Wednesday 22 September 2010

A Symphony of Horror

Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear
2010. Edited by Neil Lerner.
Routledge Music and Screen Media Series.
ISBN: 9780415992039

I found this book while killing time at the British Film Institute shop on the Southbank, waiting for a screening of The Final Programme. I practically jumped for joy when I saw it, although the section this came from is relatively out of sight from the cash register so I received no weird glances at said outburst of spontaneous emotion at the time from the sales lady... I’m happy to say.

I love books on films and I especially love books on film music and, on top of that, I have a certain affection for films which are classed in the horror genre (if anyone can agree as to what that is) and so this book looked like it was going to be my new best friend for a while.

Alas, it was not to be. I tried really hard to cut this book some slack but in the end it just wasn’t doing it for me and, much as I hate to give books bad reviews... well I’ll just have to be unpopular with my findings is all, I guess.

I’ll try to be brief on this one.

This is a collection of essays on horror film scoring so I was expecting it to be a bit hit and miss in its ability to provide me with some interesting and hopefully entertaining knowledge being as it is written by a number of different people each coming at their own personal preference of study for their article. Unfortunately this was way more miss than hit.

It starts off badly with a few generic articles on horror scoring before going into essays about specific scores. So the first essay on the use of the organ in horror film, with explicit reference to the obvious organ-music movie Carnival of Souls, is one of those articles when you wonder whether the author has just missed the point somehow. A highly articulate (as are all the essays in this book) pondering of the meaning behind specific uses of organ music, seems to me to be one of those pieces of writing where the writer concludes what they want to think the director saw in his use of the music, rather than what the decisions on the scoring and the reasoning behind those decisions actually were.

The second essay similarly annoyed me... entitled “Mischief Afoot: Supernatural Horror-comedies and the Diabolus in Musica", it claims to be a study of the “devils music” in film but seriously, I have two words for the writer of this one... “Bernard Herrmann!” How can you write a serious article about the way the devil and assorted demons have been represented in film scoring when you don’t even mention the one theme which is generally acknowledged to be the piece of devil’s music in film? Bernard Herrmann’s fiddling-good Mr. Scratch theme for The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy) is surely the standout that all future scores were compared to, Liszts Mephisto Waltz and Goldsmith’s later appropriation and re-use of it notwithstanding. And isn’t this book supposed to be bang up to date? Good gosh, one of the most shining examples of demonic scoring in recent years has got to be Christopher Youngs jaunty, devil’s fiddle score to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. Why wasn’t that included?

As I went through the collection, things were mostly eliciting similar reactions from me... and then I got to an article dissecting Psycho. Seriously... Psycho? Yeah, of course Herrmann's score to Psycho is one of the great soundtracks but... this is supposed to be a book about horror scoring isn’t it? In what universe does anyone consider Hitchcock’s Psycho to be a horror film? It’s at most a thriller guys... an American giallo if you will... but not a horror movie. No way? There’s no real monster in this movie or any hint of the supernatural... and please don’t get me started on that whole Norman Bates and Hannibal Lektor are monsters argument. They’re just serial killers. Nothing more or less.

Okay, so moving swiftly on... it’s not all bad news. The article on Carpenter’s The Fog was pretty good although, again, I have two things to say about that.

1. If you don’t know which synthesisers were used on the recording... ask someone, don’t just go with an educated guess and...

2. Unless it’s a very unfortunate typo... when talking about the DJ character Stevie Wayne? It’s "she" not "he!"

It gets better towards the end. The article on Kilar’s Dracula is worth a read and the last chapter comparing the score for The Sixth Sense with The Others actually made me want to fire up the scores and give them a re-listen (kinda hard when I never bought the score for The Others and it fetches silly money now).

Ultimately, although some of this volume was okay, I really regretted spending my money on this one... it seemed to often that the people trying to put their points across were regularly missing examples of composer’s work that would have really helped them push their points and strengthened their arguments. So, and I do really hate to say this, it’s probably the worst book on film scoring I’ve ever read. But at least I’ve read it now and can have a valid opinion on it... of sorts.


  1. Well Horror is what makes an individual scared and nervous, what makes you scared?


  2. Ponder on the term, 'psychological horror thriller'. Horror films can elicit and intensify fear through visual/auditory mechanisms without using onscreen monsters!

    1. Hi there. I don't need to. If feelings of horror equalled the shoddy genre term horror film, then that means there's only been like 3 or 4 horror movies ever made and would exclude classics like Bride of Frankenstein etc. After all, John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars is nothing, if not a Western.

      Seems to me "thriller" would cover your term well enough. Feelings of horror, after all, could easily be attributed to a showing of, say, the musical Grease or some such. If genre specifications were any good then we may have some common ground for an argument which I have had, I promise you, many times before. I certainly don't buy into the whole "human monster" thing either. After all, one man's Hannibal Lektor is another man's Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately, genre terms are immune to subjective viewpoints... and that's probably a good thing, actually... if we have to use genre terms at all.

      But thanks for your comments Mr or Ms or Mrs anonymous. And thank you for taking the time to read.

      All the best,