‘It Follows’ and the Art of the Horror Film Score

My boyfriend turned to look at me with my cardigan pulled up to my bottom lip. “Are you cold?” He whispered. “No”, I replied, before grinning. I was terrified.

The cause of my thrilled, yet trembling self was It Follows – the latest horror movie scaring people shitless and blowing them away – the story of Jay and the monster following her. Having it passed on to her like an STI, it’s a relatable and gripping tale that continuously places you in her shoes. It’s helped along by its score by Disasterpeace, aka Rich Vreeland, which perfectly conveys anxiety and that feeling of nightmarish fear.

It took me back to over ten years ago, when I was sitting in another movie theatre, plugging my ears with my thumbs and stretching my fingers to cover my eyes whenever a tinkle of creepy music began. The remake of the horror classic The Amityville Horror was too much for me. (Why didn’t we see The Interpreter instead?!) While the movie wasn’t an amazing contribution to the annals of cinema, the score had done its job. I couldn’t bear to see what was happening on the screen, and the audio suggested I didn’t want to.

Listening to the score of It Follows afterwards freaked me out more than remembering the film did. It reminded me of John Carpenter’s synthy Halloween, while for my boyfriend he heard Goblin’s vibes from Suspiria. It was drawing on a rich history of horror movie soundtracks, and as it turned out these references were direct influences.

Writing about composing the music on his blog, Vreeland says, “David [Mitchell, It Follows’ director] and his editors created a thorough temp score that became my bible for the film. John Carpenter, [Krzysztof] Penderecki, and John Cage were all present. Some of my tracks from FEZ [the video game Vreeland composed for which led to Mitchell seeking him out] were also part of the temp score. For scary scenes, I tried to make the music as dissonant and weird as possible. I pulled out as many stops as I could to one-up the temp cues in every way. For tracks like ‘Detroit’, I was channeling the ominous arpeggios of bands like Goblin. (sic)”

Elaborating on this in an interview, Vreeland says, “The temp… laid down a solid foundation of ideas about tone and placement. I often worked straight from those references pieces, but it was mostly about tone—getting a sense of what sort of approach works, what style and level of energy. I tried to boil those references down to adjectives and simple ideas and then rebuild the music back up from the ground as something new and different.”

The key selection criteria for horror movie scores is based on trying to cut through the knowledge that the film is a fantasy to a primal fear; to make the threat visceral, to catch the audience unawares, and to disorientate viewers so they never know where things are leading. If it does this well, there’s a part of us that’s worried the monster will break through the screen and into our own lives, making visits to the bathroom and taking the bins out on a Sunday a terrifying exercise.

Harry Benshof, writer of A Companion to the Horror Film, describes horror music as having an “assaultive character”:

“This can be achieved through a variety of means, including sheer volume (as in ‘noisy’ outbursts that erupt on the soundtrack each time a monster appears or violence ensues), musical timbre (in characteristic instrumental sounds like ‘screeching’ violins or ‘haunting’ electronic synthesisers), or specific musical techniques, such as repetitious drones (tension built in and through sustained notes), clashing dissonances (unusual combinations of notes), and stingers (sudden musical blasts that coincide with moments of shock and revelation).”

Without these elements a horror movie might end up being toothless, as John Carpenter discovered when he screened the final cut of Halloween without sound effects or music for a 20th Century Fox executive. “She wasn’t scared at all,” he said. “I then became determined to ‘save it with the music’… About six months later I ran into the same young executive… Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music.”

The earliest horror movies tended only to have music for the opening and closing credits, and it wasn’t original either. Dracula used an excerpt from Act II of Swan Lake (a popular choice for following horror movies). In this new setting, the romantic and ethereal orchestral arrangements worked, as many of these early horror films were based on Gothic novels. The Gothic genre is based in the uncanny where things seem both familiar and unfamiliar, a bit NQR and distorted, so to pluck music from a famed ballet with an ethereal feel was fitting.

