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Dissecting the Horror Score

by Jason Comerford

I love horror movies. Love 'em. Can't get enough of them. Good horror movies make my skin crawl. I love to be scared. Love it. I love bad horror movies even more. They're my vice in life. I saw Friday the 13th Part 2 when I was a little kid, and I was hooked for life. Even then I was aware of the power of music in a scary movie -- Harry Manfredini's indomitable shh-shh-shh-aah-aah-aah got my 9-year-old blood pumping more than the fear that my parents were going to catch me watching an R-rated movie did.

So around Halloween, my friend and roommate Nick, and myself, went on a bad-horror-movie binge. We watched 'em all. Some were actually good movies. Some were gutter trash, indefensible on any level. But they were all fun. Usually.

We started with the Friday the 13th series. This is a series where plot doesn't matter. Characters? Who needs them? We just wanted Jason Voorhees, and we got plenty. These movies actually get better as they go along, at least in terms of technical competency. The first is amateur hour, all the way, straight down to Manfredini's bargain-basement electronic score, but it does the job. It wasn't until Part 6 -- Jason Lives -- that Manfredini cut loose. Now, Part 6 is a riot. Both intentionally and unintentionally. Just when we thought the movie's going to be a serious drag, there's a 007 parody during the title sequence that put Nick and myself into hysterics for a solid ten minutes. And then there are two kids who contribute the greatest comedic line I've ever heard in a horror movie: "So... what were you doing to do when you grew up?" Manfredini, thankfully, seems to be in on the joke. His music starts up at the opening frame and doesn't quit -- lots of churning, buzzsawing string patterns atop shrill, blasting horn figures. There's even a quasi- comic romp scoring the ill-fated exploits of some paintball enthusiasts. It ain't subtle but it does the job -- the same could be said for the films themselves. They're very entertaining if you know what you're in for.

Continuing on our binge, we did a zombie marathon one night -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. These are great movies, period (particularly Dawn). George Romero is one of those directors who got lucky with one idea and rode it as long as he could -- he's never made a movie that's incisive or interesting that doesn't involve the undead. But when he's as good as he was, it's hard to complain. Night of the Living Dead uses a lot of stock library cues that take some getting used to; Romero's command of the medium was shaky at the time (it was his first film, after all, made on the weekends over a course of a year), and it shows in his choice of music. Still, his thematic ideas are so intriguing that by the time he had the money to hire a composer he made an equally intriguing choice: Goblin, an Italian rock group that primarily works with Dario Argento. (John Bender can probably offer up more interesting tidbits on Goblin than I, but no matter.) Dawn of the Dead is a masterpiece of the genre, hands-down, and Goblin scored it like the rollercoaster ride that it was; it's amazing how well their score dates. The same can't be said for Day of the Dead, a movie where people scream at each other for a good hour then get brutally dismembered and eaten; it features a cheesy electronic score by John Harrison (I think that was the composer's name) that just punctuates the scares instead of layering them like Goblin's score for Dawn did.

April Fool's Day was a clever little mock-horror flick that was better than we expected it to be. It was about a group of teenagers holed up in an island mansion -- but wait, there's a psycho killer on the loose... It's not as bad as it sounds; in fact, there's a neat twist at the end, but that twist inherently prevents the movie from cutting loose (so to speak) when people expect it to. At any rate, Charles Bernstein's score was about what you'd expect from such a genre flick: string-heavy stalking cues, a nice little elegiac melody for the "tortured" heroine, et cetera.

One movie that definitely deserved better was Fright Night, Todd Holland's underrated vampire-next-door film. Brad Fiedel's ultra-cheesy electronic score may have worked in 1985 but today it's a barrel of laughs: a bunch of undulating Casio-keyboard rhythms with the obligatory dance-pop song here and there. The movie itself is pretty good -- a neat little homage to classic vampire tales, of which I am a big sucker (har). But Fiedel's score tends to drag the movie down, droning and buzzing without doing much to support the onscreen action.

We finished our Halloween binge with Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Stuart Gordon's From Beyond. I fell asleep halfway through Bad Taste, but what I saw of it was hilarious, despite Peter Dasent's inept electronic music. From Beyond, however, featured an orchestral score by Bernard Herrmann -- excuse me, Richard Band. Band has made a career out of ripping off Jerry Goldsmith and Herrmann for low-budget horror movies, but I don't really blame him -- he does it fairly well, and Mutant is actually a pretty fun score. At any rate, From Beyond was a nutty little ride, based on a Lovecraft story about a scientist who brings an evil force into existence. But plot was hardly the concern; the fun came from seeing Jeffery Combs spend most of the movie with a part of his brain sticking out of his head, and seeing just how Gordon was going to get Barbara Crampton out of her clothes. Band scores the whole thing with shrill string patterns straight out of Psycho, and despite the derivations it's a fun ride, just the same.

I could rhapsodize for pages on how music works in horror films -- perhaps I will, when I get around to writing my "History of Horror Music" series for FSM like I keep threatening to do. But for sheer entertainment value, I've decided that the cheesier, the better. In the meantime, Nick and I will continue to enjoy bad horror movies (tonight's installment: Bloodsucking Nazi Freaks!). Because you can never get enough of that old shh-shh-shh-aah-aah-aah...

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