both The Vampira Show and her mute cameo in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), what some consider the worst film ever made (Danzig also christened his label Plan 9 Records). These influences extend to the ‘vampire chic’ of The Damned’s frontman, Dave Vanian, a walking mutation of Vampira and the Rebel Without a Cause.
At New York’s CBGB, a wellspring for punk and new wave in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, The Cramps midwifed a spiritual sibling to horror punk called ‘psychobilly,’ fusing several strains of ‘50s nostalgia: rockabilly, surf, garage rock, and the subject matter of schlock cinema. Think “Monster Mash” by way of The Stooges; kitsch injected with sex and menace. They recorded their 1980 debut, Songs the Lord Taught Us, at Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis with Big Star’s Alex Chilton producing. “(The Cramps) were obsessed with early rock’n’roll and all the contemporaneous artifacts of lowbrow culture: B-movie sexploitation flicks, serial killers, pin-up girls, the type of comic books that represent a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency,” writes Pitchfork’s Ana Gaca in a recent retrospective. “The things they left to the imagination—werewolves, UFOs, man-sized insects—were more fantastic still. And like John Waters or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Cramps attracted a cult following.” Their debut’s highlight, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” is an homage to the 1957 film of the same name, with jangly Link Wray-style guitars counterpointing wryly parodic lyrics: “A Midwest monster / Of the highest grade / All my teachers thought / It was growing pains.”
If the Misfits and the Cramps approached these subjects with tongues planted firmly in cheek, Bauhaus did so with a straight face. Emerging from the UK underground on the heels of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, Bauhaus helped edge punk further away from its rock & roll roots and into the realm of the gothic. Their debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (1979), is a post-punk eulogy for the original Count Dracula himself, purposefully conflating the immortal legacy of a horror icon with the literal immortality of a vampire: “Bela Lugosi’s dead / Undead undead undead.” The song eventually found its way into Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), with Bauhaus themselves performing it in the opening credits. The Hunger depicts a love triangle between a gerontologist (Susan Sarandon) and two vampires (David Bowie & Catherine Deneuve), one of whom has started aging as a result of insomnia. Between Rocky Horror’s heroine, Repulsion’s anti-ingenue, and the Thin White Duke himself, the players here could not be better suited to the material, coupled with special effects by Dick Smith— the man who brought you the rotating head and green vomit in The Exorcist. “The durability of the vampirism metaphor means that it can be molded to fit any theme or ideas about the world a creator has,” writes Kayleigh Donaldson of Syfy Wire. “Nowadays, The Hunger is a strange beast that feels simultaneously like a relic and a story ahead of its time… There are no fangs, no capes, and the sun doesn't turn anyone to dust. Here, vampires are predators of class and taste, but no less ruthless for it in the long run.” That Brian Morris’s production design and Milena Canonero’s costumes became blueprints for goth fashion— with Dave Vanian and Bauhaus among the early adopters— is a testament to the film’s synthesis of creepy and stylish, the macabre and the erotic.
With so many occult sounds lurking at the fringes of the mainstream, pop music was bound to fall under the same spell sooner or later. Before starring in The Hunger, David Bowie teamed up with producer Giorgio Moroder to record a theme song for Cat People (1982), Paul Schrader’s loose remake of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur film. Both put a feline spin on the werewolf myth, and the original notably includes one of cinema’s first ‘jump scares.’ In keeping with the times, Schrader maximizes the lurid potential of his source material, doubling down on the sex and the body horror alike. Bowie & Moroder’s standout theme, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” reconciles goth rock with the radio-friendly sensibilities of Let’s Dance (1983), Bowie’s highest-selling album. Though licensing issues forced Bowie to rerecord the track, the film version— originally released as a single in ’82— was an international hit on its own, and its popularity endures to this day, thanks in no small part to Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds.
