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Composing for horror: The Halloween soundtrack
It’s Friday the 13 today and it got me thinking about the musical score from John Carpenter’s Halloween. For anyone who has listened to the DVD commentary on Halloween, you will know John composed the main score using little more than a piano played in 5/4 time.
Speaking about creating the soundtrack on his official website, Carpenter says “I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."
Not scary without the soundtrack? She might have been right. I recall the first time I watched Halloween my heart rate increased in sync with the music and onscreen suspense. Quite a feat considering that Carpenter recorded the score in a studio without reference or synchronization to the actual picture. Without the music one could argue that Halloween still remains a scary movie, but I don’t think anyone could say the music doesn’t make it all that more terrifying.
“Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween's music is one of its strongest assets” film critic James Berardinelli says in his review of the film. “Carpenter's dissonant, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael's activity, proving that a film doesn't need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective.”
Co-producer Alan Howarth says on Halloween II, Carpenter “wanted to employ the latest available synthesizer techniques to extend and vary some of the themes from the original Halloween in addition to creating new ones”
He even provides a list of exactly what was used:
Recorders and Equipment
- Stephens 821-A 24 trk
- Tascam 80-8 8 trk
- dbx 155 Noise Reduction (2)
- Otari 5050-B 2 trk
- Tapco 7424 mixing consoles
- Furman PQ-6 Parametric EQ
- Furman RV-1 Reverbs (2)
- Technics Cassette
- MXR DDL
- Mutron Phasor
- Prophet 10
- Prophet 5
- ARP Avator (2)
- ARP Quadra
- ARP Sequencer
- Roland CSQ-600/Sequencer
- Sequential Circuits 700 Programmer
- Linn LM-1 Drum Computer
“The opening track on side two is my personal favorite. The timpani effect produced by the Prophet 10 Synthesizer was just the right sound to set the mood for the film’s second half and I used it as a connective thread in the Shape’s pursuit of Laurie Strode” he says.
If your composing for horror, remember you have the opportunity to interact with an audience much more intimately and physically than any other genre of film. And to do it a plethora of instruments and musicians isn’t necessary.
It might not be as famous as the Bond theme, but the Halloween score surely ranks number one on the list of millions of horror fans. Can you create something as simple and effective?
What's your favorite horror soundtrack? Leave a comment below.