The Sound of Horror

The gloom of the depths is severed by a dark shape, soaring silently through undulating currents. The nude swimmer above is unaware as she strokes through surface waves. The dark shape moves closer. The girl’s white legs sparkle as they tread the cool water. A grey dorsal fin cuts the surface, leaving behind tiny ripples. The girl’s skin glistens in the wet moonlight. The shark darts toward her, accompanied by a jaunty calliope tune, tinkling its melody over the soundtrack…

Wait, wait. No, that’s all wrong. How’s this:

The nervous man descends into the mausoleum, his furtive footfalls echoing across cold stone steps. He grips a wooden stake and a broad-headed hammer and approaches the oblong stone receptacle with trepidation but purposeful resolve. Readying the stake, he confronts the opened coffin… his heart lurching when he finds it empty. Then, a sound from behind him, atop the stairs… He turns, hair whitening already in the terrible realization that he has come too late. The vampire hisses at him from the landing, its yellow eyes fiery with hate, sharp fangs glistening in the moonlight that trickles in the window. The vampire’s snarls merge with the riff of a jazz combo, beating out a pop rhythm from electric guitar, bass, drumset and trombone as the creature descends the steps toward the hapless…

Oh no, no no no! Please, can we try this again:

The laboratory is crackling and sizzling in sparks of electric sound. The sheeted form on the central table lays motionless but conveys an ominous sensation of waiting. A man in a white lab coat twirls endless dials and toggles several switches and yanks down a huge switchplate sending thousands of voltages through the careful construction of wires and chemical beakers and thick electrodes, and from the silent distance amid the zaps and cracklets and chug-chug-chug of machinery comes a frenzied militaristic march, a rushing cavalry-charge of strings, brass and snare drum as the form on the table suddenly, almost imperceptibly, twitches with life …

No, no. All wrong! Try it again, Sam:

The hot drizzle steams the bathroom with a warm mist. The water cascades gently onto the woman’s face, cleansing her of temporary misconduct. She feels free, unbound by the unfortunate course she had originally taken. Eager to restore things to right. She doesn’t notice the dark shape gliding through the translucent haze of the plastic shower curtain; doesn’t notice the sudden, upturned arm; doesn’t even notice the shower curtain being violently slid open until the cool air rushing in causes her to turn, but she has no time to scream, no time to think, as the hand lunges upward, a knife gleaming in the clinical bathroom whiteness and, just as suddenly, it is driven downward, sharply, brutally, violating her flesh and causing ripping spasms of pain. A tuneful rhythm section blares with a swinging big band fervor as the blade becomes crimson with repeated strokes, down, down, down ….

Oh for crying out loud, no! Altogether inappropriate! Let’s try it one more time. Roll the film:

The rhythmic chanting of the assembled natives grows suddenly quiet, and she is surrounded by the quietude of the cold island night. She tugs at the chains that bind her arms to the stone pillars but they hold her fast. A darkening shadow in the trees summons her attention just as a crashing of branches and tree trunks sound like cannon fire, and a series of low grunts waft to her ears as something approaches. Something very large. Something very heavy. She feels its footfalls quaking the stone slab on which she stands, and then, the trees part above and in front of her, and there it stands, revealed in the moonlight – the form of a gigantic ape, roaring as it fixes its eyes hungrily… upon her. Ann screams and a repeated trio of massive brass chords descend, a slow doom-crying cadence of hopeless horror filling the hearts and throats of every person watching with astonishment and horror at the incredible sight, and then a swirling miasma of strings circulates around Ann as the ape’s huge arm reaches for her.

Now, there you’ve got it!!

The right kind of music can transform a scene into an experience, conveying the thoughts and emotions of typewritten characters into shared feelings, making those characters so skillfully performed (or sometimes not) all the more real until their interactions onscreen become shared experiences for the viewer. Similarly, the wrong music can ruin the best-filmed scenes and turn the finest acting into parody, transform horror into comedy and inspiration into insipidness.

Another example of what works:

Unseen from those on the boat, the murky grey water begins to display a ring of bubbles as a form darkens the surface. The scientists confer seriously around a small table on deck, unaware of the clawed, webbed hand that quietly scratches the hull; that reaches for the diver’s ladder hung over the port side; that clutches the top rail with menacing intent. Finally, the woman, her one-piece bathing suit trim and tight, turns at a sound and faces the dripping, scaly creature that has pulled itself over the rail and onto deck mere yards in front of her. She screams, her shriek echoing across the lagoon, and as she does a dozen trumpets scream with her, a three-note ascent of sheer terror, speaking for all the loathsomeness of the aquatic beast and the terror felt by the woman upon confronting it. The feelings are instantly transmitted to the audience and the scene takes life. Three notes, again, but arranged in a sudden ascending shriek that jolts the viewer and sustains an unforgettable moment of monster cinema.

There are a myriad of further examples which we explore in depth in Musique Fantastique. From the lofty heights of AVATAR to the affectionate schlock of SHARKTOPUS, music has elevated the genre movie experience into an exciting, frightening, and provocative experience. JAWS wouldn’t be a fraction as powerful without John Williams’ unforgettable shark ostinato, which instantly characterized the film’s sense of terror from its first tone. Christopher Lee’s strong performance in HORROR OFDRACULA would have lost much of its affect without James Bernard’s dynamic musical score. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN would have seemed quite stuffy without Franz Waxman’s inventive music, one of cinema’s earliest full-blown horror scores. And the shower scene in PSYCHO would have shattered into mediocrity had some kind of music other than Bernard Herrmann’s chilling violin stabs provided an underscore. Like Max Steiner’s enormous downsurge of three notes that accompanied KING KONG’s first appearance to the shrieking, growling trumpets of Herman Stein’s classic music for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the right kind of music can make a horror film that much more real, its terrors felt that much more intimately by an audience.

From Universal to Hammer, KING KONG to ALIEN, THEM! to HALLOWEEN, music has been the final link between celluloid and audience, the emotional thread that makes the connection work. Horror works in films like HORROR OF DRACULA and its first few sequels, propelled along by James Bernard’s terrific terror music. Pino Donaggio’s chilling yet sublime music for CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL provided rapturous melodies that became chilling underscores for these psychological thrillers. Christopher Young’s otherworldly music for HELLRAISER and HELLBOUND created the perfect horrific style for these unique pictures, enriching their hellish environments with massively unearthly but tonal music that gave life to their disturbed character interactions.

In Musique Fantastique: 100 Years of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Film Music, we delve into encyclopedic detail the use of music in horror films as well as its close cousins, science fiction and fantasy, examining how music has been used to augment the sense of wonder, sense of speculation, and sense of fear inherent within these cinematic genres. We’ll examine the work of the composers the world over who have contributed to this specialized genre of movie music, and evaluate trends in the use of music throughout cinematic space and time. With more than 1700 pages over four volumes, this Second Edition of Musique Fantastique is the definitive historical analysis of film music within these fantastic genres. Your journey begins here

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