If Douglas Pipes comes knocking at your door with a bag begging for candy, or drops into your chimney with a sack of toys to give, it’s best to run the other way from a composer with a knack for turning child-friendly holidays into hell. But for those Scrooges who delight in hearing merriment tuned to the key of frenzied misery, Pipes’ seditious way of playing two of the year’s most beloved days as humorously black-hearted apocalypses is music to the ears – no more so than on the happiest eve of all as he twists all that is musically dear about Christmas into the delightfully fearsome form of “Krampus.”
First showing an affinity for throwing kid’s into menacing situations with his first major score for 2006’s animated “Monster House,” Pipes had the good fortune to team with “X-Men 2” writer Michael Dougherty, who made his directorial debut on 2007’s “Trick ‘r Treat,” an razor-apple anthology that allowed Pipes’ to take juvenile menace to a whole new lethal level while stuffing himself with Halloween’s musical tropes. The result was that Pipes’ score surfaced long before the film itself, whose disturbing content got it banished to the vaults. However, the image of its little sack-headed ghoul would eventually break free to ultimately treat Dougherty’s work as one of the most popular cult horror movies of all.
Thankfully, Dougherty and Pipes have now been allowed out to wreak their sinister brand of mischief again for a major studio with “Krampus,” which not only puts another innocent kid in jeopardy, but his whole bickering family as well. For his disillusionment with Christmas calls down The Krampus. The anti Christ of all St. Nicks who will teach the bickering clan a horrifying lesson in holiday togetherness. Nothing is sacred indeed in Pipes’ score, as the composer takes the opportunity to mangle our favorite Christmas Carols and Xmas sleigh bell stylings like a Tea Party trucker laughing hilariously as he does a head-on with Santa’s reindeer. Growing from cartoonish comedy stylings for family dysfunction into full-blown, horn-blowing horror, Pipes unleashes a boisterously rampaging orchestras packed with Christmas evil as Paganistic percussion, malefic melody and twisted choruses plunge the characters into a terrifying Christmas twilight zone. Yet for all of the epically gleeful carnage that Pipes brings, there’s also a feeling of valiant togetherness for the real spirit of Christmas, if it can survive through the night with a score that, in the end, is all about good cheer as it breaks out its delightfully scary coal-filled stockings.
Would you describe yourself as a “monster kid” before ever becoming a composer, given your affinity for genre scoring?
Ha! That’s pretty funny. I doubt my parents ever considered me a monster, but I did have my moments. As for an affinity with genre music or darker music in general, maybe because my father taught Jr. High School band I was treated to an early musical diet of dissonance and unintentional extended techniques. In truth it’s my affinity for Stravinsky and Bartok that inform my taste in the genre world. What I like most is the wide-open sonic palette you are afforded, especially in fantasy terms, but really I enjoy scoring all types of films.
Could you talk about your development as a composer?
I started doing some indie films when I was younger, and not being impressed with my own work, I stopped and went to University to study composition, orchestration, and film scoring to better strengthen my composing abilities musically, not just through technology. The development really comes from constant writing, as well as listening to and studying musical scores both concert and film. This past year was my busiest ever, I composed music for five films: a concert commission for a silent film score to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger,” an off-beat comedy “Little Paradise,” two Lifetime dramas “If There Be Thorns” and “Seeds Of Yesterday” from the V.C. Andrews “Flowers In The Attic” series, and now “Krampus.” All of these were very different projects and presented different musical and production needs, allowing me to explore a wide range of acoustic and electronic styles.
How did your first score for “Monster House” prepare you for scoring kids being confronted with horrific characters?
For me the approach for that type of fantasy/horror is to not get too far from the heart of the film. I want to push the edge of scary but also keep the audience along for the ride. For “Krampus” we tried to take it as far as we could to keep it scary and terrifying, and it can get intense, but we never went past the point of no return. The film has some amazing twists, at times a rollercoaster, but it is at its core a Christmas movie and meant to be a mischievously entertaining experience. Hopefully some popcorn gets spilled.
What was you initial reaction to how “Trick ‘r Treat” fell off the radar? Did you ever expect it to get resurrected as a cult film?
Of course when “Trick ‘r Treat” was not released I was disappointed, we all were, but it turns out that in an unforeseen way it may have helped in creating an environment for the film to flourish. It seems that when people have come across “Trick ‘r Treat,” their response is maybe more organic, they may not have heard or read too much about it. I think we all enjoy discovering and connecting to a film that has fallen under the radar.