The same year that “Cat People” hit the airwaves, the true behemoth of pop was loosed upon the world: Thriller. With the help of Quincy Jones and members of Toto, Michael Jackson crafted the biggest album of all time, with seven Top 10 singles and 66 million copies sold to date (that’s 33x platinum). These figures, though well-documented by now, never cease to stagger the imagination. The title track became an MTV staple thanks to its longform music video, starring Jackson— at turns lycanthropic and zombified— and an undead flash mob, with behind-the-scenes credits that read like a horror marquee: directed by John Landis, narrated by Vincent Price, with makeup effects by Rick Baker and additional score by Elmer Bernstein. Jackson personally selected Landis on the strength of his previous film, An American Werewolf in London (1981), and its modern blend of deadpan humor, ironic needle-drops, and convincing practical effects (also by Baker). Though “Thriller” and its video are forever cemented in pop culture, their legacy is irrevocably tainted by the skeletons in their creators’ respective closets.
If Michael Jackson succeeded in mashing up horror and pop on commercial terms, his achievement proved largely superficial. Thriller is a lot of things— immaculately crafted, catchy as all hell, problematic in retrospect— but ‘scary’ isn’t one of them. The infamous tritone held no sway over the erstwhile ‘King of Pop,’ and yet one needed only turn the dial a few stations to the left to hear the Devil’s Chord. As the Priests and Maidens of the world took up the metal mantle in the early-mid ‘80s, Black Sabbath soldiered on without their lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, whom they’d sacked on the grounds of substance abuse. As history shows, however, the rift proved beneficial to both sides: Sabbath’s first two post-Ozzy albums— helmed by the late great Ronnie James Dio— are minor classics, while Ozzy himself went on to become a certified superstar. One look at his solo albums' covers will tell you the man never abandoned his horror roots, and that impression holds true upon closer listening. On Bark at the Moon (1983) and its title track, Ozzy approximates the vibe of a werewolf movie without referencing any one in particular— though he had probably seen An American Werewolf in London, too. From Jake E. Lee’s razor-sharp riffs to Ozzy’s bursts of madcap laughter between vengeance-themed verses, “Bark at the Moon” is the perfect complement to its cinematic influences, just as “Black Sabbath” was to Hammer over a decade earlier.
Innocuous as Ozzy might seem in hindsight, especially through the lens of MTV’s The Osbournes, there was a time that some considered his music legitimately dangerous, or at least sought to profit from that misperception. In ’83, a Canadian man murdered a woman and her two children, then claimed that “Bark at the Moon” compelled him to commit the act. A year later, a teenager in California took his own life while listening to Ozzy’s music. The family sued Ozzy, citing the song “Suicide Solution”— written as a warning about the dangers of alcoholism— with unfounded allegations of subliminal messages. A similar controversy would later plague Judas Priest over their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better than Me.” These sorts of lawsuits often go down in history as conservative infringements on free speech, the worst case being the baseless Senate hearing led by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in ‘85. Viewed from a different angle, however, they’re an unfortunate but necessary reminder that the horrors depicted in art are often all too real.
In ’86, Ozzy thumbed his nose at his detractors with a cameo in Trick or Treat, appearing as a televangelist with an anti-metal agenda. Directed by Charles Martin Smith, the film tells the story of a teen (Marc Price) haunted by the ghost of a metal musician (Tony Fields); Fastway— led by former members of Motörhead and UFO— provided the latter’s music, lending a layer of authenticity that only compounds the B-movie absurdity of it all. Trick or Treat boldly capitalized on heavy metal’s long-standing love affair with horror, as did a number of films from the same era. In ‘85, Lamberto Bava (son of Mario) packed Demons— produced by Dario Argento— with its fair share of headbanging needle-drops; as music critic and splatter aficionado Jeff Treppel notes, “The scene where a guy rides through the movie theater on a dirt bike chopping up demons with a samurai sword to Accept’s ‘Fast as a Shark’ may be the most metal thing ever put to film.” Less than a year later, Stephen King soundtracked his directorial debut, the universally maligned Maximum Overdrive, with a mix of old hits and new cuts by his favorite band, AC/DC. King later tapped the Ramones for Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Pet Sematary (1989) and its title track. Dokken provided the same service for the third installment in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Dream Warriors (1987), setting a precedent for the likes of Billy Idol, W.A.S.P., and Fates Warning to haunt the sequels.
