Often when watching horror films, the first sign that something is going to go spectacularly, bloodily awry is the music, the emotional semaphore that flags up bloodletting is imminent. A festival being held in London this weekend celebrates the “musical universe of horror” with a series of live events and discussions centred on the tuneful side of terror. We spoke to organiser Jonathan Webb about what he has in store, and what makes a great horror score.
Hi Jonathan, tell us what people can expect at this weekend’s event?
A visual, aural and anecdotal journey from Hammer to Halloween alongside an international cast of contemporary artists and musicians and led by the reigning overlords of horror film critique and some of the greatest horror movie composers of all time.
In short, an evening of gore, nostalgia, the surreal and the sublime.
There’s been a few big events focussing on film scores recently, is horror music and sound design a neglected genre in this respect?
I don’t think horror film music has been neglected as such. It seems to be generally accepted that the horror movie soundtrack is THE iconic narrative device in cinema, however its a tricky thing to present to large audiences due to the claustrophobic and unsettling nature of the work.
The amazing UNSOUND music festival in Krakow used Horror as its theme last year, but that seemed to be more of tenuous thread linking a collection of dark ambient and beat driven electronic musicians rather than entirely focused the music of the horror film and those who make it. There’s also been quite a bit of interest in composer Krzystof Penderecki in recent years, who’s work features heavily in The Shining and David Lynch’s Inland Empire and who I believe is a major influence on Johnny Greenwood.
And then you have more mainstream things like the BBC Proms doing Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho a couple of weeks ago, so there are a few bits and pieces that pop up every now and again.
What makes an effective horror score?
There are certain profoundly affecting tricks one can employ in order to create an effective horror score – obvious stuff like screeching violins, gregorian chanting, clattering percussion, children’s voices and so on. Sadly, I personally don’t think horror soundtracks or horror movies in general for that matter have improved much in the last couple of decades.
Whilst developing Sound of Fear it became clear to me very early on that the majority of horror film soundtracks post-1991 were either mind-numbingly predictable or just entirely derivative of the classic scores and soundtracks of yesteryear. For me, the golden era for music in horror has to be 1970s and early 80s – Goblins work for Dario Argento, Argento’s incidental music for George A. Romero’s Dawn of The Dead, Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s sound design for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and of course John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s pulsing linear electronics all stand out for me as seminal music moments in horror.
Overall though, I’d have to say my absolute favourite horror soundtrack is from Return of Living Dead (1985) featuring Rocky Erickson, The Cramps, Tall Boys and The Damned – “They’re Back From The Grave and Ready to Party!”.
The festival takes place on Saturday at The South Bank Centre.