Before starting “Krampus”, did you look at the great “holiday horror movies” and their scores, particularly films like “Gremlins?” And did you want to pay tribute to them here?
“Gremlins” was a great inspiration tonally, and the way films like that made you feel is something we really wanted to capture with “Krampus,” updated for today’s audience. “Gremlins” and “Poltergeist” definitely pushed the edge of character-driven family “horror” movies, and you may have been really scared watching but in the end you have a smile from your face. As for tributes, there is a very subtle nod to Jerry Goldsmith in there but I’ll let you find it. Same with “Trick ‘r Treat.”
What was your reaction upon discovering the legend of Krampus and what were the ideas that immediately came into your head?
I had never heard of Krampus before Michael called me up a couple years ago and told me of a script he was working on. He explained a bit about the alpine folklore legend of Krampus: a hooved, horned, creature that comes to punish the naughty kids at Christmas time. Why haven’t we heard about this long ago! His vision for the film was fantastic and really inspired me, that day I went home and immediately started writing ideas and deconstructing and rearranging Christmas carols. Michael said he wanted the music to be strongly rooted in Christmas themes, from a nostalgic Christmas soundtrack to a scored tapestry of Christmas melodies, fragments, mutations, and vague echoes. We explored and experimented, and through the experimentation I will say there are a fair amount of twisted Christmas carols in various stages strewn across my composer cutting room floor. Some truly fantastic Christmas joy was had in making this score.
How much of a Christmas score did you want to make “Krampus?”, and how did you want to draw on traditional carols for the score? There’s an especially delightful mean rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at that.
Michael and I had discussed very early on the use of specific Christmas carols: “Silent Night,” “Oh Christmas Tree,” “Carol of the Bells” and such, and that the score should have these traditional Christmas melodies and instrumentation woven throughout. The idea is that the Christmas spirit is always present, sometimes just a hint, a reminder, and other times a Christmas tune gets thrown into the reach of Krampus. The use of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” you speak of is certainly irreverent, there is also a darkened “Silent Night,” and a bit of “Carol of the Bells” that has been scratched by Krampus’ nails. Aside from the Christmas music, there are a lot of original themes for the film. I wanted to create a thematic foundation for Krampus that could work as a simple folk-melody as well as a fully orchestrated fantasy score. My intention was that it could very well feel like a long lost carol, a traditional folk melody, but possessing a shape and structure that allowed for darker variations to emerge, and would fit hand-in-hand with the Christmas themes. You’ll hear it in its most innocent form from Omi’s perspective.
How much of the emotional, musical spirit of Christmas did you want to put into the score, and give it an affecting heart?
It seems that with every year as we grow older, many of us who celebrate Christmas long for the feeling the holidays gave us in our youth. I know I do. The film understands that, and when it does the score is right there with it. Hopefully it helps illuminate the essence of the holidays.
Do you think Christmas is as natural for musical horror as Halloween when it comes down to it?
Definitely! Christmas obviously has a magnificent musical tradition – the holidays and music are completely intertwined. I would say Christmas maybe even more than Halloween presents fantastic opportunities for twisting the traditions, darkening the storm clouds, and singing carols of caution.
How would you describe Michael Dougherty’s sensibility, and why do you think your music is such a good fit?
Michael is incredibly talented, and because he has also written, as well as directed the two films we have done, he has every aspect of their tone, characters, and story arcs so well defined that when it comes time for the music it’s really a matter of taste and making choices that match his vision. His stories work so well before we score, I simply try to enhance what he has created. He is a huge film music fan, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film scores, and has been incredibly supportive of my music.
Did your collaboration with Michael differ on this film, given the holiday you’re attacking?
No, not really. “Krampus” was very similar to how we collaborate on all projects. We work very closely from the beginning and then all through the project, discussing in great detail the role the score has overall, in each scene, and across longer story arcs. There is always a process of balancing the tone of the score to allow the story to unfold as intended, and we try things out until we discover the musical voice of the film. We share very similar tastes in film music.
Is it hard to segue from overtly comedic, pizzicato scoring into a true “horror” score where you want the listener to be legitimately scared?
That is how I like horror films to unfold. Just as you relax and get into the story something breaks that comfort. Creating the musical dynamic between lulling the audience into a comfort zone, becoming immersed in the story then all of a sudden in an instant something comes to strike fear. The shifting dynamics of calm and storm are what I think works best.