In any medium, the inevitable desensitization of audiences begets extremism on the artists’ part. Sex and violence get more explicit, and stylization intensifies. Hammer films seem quaint compared to The Exorcist and its groundbreaking effects, and yet even Pazuzu can’t hold a candle to the nauseating brutality of the Saw franchise. Likewise, Ozzy and Iron Maiden aren’t actually Satanists, but next to Ray Parker Jr., they sound like the Devil incarnate. This phenomenon typically has as much to do with technique as it does content. Virtuosity holds the potential for banality and terror in equal measure— consider the difference between Kenny G and John Zorn— but when paired with the right intent, such skill has an uncanny power over the listener. Metal musicians love to write about evil and its many faces, but they usually have the chops to realize those subjects in all their disturbing detail. That dynamic holds true for the next wave of bands, whose inhuman innovations would make even Maiden feel tame by comparison.
Formed by a brood of Bay Area teens in ’83, Possessed not only released what’s widely considered the first death metal album, Seven Churches (1985), but also coined the term itself on the record’s final song. Its title? “Death Metal.” “I came up with that during an English class in high school,” says singer/bassist Jeff Becerra in Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death. “We were playing this music and we were trying to be the heaviest thing on the face of the planet. We wanted just to piss people off and send everybody home. And that can’t be, like, flower metal.” Seven Churches also includes “The Exorcist,” a monstrous ode to Friedkin’s masterpiece, complete with a 30-second “Tubular Bells” intro. Off this familiar invocation of the “Dies irae” comes the tritone at its fastest and fiercest, courtesy of a pre-Primus Larry LaLonde on guitar. That Becerra’s ragged vocals have more in common with a Mesopotamian demon— voiced by Mercedes McCambridge in the film— than anything ever put to tape at that point in history only sells the tribute that much more.
In Central Florida, 17-year-old Chuck Schuldiner took inspiration from his West Coast peers in Possessed and from Sam Raimi’s low-budget cult classic Evil Dead (1981) as he and his bandmates— then under the moniker Mantas— cut their primitive Death by Metal demo in ’84. After a change of personnel and name, Schuldiner led the newly christened Death (not to be confused with the ‘70s punk band of the same name) into the annals of extreme metal history with Scream Bloody Gore (1987), eclipsing Seven Churches in terms of musical heaviness and lyrical shock value. In the words of Decibel’s Shawn Macomber, Death’s debut is the “sui generis pursuit of brutality for art’s sake.” Amidst such evocatively tracks as “Regurgitated Guts” and “Baptized in Blood,” there’s “Evil Dead,” a holdover from Death by Metal and a direct nod to the film that inspired the band’s aesthetic: visceral, manic, unpolished. Schuldiner would eventually move away from the whole blood ‘n’ guts shtick in favor of more mature subjects— identity, consciousness, mental health— with increasingly technical, progressive arrangements, but the impact of Scream Bloody Gore has only grown with time. A trail had been blazed for a slumbering legion of horror-inspired acts, from Deicide to Dimmu Borgir, and there was no turning back.
As certain strains of metal became more and more extreme, others splintered off and infected the mainstream, as Ozzy, Priest, and Maiden had a decade earlier. In ‘94, a who’s who of all things dark and/or heavy— The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Henry Rollins, Pantera, Helmet— came together for the soundtrack to The Crow, Alex Proyas’ adaptation of the comics by James O’Barr. Reframing the superhero genre through the lens of horror, The Crow follows a rock musician (Brandon Lee) who comes back from the dead to avenge his murdered fiancée (Sofia Shinas). An infamous on-set accident led to Lee’s death at the age of 28, forever miring the film’s legacy in tragedy, even as its influence endured. To date, at least three film franchises have depicted horror/sci-fi superheroes decked out in black leather and rocking similar soundtracks: The Matrix, Resident Evil, and Underworld. Taken out of context today, this cinematic canon feels like a time capsule buried underneath a Hot Topic. Of all the songs featured in The Crow, Nine Inch Nails’ industrial take on Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” is the best indication of where rock music was headed in the mid-late ‘90s. Case in point: the song was recorded during the same sessions that yielded NIN’s The Downward Spiral (1994), which debuted at #2 on the Billboard albums chart and went platinum several times over, as did The Crow’s soundtrack.
