It’s a dark night. The young woman who made the mistake of checking into this low-rent, out of the way motel, has decided to take a shower. It’s relaxing, it’s comforting. The bathroom door opens, a silhouette appearing in the doorway. This young woman, unaware that she’s alone no longer, continues her shower unabated. The figure reaches the shower and rips the curtain back, the knife they’re wielding flashes its steel death glare. The girl screams and … silence.
This young woman’s stabbed to death in a series of beautifully edited and composed shots, but all we hear is silence. And the absence of music makes this scene play so much differently. Go and try it. Mute your television and watch the iconic death of Marion Crane in Psycho. It changes everything. The texture, the emotion all of it. Because, yes, we’re watching a horrifying scene, and that scars us, but what scares us, is the music. It’s telling us that at this moment, be afraid. Be very afraid.
Every iconic horror score, and even the individual scenes they comprise matters most when constructing a horror film. The jump scare at the end of “Friday the 13th” has more impact because of the shriek of Harry Manfredini’s orchestra. It also adds texture and atmosphere when it comes to Goblin’s memorable score for Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA.
Blake Fichera has done good by countless horror fans by penning SCORED TO DEATH: CONVERSATIONS WITH SOME OF HORROR’S GREATEST COMPOSERS, a compilation of fourteen different interviews ranging from the brilliant John Carpenter, the aforementioned Harry Manfredini and moving through newer composers like Nathan Barr, Jeff Grace and one half of the scoring duo, tomandandy. The book zips along at a healthy pace, highlighting the composers of some of the greatest works. It’s not a mere fluff piece, as some of the interviews can feel a little tense, namely the final one with Christopher Young. It also does something even better, it dives into the more technical aspects of how the scores worked, but without using jargon that would leave the musically clueless reader with a spinning head. This is a buffet for horror fans, because not only does the interviews go into detail on some of the greatest horror films of all time, it also digs into how these maestros do the thing they do best: scare us to death.
We recently took a moment out to talk to J. Blake Fichera, author of SCORED TO DEATH and here’s what he had to say…
Daily Grindhouse: I’d say one of my favorite horror movie scores is John Carpenter’s The Fog. It’s so spooky and atmospheric. As for non-horror, I love the mixture of Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell for Requiem for a Dream. What are your top five essential horror movie scores? Your favorite non-horror score?
Blake Fichera: I love too many to truly narrow it down, but I will give you a handful of scores I love. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the quintessential scores for the genre…or the best, just a few (of the many) that mean a lot to me.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS by John Carpenter & Jim Lang – It is probably not Carpenter’s best score and there are many Carpenter scores that I absolutely love, including THE FOG, CHRISTINE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS, etc. but this was my introduction into the world of John Carpenter’s music and horror music in general. So in that sense, it may be the most influential film score, for me personally, of all time. My love for this kind of music can be directly traced back to this score and without it, there is a very good chance I never would’ve fallen in love with horror film music or written SCORED TO DEATH. When I saw Carpenter play IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS’ main theme live earlier this summer, I actually cried. There’s this moment during the performance where the band cuts out and steps back and there is just a single spotlight on John. It is the only time in the whole show where he plays completely solo. It’s a very dramatic moment and while I was watching it, the excitement of seeing Carpenter playing live, the influence that he and specifically that score has had on my life, the wonderful experience I had working on the book and ultimately the pride and sense of accomplishment I feel for having completed it…it all just overwhelmed me with emotion and it moved me to tears. The other track I love from that score is “Robby’s Office.”
DEEP RED by Goblin & Giorgio Gaslini – I likely heard the SUSPIRIA score first and that is the one most people lean towards, but the music for DEEP RED is really what got me hooked on Goblin. I think it was the fact that you could really hear that it was a collaborative effort from a band. SUSPIRIA’s music is of course amazing, but the bulk of that score is pretty Avant-garde and just doesn’t sound as much like “a band” to me. DEEP RED’s main theme has a great “hook” and is very catchy. “Mad Puppet” is a blues tune! Gaslini’s lullaby is beautiful and creepy…and all the progressive/jazz fusion stuff is awesome. It’s just a fantastic score and soundtrack.