There’s some particularly terrifying use of the horn and “Pagan” drum percussion in “Krampus.” What distinctly non-Christmas elements did you want to bring to the score like that to show a supernatural intrusion into the holiday?
“Krampus” may have pre-Christian pagan origins, and we wanted to evoke tribal/ritualistic pagan percussion as well as aggressive wind instruments to counterbalance the tonal European style music. Chains, bells, bones, and animal skin drums, were among the “pagan” instrumentation. There is chanting, even some choral effects like speaking in tongues.
How did you want the chorus to embody “The Shadow of St. Nicholas”?
We had some amazing choir sessions, both in New Zealand with a full choir and a children’s choir, and then back here with a high-school choir. They are used in various ways, as mentioned from chanting, whispers, speaking in tongues and other effects to cautionary caroling through a dark fairy-tale. The voices represent different perspectives of the story.
Cues like “The Snow Beast” could just as well take place in an overly satanic score? Did you want to blur the religious lines as such with the score’s more berserk moments?
Yes, the line is blurred, but not in a Satanic or religious sense, but more like “the Christmas Spirit” versus Krampus, with the spirit of Christmas a means of fighting off the presence of Krampus. The words the choirs sing are mutations of Christmas carols and Krampus warnings. I don’t want to over explain, but the voices could be interpreted in different ways – and I have mine – but I leave it to the audience to bring their own take to it.
Beyond the spirit of Christmas, how did you want to musically create the snowy, sinister environment?
The sound team, led by Kelly Oxford, created a magnificent sound world for “Krampus.” I created some vocal effects in the wind in spots, and some storm and snow flurry writing in the strings and winds. But for the most part the environments that Kelly and his team created let me focus on characters and emotions, so the sound effects could capture what the characters are seeing, and the music help convey what they are feeling. When it came time to record the score it was summer here, but we recorded in New Zealand at the end of winter with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at The Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, New Zealand, so we did have some winter inspiration. The orchestra was fantastic, conducted brilliantly by Marc Taddei, and I did ask them to play some challenging, aggressive music. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we did have a lot of music, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to Jon Kull, John Clement Wood, and the entire music team for such amazing work.
What’s your worst Christmas experience as a kid (or adult), and did it inspire you as well on “Krampus?”
Well….one Christmas when I was a kid my family woke up to find our family dog had died. That’s a tough one on any day, and especially on Christmas. I didn’t so much realize it at the time, but it was an early lesson in the importance of family over material things. We didn’t rush to open the gifts – instead we spent time together comforting each other. It was an unfortunate but clear time of bonding as a family unit. Any inspiration I may have drawn from it while working on Krampus would be subconscious, but uncovering the spirit of the holidays underneath the rush and madness is something that resonates. Now we did not have as rough a Christmas as the characters in this movie had, but at the time this experience was subtly profound and the family bonding experience of that day is one of my strongest early Christmas memories.
Do you think there’s a natural aversion to Christmas cheer that also played a part in your approach?
What are you talking about, just the opposite! I love hearing Christmas songs, all holiday songs! I know I may be in the minority here but how can you not? The whole Christmas/holiday spirit is something I enjoy immensely – more so as I get older – although I, like most, feel the commercialization of it has gone completely off the rails. I’d say my joy for the holiday spirit played more of a part and was a definite source of inspiration. This film has a very big heart.
What would you say was your most seditious highlight of scoring “Krampus?”
Well this didn’t end up in the score. I arranged a version of “O Tannenbaum” in German, for full chorus. I harmonized it in a way that I felt was somber, somewhat tragic, but to my ears haunting and beautiful. I recorded it with a choir in Budapest, and as they finished, the last notes fading away into the air, I’m thinking it sounds gorgeous… and they all started laughing. It was just a little too off-kilter for them I suppose. In some ways it made me feel I was on the right track.
What holiday would you and Michael like to twist next?
The one day that strikes terror in me more than any other. Birthdays.
“Krampus” opens on December 4th, with Douglas Pipes’ score available digitally on iTunes from Back Lot Music HERE, on CD from La La Land Records on December 8th HERE and on Vinyl from Waxworks Records HERE. Listen to Pipes wreak havoc on Halloween with his soundtrack to “Trick ‘r Treat” HERE and visit “The Monster House” HERE
Visit Douglas Pipes’ website HERE