Around the same time, Rob Zombie took NIN’s sonic formula, injected a strong dose of Alice Cooper’s shock-rock showmanship, and turned it into a multimedia brand. His 13-year tenure in the NYC-based band White Zombie— named after the 1932 film starring Bela Lugosi— saw a transition from noise rock to horror-themed industrial metal, complete with samples of movie dialogue: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Phantasm (to name only a few). In ’98, Zombie hit the bigtime with his solo debut, Hellbilly Deluxe, a triple-platinum smash to rival The Downward Spiral. A club remix of “Dragula” showed up in The Matrix a year later, but it’s “Living Dead Girl” and its music video— a pastiche of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)— that best encapsulate Zombie as an artist. The fact that he directed videos for all three of Hellbilly Deluxe’s singles only hinted at his filmmaking ambitions. Between his feature debut, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and his controversial remake of Halloween (2007), Zombie has since established himself as a horror auteur, with devotees and detractors in equal measure.
Speaking of Halloween, is there any filmmaker— horror or otherwise— who has married image and sound more cohesively than John Carpenter? The fact that the man scored his own films certainly sets him apart from the pack, as do the distinctive motifs of said scores. Like Goblin and Popol Vuh, Carpenter made extensive use of piano and synthesizers, in particular the Prophet-5, as heard on the main theme from the original Halloween (1978). Every bit as recognizable as “Tubular Bells” and the “Dies irae,” if not more so, the Halloween theme set a standard for not only Carpenter himself, but an entire generation of electronic composers to come— be it S U R V I V E and Stranger Things (2016-present), Steve Moore’s scores for The Guest (2014) and Mayhem (2017), or the dark synthwave sounds of Carpenter Brut and Perturbator. “There’s something about the artificial nature of synthesizers that lends itself to telling scary stories through sound,” writes Jeff Treppel in Bandcamp Daily. “Many composers that gravitate towards the device also gravitate towards the realm of horror—possibly because they absorbed the groundbreaking soundtrack work of John Carpenter and Goblin, or possibly because both things appeal to outsiders.”
After taking his usual approach to The Fog (1980), Carpenter broadened his palette on Escape from New York (1981), introducing guitars and more prominent percussion, including a BÖC-worthy cowbell. The film likewise trades horror for dystopian action, and it notably marks Carpenter’s first collaboration with another composer, Alan Howarth. Having cut his teeth as a guitar tech for Weather Report and a sound designer on the original Star Trek films, Howarth brought a new degree of sophistication to Carpenter’s score, which the director apparently wanted to sound like Tangerine Dream meets The Police. The two would continue working together for seven more films, with one notable outlier: The Thing (1982).
For the story of an Antarctic research station beset by a shapeshifting alien parasite, Carpenter turned to none other than Ennio Morricone for an infusion of new musical DNA. Between the films of Sergio Leone and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, for which he scored his first Oscar nomination, Morricone had already cemented himself as a legend, and a prolific one at that: The Thing marks his 296th credit out of a whopping lifetime total of 519. By that point, the man was no stranger to horror, having scored Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and John Boorman’s 1977 sequel to The Exorcist. The Thing presented a new challenge, however, as Carpenter proved reluctant to move away from the stylistic hallmarks of his previous scores. The director was above all else a fan of Morricone, to whom he personally admitted, “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” That dynamic, coupled with the language barrier between the American and the Italian, compromised their collaboration from day one. “[Morricone] had written several pieces for The Thing, and I told him that he was using too many notes for the title track and that he should simplify it,” says Carpenter. “He did simplify it, and the title track that you hear is his. He did all the orchestrations and recorded for me 20 minutes of music I could use wherever I wished but without seeing any footage. I cut his music into the film and realized that there were places, mostly scenes of tension, in which his music would not work.” Carpenter and an uncredited Howarth eventually filled those gaps with ambient synth pieces— what Carpenter calls, “background sounds, something today you might even consider as sound effects”— while the bulk of Morricone’s score went unused. Three decades later, Morricone won his long-overdue Oscar for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), another tale of snowbound horror, for which the composer shrewdly repurposed his leftovers from The Thing.