Maniac by Jay Chattaway – A beautiful score! Chattaway has a great talent for injecting some heart into the macabre and Maniac is a perfect example of that. Sure there are the occasional stereotypical horror stings, but so much of that score is gorgeously eerie and just plain melancholy.
DRAG ME TO HELL by Christopher Young – A totally underrated score. Absolutely beautiful and it is so magnificently over the top that it fits the tone of Raimi’s work & especially that film so perfectly. In my opinion Chris really knocked it out of the park with that score.
ZOMBIE by Fabio Frizzi – I am not sure this is Frizzi’s best score, but ZOMBIE was the first Fulci film I ever saw, making this the first Frizzi score I fell in love with. The first time I saw ZOMBIE, I was in film school and I watched it with my friend Dave. It (and especially the score) just mesmerized both of us. We instantly began playing air-percussion and air-keyboards, pretending we were the band recording it. Shortly after that I purchased a limited edition CD that I think was released by Blackest Heart Media. It contained both this complete score and Fiamma Maglione’s score for CANNIBAL FEROX. What was special about this CD, is that it also had a “Tribute Score” that consisted of several tracks by a band called rokOPERA covering some of Frizzi’s ZOMBIE cues as well as a few original songs inspired by the movie. Honestly, these tribute tracks had a smooth cheesiness to them, but they were pretty awesome. Right around that time Dave and I became college roommates and he and I would sit in our room, miming our way through entire imaginary performances of Frizzi’s score and especially the rokOPERA tracks—To this day Dave plays a mean air-Güiro on the track “Leaving Hell (The Car Ride).” We were just 19 or 20 year-old film nerds living out our rock star dreams in probably the geekiest way possible! But those fun times and those memories have helped the Zombie score securely find a special place in my heart forever. On a side note, it was over a decade later before I realized that the studio band we were pretending to be was essentially Goblin! Maurizio Guarini, Fabio Pignatelli and Agostino Marangolo were Frizzi’s studio band for a lot of that Fulci stuff.
STAR WARS by John Williams – It is probably one of the greatest scores of all time and truly makes the movie. With a score any less grandiose than this, STAR WARS may have just ended up a mostly forgotten cult classic. The music gave that film gravitas and credibility, making it more accessible to the masses…instead of just sci-fi nerds.
ROCKY by Bill Conti – In my humble opinion, ROCKY is probably as close to a perfect film as you can get and the casting, the performances, the script, etc. the score is absolutely perfect. It is so strong and so perfectly married to the film that it can literally make me cry when I hear it…even without picture.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST by Ennio Morricone – It was a real toss up for me, between this and the score for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. They are both fantastic scores that have cues that brilliantly marry diegetic and non-diegetic sound, but the character themes in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST are just fantastic. The slow build of the music when Jill arrives at the station, and how it crescendos as the camera lifts over the station roof, revealing the town, is giving me chills just thinking about it. There are also several really dramatic cues, like the track “The Grand Massacre,” that are just amazing.
THIEF by Tangerine Dream (and Craig Safan) – I love the movie and the score…and I love many of Tangerine Dream’s scores, including SORCERER and RISKY BUSINESS, etc. but Michael Mann had such a brilliant way of using music in his earlier films. It wasn’t just the music he chose, but it was the way he used it that made his films distinct. He was a very progressive director in that way and Tangerine Dream were such a perfect fit for his work. John Carpenter is an easy person to point to as a direct influence on the recent slew of synth-wave film scores, but I believe that Tangerine Dream and specifically their work with Mann is just as influential and to blame for the current growing electronic film music movement. In terms of THIEF though, I also have to give a little nod to composer Craig Safan, whose film scores I love in general, and his Pink Floyd-esque track “Confrontation” on this soundtrack is great and just as important to the film as Tangerine Dream’s work.
