Killer Score : My Favorite Horror Film Scores Part I

Since we’re in the season, I thought I’d talk about some of my favorite horror scores. Feels right.

Not sure about you, but I wholeheartedly feel the film score is an absolute pivotal piece of the puzzle when it comes to a film. Even more so with horror films. I often remember a score more than I do the film itself. Not putting down the film, but when a score is done right you’ll carry it with you long after the movie starts rewinding in the VCR.

I think that’s why I started collecting horror scores back in 2013. They took me back to the first time I saw those movies growing up in the 80s. A whole new world opened up in video rental. As soon as I’d drop the needle on those records I’d instantly go back to those late night viewings. Nostalgia trip, for sure. But it was more than just nostalgia. Things were simpler then; no phones to be obsessed with, or a million channels to kill brain cells with, and no internet to lose hours in. When you spent the money on weekend rentals, that was your weekend. Hearing those soundtracks opened a portal to those moments and the feelings I had watching those films.

So without further adieu, here’s some of my favorite horror scores.

House By The The Cemetery

I remember watching House By The Cemetery at my parent’s house. I was maybe 14 or 15-years old. Mid-summer. The lights were off in the living room and the front door was open. Just a screen door separating me from what lurked outside. Of course the only thing lurking was the neighbors doing some early evening mowing.

Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery was a rental I’d wanted to bring home for some time. The box always struck me as creepy on the wall in the back room of Video World. The back room was where there was a wall of nothing but horror films, with a couple shelving units that held sci-fi and fantasy. There was also a wall with concert videos. But that main wall was where I spent most of my time. And that night it was all about Lucio Fulci.

The movie left a mark on my psyche. From the slightly off voice dubbing to the over-the-top nasty gore, to that ending, it was everything I’d hoped it would be. But the one thing I carried with me long after I’d dropped the movie back off at Video World was the score by Walter Rizzati. There was something very baroque about that score; the synths and piano, mixed with some rock elements with the drums and bass, for such a nasty gorefest it was quite melancholy and sad. The music sort of hung in the air like smoke from a musky incense.

The scent of age, horror and grief hung with me for 25 years until I bought the score from Death Waltz Recording Co in 2013. Dropping the needle on that vinyl all those years later I was transported back to that summer evening in the late 80s, brown couch and Zenith tube TV in tow. I was back in my parents living room watching the film all over again.

Walter Rizzati has done many scores, but for me his work for Fulci on House By The Cemetery is his best. I feel he was a pivotal part in making that film the classic that it is. And besides being a classic, his music gave an otherwise gory drive-in flick a touch of class.

Phantasm

I think it’s safe to say that Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is one of the most bizarre horror films to come out of the 70s. Sure, there’s some wacky 70s horror films. Wackier than Phantasm, even. But this 1979 horror cult classic felt somewhat mainstream. It looked great, had some decent effects, and the acting didn’t feel like amateur hour. But the premise? That’s some crazy stuff. Funeral home run by some kind of interdimensional giant crypt keeper that turns corpses into Jawa-like slaves that move barrels from this dimension to another via two chrome bars. Two brothers and a stoner ice cream man are on the case to try and stop these shenanigans.

The first time I saw it? I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I woke up late one night and found my dad in the living room watching the late evening news. I sat down next to him on the couch and after the news the Late Late Movie came on channel 28. Back then local stations weren’t beholden to the networks like they are now. Back then after the late news(and before every network had comedians hosting talk shows) local stations would play late night movies from their collection. That night the film was Phantasm. Not sure what my dad was thinking letting me watch it, but he was too curious not to keep watching.

For an 8-year old it was a pretty bizarre flick to watch. Besides the ending where the Tall Man appears in the kid’s mirror and the Jawas pull him into said mirror(I may have checked my room a couple times before turning off the light), the movie intrigued me more than anything else. It all felt like some strange dream; no real danger but a feeling of mild deja vu. A familiar world, while at the same time kind of a simulation of a real world. I got the same feeling watching that movie that I got watching A Nightmare On Elm Street for the first time. Familiarity in the suburban surroundings, but knowing it’s not real. Being only a few years removed from when Phantasm was made, it still felt somewhat modern.

A big part of that dream-like quality was the score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. Their work here went a long way in turning Phantasm into the cult classic that it was. Mainly because they knew that at the heart of this film was both an attempt to deal with grief and death, while at the same time being surrealistic enough to keep its intentions lurking in the shadows. Much like House By The Cemetery, the score here mixes the melancholy with the morose. There’s a sense of funeral home music mixed with then modern synthesizers, combining this futuristic/baroque harpsichord feel. Whenever I hear this soundtrack I’m reminded of the finely cut grass at Morningside Cemetery, teenage Michael hiding near the tree line watching the Tall Man toss a coffin like it was a cardboard box, and a man having his skull impaled by a flying chrome sphere. Oh, and my dad saying “Well that was weird” as the end credits rolled.

Ahh, memories.

The Fog

Out of all the horror movies I saw as a kid(that I was way too young to see), The Fog is the one that left one of the biggest marks on me. Of course the first few times I saw it it was on network TV and edited for television, so the gore and language was cut. But once I did see it on videotape I realized there wasn’t much that had to be cut. Carpenter was the kind of filmmaker that didn’t rely on cheap thrills for scares. He built genuine tension, fear, and mood with his camera, editing, hiring the right actors, and of course the use of music. His music.

The Fog is known as much for it’s score as it is for its zombie leper pirates and the smooth jazz radio station at the top of Antonio Bay’s lighthouse. It’s an absolute iconic score, and one that I go back to often.

Carpenter reinvented the equity and sheer force of the horror score with Halloween, but with The Fog he made it an essential tool. It’s a tool that sometimes outshines the film it’s scoring, but with The Fog it was a perfect combination of sound and visuals.

I remember the first time I saw The Fog. I was in the fourth grade. It was right around Halloween and ABC was showing it. I was sick with fever and shivering at 102 degrees. My mom doped me up with Children’s Tylenol and layered me on the couch with blankets and an afghan my grandma made for us. I laid there half in a daze watching the driftwood soak the electronics at KAB 1340, and John Houseman tell the cautionary tale about being nice to leper pirates. When the clock went past 9:30pm I knew mom was going to let me stay home from school the next day, so I was all in with the fate of Antonio Bay.

I still am all in with the fate of Antonio Bay, as well as John Carpenter’s fantastic score. One that has stayed with me for 40 years.

Part II coming soon.

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