I’m sure we could argue this till the cows come home, but when it comes to horror scores there’s one that tops them all. And no, it wasn’t written by John Carpenter. Sure, sure, the Halloween theme is as iconic as they come. It was the first thing I ever tried plunking out on a piano at age 9 at my aunt’s house(she wasn’t cool with it either given that her house was a house of the LORD!) Carpenter redefined what a horror film could sound like. That the music in a horror film could be just as defining as the movie itself(that’s why there are so many great minimalist synth scores from the late 70s/early 80s that far surpassed the films they scored.)
But to my ears, the first horror score that made an indelible mark on my psyche was Charles Bernstein’s score for Wes Craven’s 1984 A Nightmare On Elm Street. It mixed beautifully classicist ideas in film scoring and modern touches, blending both old school feel with new school vibes. Bernstein’s use of electronic music and the synthesizer in order to create a sort of digital orchestra brought the horror film score into the modern era of pop and horror cinema.
So let’s go back a bit.
My connection to A Nightmare On Elm Street began in the summer 1985 when I was 11-years old. We were still pretty fresh in the video rental game and A Nightmare On Elm Street was newly released on home video. My brother and I had seen a trailer for it late at night back in the winter of 1984. We were both pretty transfixed on this movie about a serial killer that murdered teens in their sleep, so when we saw it on the wall at Video World we talked my mom into renting it. Staying up late at night and watching it with a frozen pizza and a two-liter of pop left a mark on my psyche. It was truly unlike any movie I’d ever seen before. It was reminiscent of Halloween with the locale being this quaint town and perfect streets and the suburbs. It was somewhere I recognized. And of course teens in distress was a theme I’d already gotten used to among many other video rentals.
But unlike Halloween, Craven worked the parents into the story quite well. Parents that thought they were doing something right by killing this child murderer and then hiding this fact from their children like a dirty little secret(much like that shop rag hidden in Nancy’s basement with Freddy’s glove in it.) The idea that your parents kept some horror like that from you, and when you were in trouble because of those actions and they won’t listen, well that’s as scary of an idea as Freddy himself.
How Wes Craven shot the movie and showed the lives of the four main protagonists was captivating to my elementary school brain. It was apparent that Craven wasn’t in it for cheap thrills. He took his time building the story and the legend of Krueger. The nightmare sequences were truly frightening and actually captured how weird and horrific dreams feel. From Tina’s opening dream sequence to Nancy’s encounter with the long-armed Krueger to Tina’s bloody demise in the bedroom with Rod to Nancy falling asleep in school, it all felt very visceral. Craven’s filmmaking style wasn’t herky jerky and all over the place. It was a very classic, methodical approach. His style almost had a European feel to it. Of course I didn’t know that when I saw it. I just knew it felt very adult and well made. Using actors like John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, and Lin Shaye made it feel all the more adult, which in turn made the horror feel more real to me.
And Robert Englund. Fresh off the TV mini-series V, Englund donned the make up, glove, fedora, and sweater and truly changed what it meant to be a horror movie icon. He would develop Krueger into a devilish comedian in later films, giving Freddy a gallows humor quality that would turn him from infamous to famous(I made my own Freddy glove out of an old gardening glove, gray tape, and metal rake tongs sharpened on my dad’s metal grinder.) T-shirts, late night anthology series, 1-900 Freddy hotline, and lots of Freddy Krueger Halloween costumes for years to come. Englund took the character Craven had on the page and turned him into something far more than just a serial killer. He turned him into pop culture.
But the film just wouldn’t have been the same without the score by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein created the most iconic 80s horror theme ever. Carpenter made a minimalist, DIY classic, while Harry Manfredini’s score to Friday the 13th is heard whenever a group of teenagers walk through a woods at night with that one smartass always going “Choo choo choo choo, ha ha ha ha”. But Bernstein’s theme is as eerie as it is melancholy. That piano line floats subtly over the film, carrying with it the weight of Freddy’s evil and the sadness of loss of the children he murdered. Bernstein mixes modern sonic touches with classic scoring style. The playful back and forth of background noises brings to mind children at play, but also a shadow lurking just out of view.
I recently picked up Mondo/Death Waltz’ reissue of Bernstein’s score and I was completely blown away by how well it holds up 35 years later. His use of both melody and incidental creates incredible mood and feel. Pieces like “Prologue”, “No Escape” and “Funeral” fill emotional moments, while “Laying The Traps” feels very 80s-centric with it’s police procedural vibe. Listening to it as a standalone record really allowed the score to shine, showing off the amazing work Charles Bernstein put into it.
I know, opinions are like a-holes. Everyone’s got one. My opinion here is that Charles Bernstein created one of the most iconic horror film scores, ever. I connect more to this than I do to Carpenter’s Halloween simply because I experienced Craven’s vision completely on first viewing, as opposed to seeing Halloween a handful of times in “Edited For Television” form before I ever saw the uncut version. Everything about A Nightmare On Elm Street just connected with me right away, and a big part of that was because of Charles Bernstein.
Charles Bernstein’s A Nightmare On Elm Street is available now at Mondotees. Available in 180 gram “Freddy’s Sweater” variant. Mastered for vinyl by James Plotkin and artwork by Mike Saputo.