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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, boys and ghouls, the season of the sinister. In addition to the hordes of trick or treaters and clown suit-selling pop-up shops, Dublin at this time of year hosts a number of horror themed events from film festivals and parades through to parties and club nights.
With the unofficial kick off of proceedings this year having been visits by 80s-obsessed synth spooks Gost and Peturbator and an absolutely stellar Dublin show by the legendary John Carpenter performing some of his most famed film scores, I figured it might be time to take a spider web-covered stethoscope to the black heart of the horror movie – the soundtrack.
The horror score is an art form, a clandestine magic practiced regularly by a swathe of skilled sonic magicians who never really get the acclaim they deserve. Hopefully this list of 10 recent memorable OST’s from the last four or five years will encourage you to dim the lights, strap on the headset, and spend a witching hour or two in the company of some of the most immersive and unnerving music out there.
Evil Dead (2013) – Roque Banos
The overarching view of Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead series trilogy in the 35 years since its first instalment surfaced is one of a grizzly but ultimately light hearted affair. Helmed by Bruce Campbell’s lovable chainsaw handed rogue Ash, people immediately associate the film with a sense of chainsaw driven mischievous glee that has found its’ ultimate expression recently in the excellent Ash vs The Evil Dead TV show.
So a lot of people were perhaps uncomfortable when Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake of that first trip to the cabin in the woods offered a stark reminder that the series was initially not intended as such at all, channelling the mean spirited, gore drenched claustrophobia that landed the original on the Video Nasties list. Like all remakes of classic films the response from the die-hard fans was mixed to say the least (spoiler alert: I hated it), but there were two undeniably great elements to it.
One was an outstanding performance from Jane Levy as Mia – an early hint of the chemistry between her and Alvarez that would become readily apparent in their collaboration this year on the excellent Don’t Breathe. The other was Roque Banos’ phenomenally unsettling score, one which if the truth be told was more genuinely frightening than the film. It’s a shrieking, droning, finger nails on a chalkboard assault on the ears and the nervous system that has a physicality to it few recent scores match.
It Follows (2014) – Disasterpeace
If you could sum up David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows in one word, that word would be “ominous”. The film’s power is sourced for the most part from implication, from the anticipation of what might be about to happen and how horrible things might potentially get. It plays on your nerves. Composer Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace) grasped this fact firmly and applied the same principle to his score for the film, which is regarded as something of a modern classic with good reason. Pulsing synths that swathe the listener in a fog of late night sonic gloom, it’s also not afraid to get the hips moving from time to time, albeit in a slightly awkward manner. If I could drive, this fucker would be permanently welded into the car stereo for some late night spins too.
Sinister (2012) – Christopher Young
Christopher Fucking Young, ladies and gentlemen. A bona fide master of the horror score, the man responsible for my two favourite horror soundtracks ever in the form of the choral, almost biblical doom he provided for Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, yet strangely a man who never seems to get the credit he deserves, perhaps largely because many of the films he has worked on have reached more..eh..selective audiences (anyone seen Barbarian Queen lately? Thought not).
Having been at it since the early 80s, it’s staggering to think 30-odd years of working on and off in genre films hasn’t dulled his sensibilities, and the Penderecki/Xenaxis meets dark ambient nightmare of the Sinister soundtrack is as forward looking and bloodcurdling as anything soundtrack composers half his age can muster. To quote electronic legends Coil (who famously had their initial and equally brilliant score for Hellraiser rejected by Clive Barker before Young was brought on board), this truly is ‘Music To Play In the Dark’. But only if you never, ever want to sleep again.
Cooties (2014) – Kreng
One of the more fun soundtracks on the list, the news that Belgian purveyors of avant garde darkness Kreng would score the Elijah Wood-backed Cooties a few years back was an intriguing development. Having released a series of enthrallingly pitch black albums through the excellent Miasmah label, it was a pleasant surprise when Kreng delivered a score that proved to be as playful as the film itself. For those unfamiliar, the film is a rollicking take on the zombie film that sees a bunch of teachers hemmed into a school when their young charges are turned into ravenous undead beasts. It’s the kind of gore filled comedic romp that’s hard to pull off well, but it succeeds. Kreng’s score kicks off with the sound of a music box playing a child-like melody before kicking off into a synth heavy adventure that John Carpenter would have killed for.
Martyrs (2008) – Seppukku Paradigm
Stretching a little further back than that “last four or five years” I talked about earlier, admittedly, it would be remiss of me to not disclose that to my mind Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is the best horror film of the last 10 years or so. A katabatic spiral of utter misery and astonishingly bleak atmosphere, on screening at IFI’s excellent Horrorthon a few years ago you could have heard a pin drop as it finished and people filed out of the screening utterly speechless at what they had just been through.
