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Tortured Overtures: Horror Film Score Themes of the 1970s


Undertones: Volume 7

It’s the time of the year again where folks’ minds turn to the macabre and the ghoulish; where death is celebrated rather than feared and of course, when dusty copies of horror films are taken off the shelf to terrify and amuse. So, in honor of the Halloween season it would seem only right that this installment of Undertones concern itself with the scores of horror films or, more specifically, those that emerged during a particularly groundbreaking and ultra-violent decade of cinema – the 1970s.

Many of the horror films of the 1970s did not involve supernatural beings such as vampires, werewolves and swamp things, but the terrors of home and society at large. The menacing figures of films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) and Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) may have worn crazy masks and looked decidedly ‘un-human’ but the messages these films posited concerned themselves with that of the everyday and the mundane; the nature of fate and existence, societal fears and the consequences of immorality. Revenge films with gory undertones like “The Last House on the Left” (Craven, 1974) and “I Spit on Your Grave” (Zarchi, 1978) took the social commentary one step further and shocked audiences with their gritty realism. The villains of these films were not bogeymen who looked freaky and of unsound mind, but run-of-the-mill, ‘plain-clothed’ sociopaths that could be encountered in any city, suburban cul-de-sac or rural town.

Central to the strength of many of these films was the way in which music was used to create atmosphere. Much of the tension in scenes such as those in which hapless victims are shown wandering about aimlessly, is created through the employment of an unnerving score. It could be argued that Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) set the standard for horror scores. With its use of piercing, dissonant strings and tension-building ostinatos (musical material that is repeated over and over), Herrmann’s score encapsulated the sound of pure malevolence and its influence can be heard in nearly every horror/thriller score since.

It seems the best of the scores are deceptively simple, entrancing their audiences from their inception and requiring little time to create a visceral sense of dread. What follows are a few classic opening themes of 1970s horror and a little insight as to what exactly makes them so darn creepy.

michael-myersHALLOWEEN (Carpenter, 1978)

Composer: John Carpenter

Before any images or credits appear, John Carpenter’s piano motif emerges from the blackened screen acting as an admonition of the horrors that are about to ensue. Comprised of four notes in two different time signatures, the motif is repeated incessantly and accompanied by an electronic rhythm conveying a sense of breathless urgency; that time is running out and evil is lurking. As this motif continues, a rather ghastly, lit pumpkin head appears on screen synchronized with the appearance of a second, three note motifs heard in the bass of the piano and synthesizer. This motif evokes a sense of doom and functions as the voice of the film’s killer, Michael Myers (Tony Moran) aka “The Shape”. Myers, an escaped mental patient who was institutionalized for murdering one of his sisters as a boy, relentlessly kills anyone in the path to his intended victim, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), whom he first spies at the beginning of the film.  The two motifs play against each other, developing and modulating throughout the film depending on the circumstances depicted. Whilst these two contrasting motifs act as a conversation between aggressor and principal victim, the overall theme also reflects the urgency of the plight of Myers’ doctor at the mental institution, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who is trying to get to Myers before he exacts further bloodshed .

In the 1983 soundtrack liner notes, Carpenter commented that he was determined to “save [Halloween] with the music” after screening the film sans soundtrack to a studio executive who was not exactly overcome with fear. It would indeed be hard to imagine the film being quite as unnerving if it weren’t for the sense of unease created by Carpenter’s memorable score.

sistersSISTERS (De Palma, 1978)

Composer: Bernard Herrmann

Director and Hitchcock fanboy, Brain De Palma was pretty damn excited when he was able to enlist Hitchcock staple Bernard Herrmann to score his Siamese twin slasher film. In fact, Herrmann’s salary was the largest single item in the film’s budget. According to an interview about the score entitled “Murder by Moog” that featured in the Village Voice in 1973, DePalma had not wanted any opening credit music but Herrmann, in his usual blunt style, barked at the director, “No title music? Nothing horrible happens in your picture for the first half hour. You need something to scare them right away. The way you do it, they’ll walk out.”

The result was a title cue featuring Moog synthesizers that is heard over X-ray photos of two growing foetuses in the womb shown on screen. The opening brass motif accompanied by tubular bells seems to mimic that of a children’s playground taunt and further associations of childhood innocence are created via the nursery-evoking sounds of the glockenspiel. However, the wailing Moogs and dissonant, dramatic strings hint at something far more sinister and psychotic in the works.  Herrmann’s juxtaposition of such contrasting musical material (i.e. the sweetness of the glockenspiel vs. the abrasive string writing), and the variation in timbre created by the unusual orchestration for puts one on the edge of their seat long before De Palma’s first murder scene takes place.


SUSPIRIA (Argento, 1977)

Composer: Goblin

For his 1977 film about an American ballet student, Suzy (Jessica Harper), who travels to Munich to enroll in a rather gruesome dance school, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento used the prog-rock band, Goblin, to contribute a score. In the opening credits a cacophony of noise is heard building up until the title “Suspiria” appears on screen. The Suspiria theme begins as a saccharine motif on celeste that, much like the glockenspiel material in Herrmann’s “Sisters” theme, connotes innocence, albeit with sense of sadness implied by the use of a minor tonality. In the second statement of this motif a ghoulish voice is heard half-whispering, half-singing, resulting in an overall sound that is exceedingly creepy. The delivery of the breathy voice is discordant and consequently the effect of it being in unison with a tuned instrument is unsettling to the ear. As the credits finish, the theme is cut short by the same build-up of noise heard at the credit’s inception. The implications of the theme in terms of the film’s narrative are rather obvious; Suzy’s intentions are innocent and filled with childlike desire but ultimately she is thrown into a world of darkness and overwhelming fear.

suspiria-taxiAfter these credits, Suzy is shown arriving at the airport and the celeste motif is heard cuttingeard of ultimate doomfied byufor Suzie the moment she walks out to this new world; the rain beating down on her and taxi c in and out of the soundtrack, temporarily replacing the diagetic sound of the airport at random intervals. The motif reveals to the audience Suzy’s naivety and trepidation over being alone in a foreign country and as she steps out of the airport doors, knocked back by the storm raging outside, the disembodied voice resumes and the theme is heard in its entirety. The audience gets the impression that things are not going to go well for Suzie as she walks out into this new world, where the sense of dread is heightened by the menacing ambience of Goblin’s mischievous score.

Further Listening:

The Omen (Donner, 1976)

Composer:  Jerry Goldsmith

The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)

Composer: Lalo Schifrin

The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)

Composer: Mike Oldfield (Main Theme – “Tubular Bells”)

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Composer: Pino Donaggio

It’s Alive (Cohen, 1974) & It Lives Again (Cohen, 1978)

Composer: Bernard Herrmann

The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973)

Composer: Paul Giovanni

– Clare Nina Norelli