Classic Horrorshows – Original Soundtracks

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With the shrieking sound effects-cum music that are filling so many of today’s horror soundtracks, it seems that themes have gotten an axe in the head, while the blood of melody’s slashed throat has now dried into a red, whispered blotch. So it’s particularly nice when expanded editions of classic horror scores arrive to remind us of the hummable scream that used to be the genre’s voice, whether said death rattle came from a robust American symphony or European rock and roll.

POLTERGEIST (10,000 edition)

Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Label: Film Score Monthly
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95
Grade: A+

Certainly one of the loudest, and most exciting horror scores belongs inside the television set of the Freeling family, as installed by Jerry Goldsmith. Though a master of just about every movie genre, horror had provided a creatively malefic voice for Goldsmith. He’d marry Bartok-esque impressionism and old scratch violins for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, blow on MAGIC’s unbalanced harmonicas and win his only Oscar for chanting THE OMEN’s black mass.

But the nature of the beast was certainly changing when Goldsmith took mainstream science fiction into its most visceral, and visual dimension with 1979’s ALIEN, for which he provided a lush, primal score. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to turn that kind of spookhouse space ride into a full-blown, haunted house rollercoaster with 1982’s POLTERGEIST, which turned horror into a special effects fiesta. Goldsmith would provide an equally thrilling cornucopia of his greatest genre hits for his first teaming with that film’s producer. However, Spielberg’s true role as POLTERGEIST’s de facto director was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood, let alone for fans who saw Spielberg’s handprints all over the film’s suburban slickness, as opposed to the TEXAS CHAINSAW grue and grit of credited, and back-seated director Tobe Hooper.

Indeed, so ingrained is POLTERGEIST in our pop consciousness decades later that it’s hard to stand up and salute our national anthem without thinking “main theme from POLTERGEIST” in the back of our heads. While the soundtrack’s new, ultimate edition on Film Score Monthly does indeed include John Philip Sousa’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” (complete with television static), what stands equally strong in the Spielberg generation’s memory is the haunting, sing-song children’s voices of POLTERGEIST’s main theme Between this ironically dark lullabye and THE OMEN’s satanic Latin, no composer had a better ability to bend vocals to his demonic whims like Goldsmith.

As with the similarly malicious GREMLINS that he’d score for Spielberg’s Amblin productions the next year, POLTERGEIST’s music begins with deceptive, even joyful charm, with beautifully melodic strings capturing the warm, familial interplay that’s the key to Spielberg’s success- all before the curtain of suburban normalcy is ripped away to reveal something far more malicious in the planned community midst, or in this case the confused and angry corpses buried underneath the Freeling’s model home.

Yet for all of the pounding adventure-terror that POLTERGEIST ends up with for the spirits’ cathartic release, there’s something comforting, even holy in Goldsmith’s approach for a little girl lost, an aching tenderness that gives the score (and film) its true power. Gentle instruments like the piano and flute sound like they’re trying to find their way out of a menacing funhouse of evil clown ratchets, growling horns and the piercing, electronic hum that stands for the TV twilight zone Carole Anne has entered. It’s no surprise that POLTERGEIST owes a plot debt to that show’s episode “Little Girl Lost,” or that Goldsmith had composed the fiddle-filled soundtracks for such iconic ZONEs as “The Invaders” and “Nightmare at 40,000 Feet.” Here those swings between devilish and magical eeriness plays on a far grander scale for its battle between sacred and the profane. One striking example is when the ghastly dissonance of a man ripping his face off segues into a beautiful waltz for the undead descending down a staircase. “The Night Visitor”’s plaintive creepiness recalling Goldsmith’s approach to the psychology of his Oscar-nominated FREUD score (music that also ended up being tracked into ALIEN).