It’s an ordeal of a film. Which is why it’s all the more impressive that French duo Seppuku Paradigm’s score is an understated, at times almost soothing piece of work. While unashamed to occasionally venture into the kind of dark electronic rumbling that a lot of modern horror scores do, it largely takes a more melancholic bent. This is a masterclass in restraint, and one that works as a powerful piece of music in a standalone context.
Yellow (2013) – Antoni Maiovvi
So yeah, at this point in the list you’re probably moderately irate that I haven’t bombarded you with much in the way of the spooky dancefloor action you might have expected, instead of all this “immersive soundscape” shite. So, readers of HeadStuff, meet the infamous Mr Antoni Maiovvi. The righteous heir to the blood covered Italo Disco throne, think of him as some sort of Satanic son of Giorgio Moroder. Largely working outside of film music as a solo artist – a notable exception being his excellent collaboration with kindred spirit and fellow giallo maestro Umberto – it’s actually surprising that he hasn’t scored a whole lot of films but given his absolute mastery of arpeggiated alchemy I can only imagine that will change in time.
Yellow is a short but sweet example of the damage the man can do when let loose, alternating between creeping electronic dread and full on dark disco. The floor-filling tension of ‘The Kill’ alone is worth hearing this for. The short film Yellow from which these tracks are culled is fairly unmemorable but this record is a guaranteed banger.
Sure while you’re in the mood for dancing..another superior remake and another excellent, dance inflected score here, featuring another movie with an appearance from the Haunted Hobbit Elijah Wood. Again leaning on a sort of retro 80s electro pop feel, the mysterious ‘Rob’ delivers a set that again captures the grimy underbelly of a city’s nightlife as our titular main character prowls the streets of New York and various internet dating sites (I guarantee this film will ensure you delete your Tinder account within minutes). It has an undercurrent of menace even at its most blissed out and electro heavy moments, such as the Chloe Alper-voiced ‘Juno’, a Laura Brannigan hit single that never was. Probably the easiest listen on this list. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely pleasant.
Under The Skin (2013) – Mica Levi
I was left a little disappointed with Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin on first sight but it’s a film that has improved with further viewings. Setting Scarlett Johansson’s removed and mysterious young woman against the cold grey Glasgow streets, the film may have taken a while to grow on me but Mica Levi’s incredible score I took to instantly, and of all those mentioned on the list it’s the one I still listen to the most, ever since running out to snatch up the cd the day after seeing the film. A perfect example of organic instrumentation producing utterly alien sounds, Levi’s music is a hypnotic and unsettling affair that hinges in places around a repeated phrase of hair –raising strings over a simple but trance inducing beat. Vertiginous and addictive in equal measures, this one is an absolute classic in the field.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – Broadcast
What a perfect marriage of sound and vision Berberian Sound Studio is. The story of a lonely foley artist hired to work on a low budget horror shocker in Italy in the 70s named The Equestrian Vortex, and his ensuing gradual descent into madness, Strickland’s choice of Broadcast to score the film was inspired, and the legendary English band produce a strange and magical selection of jazzy library music (the opening title music might be the most instantly gratifying song to arise from this piece), bleepy bloopy audio scares, and wistful psychedelia. Then there’s also the utter insanity of ‘A Goblin’. There’s very little to say about this album other than to encourage you to listen to it, and while it’s perhaps not the note some would have wanted them to go out on before the sad passing of vocalist Trish Keenan, I think it stands proudly as a summary of the sense of sonic exploration that Broadcast channelled into their more conventional albums.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! In an inspired move a companion piece emerged shortly after the release of the Berberian OST when celebrated soundtrack label Death Waltz teamed with Nurse With Wound collaborator and experimental musician Andrew Liles to release an imagined accompaniment to the film-within-a-film The Equestrian Vortex in 2014 . Focussing more on the electronic dread end of things than the more musical contributions of Broadcast, it’s a curio fans of the film need to hear.
Carnage Park (2016) – Giona Ostinelli
Last but not least, I wanted to leave you with a brief glimpse into the future of horror, both audio and visual. Mickey Keating is an upcoming and prolific young genre director with a few films under his belt, this being his most recent offering. While still very much finding his voice Carnage Park isn’t his best film to date – that’ll be his other recent release, the excellent Repulsion inspired Darling – it’s worth a look if the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, Turkey Shoot or even some of Rob Zombie’s film are up your street. Keating has however found a fantastic musical foil in his soundtrack partner Giona Ostinelli whose score here covers all the bases from droning tension to moments of atmospheric rock with a sense of purpose. Their collaboration bodes well for the future.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of course, and there were so many others I could have included. So, in the spirit of giving that Halloween engenders, I’ve put together a playlist for yis all to get your musical heebeejeebees. Enjoy.