The course of Horror scores through the years has seen highs and lows. Some of the best ones have continued to be referenced through the ages of film, whether it’s the screeching strings of Psycho or the simple two bass notes from Jaws, even the use of electronics have yielded scary counterpoint to our nightmares with scores like the original Halloween, but when was the last great Horror score? Silence of the Lambs by Howard Shore? Or perhaps Hans Zimmer’s Hannibal? Maybe it was from the bevy of recent horror remakes - I really don’t know? What I do know is that I’ve heard a distinct change in horror scoring in recent years.
Instead of going through an intricate history of how scores for horror films have changed, I decided I would compare two recent limited edition CD releases – one score written a few years ago and another from almost 40 years earlier. The two CDs in question are Kostas Christides’ score for Dark Ride (released by BSX Records) and Twisted Nerve by Bernard Herrmann (released by Kritzerland and also containing four tracks from The Bride Wore Black). Ultimately it’s not really fair for me to compare a legendary Hollywood composer with one just starting his career in the business, but this has more to do with general issues. The other reason for comparing these two scores is the simple fact that I’ve listened to the scores but have never seen the films, so the music stands on its own.
My initial impression upon listening to Dark Ride was one of frustration. This frustration was born from hearing a “dark carnival” theme that was well conceived (and co-written by Christopher Young), but buried along with most of the underscore. Piles of sound design are thrown on top of music that I wanted to hear, and annoying sound design at that. Sometimes this sound design invades the proceedings to a point where it’s just as annoying as if dialogue had been put over it (and who wants that on a score CD?). One track in particular “Amusement Dark” sounded like it came straight from a video game with whispers of the theme that come and go as you run around an empty house looking for the next zombie to decapitate. In the score to Twisted Nerve the theme (famously whistled in the “Main Title”) is used throughout the score in various ways that allow Herrmann to develop the material and actually connect the entire score. Parts of the Dark Ride score could be interchangeable with any other movie of this genre produced within the last few years. Only in a few tracks does Christides let loose with the theme, but these are mostly restatements of it rather than development – it seems to say “remember me, I’m the theme!” Only in the lengthy last track “Ode To Jonah” (presumably over the closing of the film and into the end titles because of the 10 minute plus running time) does the theme reach its closest full potential. Maybe this is a case of having to “just see the film” to get it.
Herrmann creates all of the suspense using the orchestra, and this has to be the biggest difference between the scores – with the aforementioned sound design having to keep the suspense in Dark Ride. I almost don’t want to fault Christides for this because his score is mostly synthesized (or at least sounds that way), and maybe this is what the director wanted – I do hear a better score, but it’s hiding just underneath. Some of the sounds actually do elicit jumps, and I wouldn’t want to listen to it with all the lights out, but that might also speak to what the film didn’t have before the music was added. Nothing in Dark Ride really comes close to the forceful brass chords under trilling piccolos at the end of Twisted Nerve’s “Main Title”. Herrmann’s work has all the suspense you would want in a horror score, and he does this by contrasting the simple and benign theme with dark harmonies and interesting counterpoint (with a particular nice use of clarinets).
I must say that I did really like what Christides did in the last track as it comes close to Danny Elfman territory, but by then it was too-little-too-late. In the liner notes for Dark Ride it tells of Kostas Christides’ love of film scores (with a collection that boasts 1200+ soundtracks) and I have to believe he has a few Herrmann scores in his collection – I just wished he could have taken some of The Master’s suspense techniques and used them in his score.
So, what has happened to Horror scoring to bring us to this point where sound design reigns over orchestral development? It just may be a sign that the orchestral sound is old fashion to the ears of the masses today. Is it that composers are becoming lazy and relying on their equipment over their ability, or is it what the directors and producers are asking for? Both could be valid reasons, but by judging the scores I would rather see Twisted Nerve than Dark Ride, and that might say more about me than I’m willing to admit. Maybe it is me who has become old fashioned.