But if the luxury of expanding, and remixing the chills of POLTERGEIST from its last Rhino release has a real treasure here, than it’s the astounding sixteen-minute cue “Let’s Get Her / Rebirth,” beginning with Goldsmith’s hopeful description of the afterlife, Then with a sharply ominous warning of The Beast lurking within the Freeling’s closet, Goldsmith goes into a stunning rescue of Carole Anne with angelic female voices as an orchestra plays the colorful bursts of ectoplasm. It’s the revelatory sound of a cosmic quest that can also be heard in the majestic encounter that Goldsmith had with V’jer in STAR TREK- THE MOTION PICTURE. Except in POLTERGEIST, Goldsmith is reveling in the bridge between life, death, love and evil, extended musical storytelling that stands not only as a highlight in Goldsmith’s career, but as a stunning example in the power of film music to enrapture us while taking listeners to another dimension beyond our imagination.

Having done a bang-up job of restoring Goldsmith’s ALIEN for Intrada, album producer Mike Matessino teams with original POLTERGIEST music score supervisor Bruce Botnick to make this into a truly spectacular release that lets the spooks out of the closet with renewed sonic fury. Not only does FSM gather all of the POLTERGEIST tracks and alternates, but the double-CD also offers throws in Goldsmith’s score for THE PRIZE in the bargain. Though this 1963 Paul Newman film (centered around the Nobels no less) might seem like an odd duck in the company of Reverend Kane’s flock, fans of the composer likely won’t mind its romantic thrills getting it on with the ghosts.


Composer: Walter Rizzati
Label: Beat
Suggested Retail Price: $21.95
Grade: B+

Where POLTERGEIST stands as a landmark in how mostly traditional instruments and orchestrations could be used to create an unearthly tone, rock-centric music certainly wasn’t a slouch at digging into those same fear centers, perhaps with even more chilling results. It’s likely no band did it better than Goblin, an Italian group that turned the progressive vibe pioneered by the likes of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin to far darker ends, using acid builds of electronics, strumming guitars and wailing voices to become escalating webs of fear, the big solo usually accompanying some unlucky woman’s evisceration in such classic scores as DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA.

The impact of Goblin’s work on these seminal Dario Argento films certainly wasn’t lost on fellow splatter auteur Lucio Fulci, or his composer Walter Rizzatti. Their teaming for QUELLA VILLA ACCANTO AL CIMITERO (aka THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY) certainly has the Goblin vibe in spades, as filtered through Rizzatti’s own talent. A prolific composer for such crazed, and diverse Italian exploitation fare like 1990: THE BRONX WARIORS, LUST FOR SEX and THUNDER WARRIOR 2, HOUSE would be Rizatti’s only, notable teaming with a maestro of visual gore, its story of a maniac surviving on body parts inspiring musician-turned-director Rob Zombie to create “Dr. Satan” for HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.

As for Rizatti’s own HOUSE, the composer’s work plays like a “best of” compilation of every musical device that had come to stand for splatter spaghetti. You can check off the funk piano beat (“Quella Villa”), a Baroque organ (“I Remember “Walt Monster End”) a wonderfully cheesy wash of old-school synths (“Blonk Monster”), discombobulated strumming (“Blonk Facia”) and even a tender piano (“Tema Bambino”). Rizzi’s affection for Goblin (particularly their score to DAWN OF THE DEAD- i.e. ZOMBI 2) comes through in the African beats and wordless chorus of “Voci Dal Terrore” while the classical feel that Keith Emerson created for Argento’s INFERNO finishes off HOUSE’s killer in “Blonk Monster End.”

While this music might spell hell for HOUSE’s residents, the sound on Beat’s new CD is seventh heaven for fans of Italo horror, and 70’s / 80’s style thrills in particular, the sound of which would be reflected through the work of John Carpenter and Fred Myrow’s classic soundtracks to HALLOWEEN and PHANTASM. But rather than just going for cool, if now technically dated flourishes, HOUSE still stands up for its tight thematic construction, its corridors filled with the kind of deliberate and unsettling melodies that many of today’s state-of-the-art composers can’t begin to get a handle on. Just consider this cleaned-up HOUSE your one-stop shop for the weirdly rocking sound of dubbed terror.