Over the course of his 50-year career, Carpenter continued to seek out noteworthy collaborators both onscreen and off, albeit to mixed results. Ghosts of Mars (2001) is generally considered one of Carpenter’s worst films, and yet the soundtrack credits read like a metalhead’s fantasy league: Anthrax, Steve Vai, Buckethead, Robin Finck (NIN, Guns N’ Roses). If the guitar-heavy score doesn’t do much to save the film, at least the ingredients make sense. The most qualified of the bunch is the one and only Buckethead, not only a six-string virtuoso for the ages, but a horror-obsessed weirdo whose sensibilities— equal parts scary and silly— have always steered him clear of the personality-free trappings of shredcore. On Monsters and Robots (1999), Buckethead teamed up with Bootsy Collins, Bill Laswell, and Les Claypool for a genre-immune symphony of the strange, populated with references to Halloween (“The Shape Vs. Buckethead”) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (“Scapula”). Check out this masterful fan-made video of Bucket sharing the screen with his cinematic influences:
In his full-time commitment to cutting against the grain, even as a day player in a multimillion-dollar enterprise, Buckethead belongs to an informal school of the avant-garde, ‘founded’ by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, that essentially functions as rock & roll Dada. Every adherent operates according to their own subjective notion of the absurd, though certain tropes abound: warped virtuosity, meta-reference, masks (both literal and figurative). Mike Patton ranks as one of this school’s most distinguished alumni, with a slew of musical projects through which to vent his unbridled talents. With a six-octave vocal range, Patton takes many shapes— Gen-X rock star, metal banshee, lounge crooner, primo uomo— even as his deranged sense of humor binds them all. In between his first and second outings with Faith No More, Patton rejoined the band that he co-founded in high school, Mr. Bungle, to cut their self-titled debut (1991). The album was produced by John Zorn, perhaps the ultimate Dadaist in contemporary music. Like Zorn’s Naked City, with whom Patton later collaborated, Mr. Bungle juxtaposes multiple genres and styles— the more incongruous, the better— in the span of a single song, the sonic equivalent of jump cuts.
Patton and Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn later parlayed these Zornian principles into Fantômas, a supergroup with the Melvins' Buzz Osborne on guitar and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo (now a member of Mr. Bungle and Dead Cross). The band takes its name from a series of French crime novels by Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre, first published in 1911 and later adapted into a film trilogy (1964-1967) starring Jean Marais as the titular supervillain. Fantömas’s second album, The Director’s Cut (2001), features covers of film & TV themes, most of them horror; obvious classics— Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Cape Fear— sit alongside more obscure gems, such as Ennio Morricone’s theme from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). These reworked versions range from surprisingly faithful to totally irreverent, the latter sections approximating the avant-thrash vibe of Patton’s other projects.
Of all the pop, rock, and metal artists to vacation in the garden of unearthly delights, Danny Elfman is one of the few who stayed for life— albeit not in the same form as his headbanging contemporaries. As the frontman of Oingo Boingo, he combined new wave hooks, an E.F. Benson ghost story, and Día de Los Muertos imagery on “Dead Man’s Party” (1985), which the band later performed in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. Elfman simultaneously transitioned to film scoring via Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), forming a relationship with director Tim Burton that would last for 35 years and 16 films to date. Over that time, Elfman developed the darkly whimsical style that characterizes his work, be it Burton’s gothic romance Edward Scissorhands or Clive Barker’s fantasy horror Nightbreed, both released in 1990. The composer even got to flex his songwriting muscles again on The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a stop-motion musical produced by Burton and directed by Henry Selick. In keeping with the former’s aesthetic, the film blends horror, fantasy, and comedy— not unlike Phantom of the Paradise before it— into what Selick once described as German Expressionism meets Dr. Seuss. In addition to composing the film’s music, Elfman provided the singing voice for its world-weary hero, Jack Skellington, bridging the gap between his Oscar-nominated scores and Oingo Boingo’s origins as a surrealist theatre troupe.