The same goes when seemingly innocuous music is played in an unexpected or recontextualised place, which was the case over 40 years later for both The Shining (1980) and The Exorcist (1973). Respectively, Stanley Kubrick took us on scenic mountain drive with a synthesised version of Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’, while Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells Part One’ over an autumn’s day walk home signalled the beginning of bad things to come. These new settings feel slightly off, and we become uneasy, we begin to dread what’s coming and we’re not sure why yet. While, as Neil Lerner writes in Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, “The most trivial tonal music can also become terrifying when it calmly and euphoniously accompanies scenes of brutal violence.” (Meanwhile, turn this convention on its head and you get Funny Games (2007).)

Before the horror golden period of the ‘70s, horror films weren’t just the chance to have the bejesus scared out of you – they also came to be a forum of musical modernism. All those B-movie horrors featuring the staple monsters we, and the Backstreet Boys, are most familiar with – mummies, vampires, zombies – needed their soundtracks. And scoring science fiction and horror became a place where composers could go wild with experimentation. It was during this time that the majority of horror music conventions were laid down.

For Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Franz Waxman had established the convention of repeated melodies – leitmotifs – for particular characters, an effect John Williams drew on in Jaws (1975), warning of the shark’s approach with just two notes. But the British film production company Hammer Films made big strides forward in the horror score. The company dominated the horror film industry from the ‘50s to the ‘70s with a stable of talented musicians going nuts with the kind of avant garde orchestral arrangements they could never play in a concert hall. In films they laid down horror’s musical foundations, using inorganic sounds, playing with discordant and dissonant rhythms, and exploring the capabilities of instruments. Led Baxter, who composed several horror movies said, “With a horror score … the notes can be extremely strange. That gives you a lot of leeway. You can be as far-out or as weird as you want to musically.”

In the midst of the Hammer reign, a gamechanger in the horror soundtrack came from somewhere else, though: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Longtime collaborator and composer Bernard Herrmann was told by Hitchcock to do what he liked but not to compose anything for the murder scene. Herrmann didn’t listen and instead wrote one of the most arresting pieces of music in the history of cinema. Actress Janet Leigh described watching the scene for the first time in a way millions of others no doubt felt too: “When the knife went into me on the screen, I could feel it!” The shock of these “shrieking violins” was as Neil Lerner describes, “the sonic rupturing of flesh,” they melded with the visuals so viewers felt as if they’re the ones being stabbed.

Treading the line between art and popular music, these scores were exposing the wider public to progressive styles they otherwise mightn’t have heard, and were leading the way in musical experimentation outside of horror.

Composers for horror and science fiction scores were some of the earliest adopters of electronic instrumentation, using Moogs, MIDIs, and theremins as they came about (theremins as early as the ‘40s) to communicate the unearthly and unnatural. Synthesisers were also a much cheaper option for orchestral sounds as compared to acoustic.

The economic factor was a major factor in John Carpenter using synths in his Halloween score, which he wrote himself – that, and the high-pitched notes can sound a lot like a scream. Other composers, like David Shire and Walter Carlos, used it to suggest the mental instability in Gene Hackman’s character in The Conversation (1974) and in Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It was around this time that bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were gaining some success. (Interestingly, William Friedkin has commented that if he had heard Tangerine Dream’s music earlier, he would have asked them to write the score for The Exorcist.)

Much like the horror genre itself, the score for these films didn’t progress much in the ‘90s and early 2000s, as the market was flooded with reboots, remakes, and standouts every few years like Scream and The Ring. But that’s changing in recent times with films like It Follows embracing older principles of the genre with new and updated ideas. Rather than recycling their predecessors’, filmmakers make shout-outs with their aesthetics to pay homage and introduce established conventions just to break them, shifting the goalposts all the time to keep us on our toes.  As Benshof suggests, like the killers in these movies, “Just when a stylistic strategy establishes a pattern that allows filmgoers to anticipate the terror, horror sound designers and directors change the rules.”

We’ll see what follows next.

This story originally appeared on Spook.

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