Composers: Giuliano Sorgini / John Cavacas
Label: Quartet
Suggested Retail Price: $21.95
Grade: B+

That isn’t to say that Spanish horror scores from that period were any less terrifying, or funky, as Spain-based Quartet Records is proving with such releases as Waldo de los Rios’ ISLAND OF THE DAMNED and Fernando Garcia Morcillo’s HOWLING OF THE DEVIL. But perhaps none of their soundtracks has a more unique origin than Giluliano Sorgini’s THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Known here as LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (among the sixteen international titles it went by), this 1974 spin on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a true sleeper in the flesh eating genre. Shot by Spanish-based director Jordi Grau in the bucolic English countryside, and composed by an Italian who’d go onto even more ominous-sounding titles like PORNO-EROTIC WESTERN and HOLOCAUST 2, MANCHESTER MORGUE proved to be an exceptional score right out of the gate for Sorgini. Though he begins with organ pop as we exit London in “John Dalton Street,” Sorgini quickly takes us into unexplored, creepily atmospheric territory with pulsating electronics, moans (provided by Grau) and what sounds to be wind machines- all the better to play under the sub-sonic pulses that kill the local farmer’s pesky insects, and raise the local dead in the bargain.

If anything, MANCHESTER MORGUE’s best tonalities play like a ghostly fog the moors, mist that hides an ever-encroaching Lovecraftian evil. Caught between sound design and music, Sorgini’s score mostly underplays the evisceration at hand, making us feel a funeral parlor atmosphere of dread without ever telling us a zombie is around the corner. But there’s still an ominously solid theme at hand, one that’s cleverly expressed through a pipe organ, strings and a bongo beat, displaying the mod talents would yield Sorgini a hit with “Bossa Whistle.” Though MANCHESTER MORGUE is still a film and score that are very much of the period, the thoughtful, experimental commitment that Grau and Sorgini invest in the material gives MORGUE a timeless, chilling quality that’s almost shocking in its subtlety- all the better for a picture and score that should shouted from horror fans’ rooftops all these years later.

Filling out the Quartet album’s zombie double bill is the cultural music mash of John Cavacas’ score for 1972’s HORROR EXPRESS. Like MORGUE, EXPRESS marked the first, notable soundtrack for its composer, who’d go onto a prodigious career that would include such cult favorites as AIRPORT 1975, AIRPORT ’77 and MORTUARY (while also fitting every TV series from KOJACK to MAGNUM P.I. into his busy schedule) But for all of the star-studded planes he’d score, HORROR EXPRESS remains Cavacas’ most unique disaster score. With a passenger list that includes Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas, Cavacas’ Orient EXPRESS is commandeered by an alien abominable snowman, whose resulting plague of bleeding-eyed, undead thralls remain one of the genre’s most striking images. Ditto Cavacas’ memorable score that merges ultra 70’s pop inflections with exotic period opulence. Starting the trip off with a whistle, Cavacas introduces a Russian Balalaika, then brings on board lush strings and the kind of Afro funk that you’d expect to hear in SHAFT and LIVE AND LET DIE. But that’s the eccentric, wah-wah ethnic charm of HORROR EXPRESS’ music, it score at once winking at the film’s outrageous plot, while also going for the kind of orchestral suspense that wouldn’t be out of place with a more traditional Orient Express murder mystery. Perhaps no cue sums up Cavacas’ audacious approach better than a “Fugue” that’s more a direly suspenseful march, its rock guitar, orchestra and Balalaika building to the point where the EXPRESS will go off the rails.

As with the accompanying MANCHESTER MORGUE, HORROR EXPRESS’ score isn’t afraid to be scary-hip. Call these, and the preceding soundtracks dated if your dare. But I’ll take their fearless leaps into themes and melody, however old school or unconventional they may be, over so many of the flatlined, dissonant scores that are supposed to scare us today. For as POLTERGEIST, HOUSE BY THE CEMETARY, MANCHESTER MORGUE and HORROR EXPRESS show us, horror music can be pleasant listening while ripping our faces off at the same time.

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