Goblin and Argento, Popol Vuh and Herzog, Elfman and Burton— this hallowed tradition of unconventional composers partnering with genre-friendly auteurs would continue through the turn of the millennium and beyond. For Candyman (1992), based on a short story by Clive Barker, writer/director Bernard Rose made the inspired decision to hire Philip Glass, the universally revered pioneer of minimalism. Glass’s main theme— recently remixed with Destiny’s Child in the trailer for the forthcoming remake— centers on a stately piano figure, its classical feel both compounded and complicated by layers of choir and pipe organ. The sounds themselves are centuries old, but the arrangements in which Glass deploys them sound distinctly modern. This haunting dialectic mirrors the folkloric aspects of the story: a Chicago grad student (Virginia Madsen) summons the vengeful spirit of a Black painter (Tony Todd) who was lynched for miscegenation in the late 1800s. As noted in this comprehensive listicle from Rolling Stone: “Music by classical composer Philip Glass has been used in so many movies (and ripped off in so many more) that it’s surprising Candyman and the franchise it spawned has been his only serious brush with contemporary horror— surprising, that is, because his trademark hypnotic repetitions and remorseless momentum feel especially well-suited to a genre that thrives on chases, wrong turns and traps.”
By the 2010s, these inspired collaborations become almost too numerous to count— a gift for filmgoers, and a burden for armchair historians. After contributing to several soundtracks, from The Crow to Natural Born Killers to Lost Highway, Trent Reznor finally made the jump to full-on scoring thanks to director David Fincher: first on The Social Network (2010), then The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). For the latter, Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails bandmate Atticus Ross use throbbing industrial soundscapes to put the ‘murder’ back in murder mystery, as Fincher had done with Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007); the former even features NIN’s “Closer” in the eerie opening credits. As with any given Reznor & Ross score, a variety of modern tones abound— piano, synths, drums, warped guitars— but never strings or horns, a departure from scoring tradition that honors the history and future of horror. But the real highlight of Dragon Tattoo is the Se7en-meets-Bond title sequence that opens the film, for which Reznor & Ross repurposed Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" as their de facto theme. The arrangement is pure industrial aggression a la NIN, but it’s Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who sets things over the top (in the best way) with her eerie banshee wails.
Mica Levi, leader of the noise-pop outfit Good Sad Happy Bad (f.k.a. Micachu & The Shapes), exposed a new dimension of her classical training when she scored Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), her experimental sensibilities perfectly suited to the director’s abstract take on sci-fi horror. In an interview with The Guardian, Levi says, “I didn't listen to a lot of other soundtracks while I was writing; I was worried about being porous. A lot of the influences either came from quite visual directions or 20th-century music I'd cut my teeth on at Guildhall: Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage... these big, music-changing composers. But I also took a lot of inspiration from strip-club music and euphoric dance as well.” Levi's willingness to pull from such diametrically opposed sources is not only a virtue of making art in the internet age, but a testament to horror's tolerance for genre hybridity.
The late Jóhann Jóhannsson played in a number of Icelandic indie bands before establishing himself as a celebrated composer in both ambient and contemporary classical modes. Between collaborations with Denis Villeneuve and James Marsh, Jóhannsson lent his Oscar-nominated talents to Panos Cosmastos’ Mandy (2018), a blood-and-LSD-soaked Nic Cage vehicle about a lumberjack taking on a hippie death cult and a gang of cannibal bikers. Cosmatos had previously worked with Sinoia Caves— a synth project by Jeremy Schmidt of psych-rockers Black Mountain— on Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), which apparently attracted Jóhannsson in the first place. “His perspective was, ‘Holy shit, you guys are making something with Panos that is in this nightmarish, psychedelic metal world that I was born and bred on,’” says Mandy producer Elijah Wood (yes, that Elijah Wood) in an interview with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. Cosmatos himself adds, “I said that I basically wanted it to feel a little bit like a disintegrated rock opera, and (Jóhannsson) responded to that.” The result is a stylish score that’s equal parts John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and drone metal, courtesy of the band Sunn O))).
