Editorial: Where Have All of the Good Horror Themes Gone?

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Horror scores today have a problem.  And I’m not sure if it’s the composers behind them that are to blame, or the directors of the films they’re featured in, or if it’s the studio’s fault.  Scores today are increasingly become a wall of noise.  An incessant din of brooding sound punctuated by the occasional blast of high notes to remind the viewer, “Hey, this is some really scary stuff, folks!”  Granted, that’s become a practice for ages and it’s a highly effective one.  Yet there’s one common thread in today’s scores that I’m missing…

A really powerful theme.

Themes, or melodies, have helped support some of the best horror films out there.  We all know the story of John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Yeah, you know the one we’ve heard before so many times:  The movie felt flat until ol’ Johnny C. got in there with his catchy tempo and punched the film up with a wicked, memorable score.  And reaching farther back, let’s not forget Bernard Hermann’s masterful work on Psycho.  I’ll fire off some other examples to jog your memory:  The Exorcist, The Omen, Suspiria, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Candyman…  See what I’m getting at?  I can drop those titles and you could hum those soundtrack themes at the snap of a finger – or at least conjure up a crude representation of them based on your musical prowess.  

Growing up, I remember sifting through the racks of the local Strawberries or Sam Goody, discovering “spooky” Halloween compilations (“Creepy Tunes!” “The Sounds of Halloween!” or something like that).  These were often covers of famous horror melodies throughout the decades, sometimes “presented” by a TV horror host.  Essentially, they were mix tapes to toss on at a party.  They were fun, even if the cover track was a little “off.”  Today, I can’t imagine what those mixes would consist of based on the 20 years.  I can probably count them on my hand (and I will in a sec, stick with me).  What would exist today is a lot of, more or less, ambient sound.  A tapestry that elicited darkness, but it would have no identity.  Listening to the mix of contemporary horror scores would feel like diving into an uninspired void filled with rumbling, murmurs and other sounds struggling to find cohesiveness.

The result is something abstract and experimental – although this is nothing new and it has certainly been used to chilling effect in films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a bed of gear-grinding and clanking – or even Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, with its aggressive, urgent piano chords.  But today’s scores are not pushing the envelope enough so they get lost in the viewing experience.  Furthermore, they’re lacking a melody.

I’m not saying every horror film release needs one, but it would be nice to get one every so often.  I put out a query to those who follow me on my personal Twitter account last week, requesting a few memorable soundtracks with resonating melodies/themes.  What I got back was not surprising, or what I had in mind and agreed with.

Charlie Clouser’s theme for SAW is an undeniable submission.  And even today, when it’s applied to trailers for other thrillers or horror movies, it doesn’t sit right.  The theme is synonymous with SAW and that’s that.  28 Days Later, by John Murphy, features a haunting and rousing theme; again, also used for commercials and trailers and it feels out of place when applied to anything but something 28 Days Later-related.  Hans Zimmer’s score for The Ring is an overlooked entry in conversations about soundtracks, but let me give it a little praise here.  It has an incredibly strong theme that’s frequently revisited throughout the score and has a lullaby-like nature to it.  And, to present a more recent example, a few people think Rob’s synth-driven score for the Maniac remake should get some appreciation.  There are a couple of themes at play in this one – all very good – but will they stand the test of time?

There are contemporary composers that do what they do very well and, chances are, I own a few of their scores.  Just let this piece merely serve as a challenge to filmmakers and composers alike to bring back the “art” of the horror melody.


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