On top of his work with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, multireedist Colin Stetson sounded Gabriel’s horn— in this case, bass sax and contrabass clarinet— on the unnerving scores for Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019). It’s worth noting that Stetson cites Jóhann Jóhannsson— specifically his score for Prisoners (2013)— as a major influence, even as he remains skeptical of genre conventions. To sustain that trend, Ari Aster next enlisted dark ambient/industrial artist Bobby Krlic, a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak, to score Midsommar (2019). The results are a tasteful mix of electronic atmospheres and traditional orchestration, albeit without any stylistic tether. “I was extremely impressed with what Colin did for Hereditary, and I'm a big fan of his music, but they're two very different films,” says Krlic in an interview with The Fader’s Larry Fitzmaurice. “When the dailies started coming in and Ari and I were speaking more, we were trying to craft a fairy tale— which is why we were leaning on a traditional orchestra. I was trying to bring magic into it while avoiding a lot of horror tropes until it was necessary— but they only appear in short bursts.”
On the strength of his many collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson alone, Jonny Greenwood has become one of the most celebrated composers in modern cinema— to say nothing of his other gig, Radiohead. In 2018, Thom Yorke followed in his bandmate’s footsteps via the long-gestating remake of Suspiria, written by David Kajganich and directed by Luca Guadagnino. The move to take on such an enduring work might seem hubristic on everyone’s part, but to their credit, neither Guadagnino nor Yorke attempts to outdo Argento and Goblin. Instead, they use the basic premise as a jumping-off point for their own ideas. Guadagnino & Kajganich retain the setting of the original— Berlin in ‘77— with specific emphasis on the German Autumn, one of the most fraught periods in the history of the Cold War, as well as generational guilt over the Holocaust. The internal dynamics of the coven shift to mirror this overtly sociopolitical backdrop, as do the motivations of the central characters (played by Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton).
Likewise, the soundtrack moves to a different rhythm than its beloved predecessor did. At first blush, the song that plays over the opening credits, “Suspirium,” sounds more like a needle-drop from one of Yorke’s solo albums than a piece written specifically for the film. Contemplative, wistful perhaps, the song intimates the characters’ emotional states even as it belies the brewing plot. With every repetition of its simple yet hypnotic piano melody, however, the more one can hear the influence of Philip Glass— no surprise, given the minimalist tendencies in Radiohead’s music. There’s even an echo of Komeda’s “Rosemary’s Baby” lullaby in Yorke’s gentle falsetto. The rest of the film proves surprisingly light on score, given its high-profile composer, but the most prominent sections— including a breathtakingly choreographed dance recital— boast ethereal synths that would not sound out of place on a Tangerine Dream record. Discussing his influences with NPR, Yorke says, “I don't think I listened to much horror music at all. Weirdly, I went back and listened to Morricone. I listened to Wendy Carlos. I spent a lot of time listening to bits of musique concrète, and more out-there modern composers— and found that stuff more frightening. Horror music can fall into a trap of trying to be dark for the sake of it. What's great about the original [Suspiria] score is that they use an insistent repetition, which just drives you to the point of distraction.”
Another deceptively pretty song, “Unmade,” scores the Bacchic bloodbath of a finale, almost as a thematic bookend to the opening credits. Like “Suspirium,” the song consists mostly of Yorke singing and playing piano, its sparse arrangement filled out by subtle flourishes of choir and synth. The contrast feels stark yet familiar— pleasant sounds, unpleasant images— and well-tailored to Guadagnino’s refreshingly nuanced take on Argento’s story: here, the audience is meant to empathize with the witches instead of merely fearing and rooting against them. Even without the easy manipulation of the Devil’s Chord or the “Dies irae,” Yorke finds the humanity that horror requires for its effect. The fact that he so effortlessly synthesizes the many modes that came before him— from Goblin to Glass— not only serves the material, but offers a welcome reminder that this genre has always thrived on sonic sophistication.