THE WARRIORS by Barry De Vorzon – As appreciated as this film has become in recent years, I still think it is completely underrated cinematically and artistically and De Vorzon’s score is a lot of fun and a great listen. I love the 70s feel of it. The main theme rocks. All the synth tones are awesome and there are some really eerie things going in the score as a whole. One could definitely use some of these cues in a horror film and they would work perfectly.
DG: In addition to the many great composers that you had in the book, one of my favorite composers is Pino Donaggio, my favorite works of his was usually with Brian DePalma. Is there a composer, living or deceased, you would’ve loved to add to the list?
JBF: I always want to clarify that I am very happy with the list of composers that are featured in the book and none of them were “consolation prizes.” But of course, there are many other composers that would’ve been great additions the book. Pino Donaggio is actually somebody that I did attempt to contact, but I could not find a way to reach him. I also reached out to Howard Shore, Richard Band and Fernando Velázquez, but it just wasn’t in the cards this time around. Hopefully if I do a volume 2, I will be able to talk to them. And then of course there are the masters that are no longer with us. I would’ve loved to interview Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, James Bernard, Fred Myrow, etc. The list goes on and on. If I had to pick one though, I’d of course have to go with Herrmann. His influence on film music and especially the horror and thriller genres is immense. His name pops up constantly in the book as someone that the composers I interviewed look up to and appreciate.
DG: Who was your favorite subject to interview? Who was the most challenging?
JBF: I will start with the 2nd question first. Fabio Frizzi was the most challenging, but only because I didn’t actually talk to him. Unlike everyone else, his interview was done via email. I sent him questions and he sent me a recording in Italian that I then had to have translated. I would’ve loved to have actually talked to him, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way. I think his interview in the book is pretty great though. It is just a shorter and has a very different feel than the others. He actually complimented me on my questions and told me that I asked him some things that nobody has ever asked him before. So I am proud of that.
As for my favorite…this is going to sound like the cheap way out, but honestly I don’t have a favorite. Every time I say interview ‘A’ is one of my favorites, a minute later I think to myself, “Oh but ‘B’ is really great too and so is ‘C’…oh and ‘D’ pretty awesome too, etc. etc. etc.” Then all of the sudden I’ve named every interview in the book! So I really don’t have a favorite. All of the composers brought something totally unique and valuable to the book and I had a wonderful time talking to each of them. They are all brilliantly talented and fascinating guys and they made this book the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on.
I’m curious though, which was your favorite interview in the book?
DG: I really like the Christopher Young interview, because it’s raw and candid. It feels like a challenging push and pull, and as such, allowed you to get great answers and responses from him.
JBF: Oh yes. The Christopher Young interview might also be the longest. Chris is literally one of the most generous people I have ever met and he was willing/able to lend a lot of time to the book. Obviously everyone that contributed to the book was extremely generous, many of them even supported the book by appearing at a signing with me in August…so they are all total class acts, but since the completion of the book, I have gotten to know Chris on a personal level and we’ve actually become friends and I can tell you that he really is the kind of guy that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So when I asked him to be a part of the book, he was “all in” and I think he and I did about 4 hours of interviews total. One of the things that really works about his chapter is the fact that he and I had an instant rapport. Sometimes when you meet somebody, or in this case interview them, something just clicks and because of chemistry, or for whatever the reason, you have an easy time relating to each other and you just kind of feel comfortable conversing. It is effortless. And I think that’s where that “rawness” and “push and pull” you’re talking about came from. Chris has this amazing blend of emotional vulnerability and openness and because of that instant rapport, he and I had a great series of interviews/conversations, where I felt comfortable enough to “push” him a little and he felt comfortable enough to let me. The result is a pretty intimate interview that very honestly discusses the ups and downs of being a film music composer. The word “raw” doesn’t suit the entire interview, but it is a great way to describe parts of it, for sure.
DG: One of the great things about the book is that you included the more technical aspects on how the musicians did the work. How delicate was the balance between too much jargon and getting the basics across?
JBF: The fear that music theory and technical “jargon” could alienate some readers was definitely something that I thought a lot about as I was deciding to do the book. It was something that I wanted to avoid the best I could and it was also one of the reasons why I almost didn’t pursue the project at all. Music theory is really its own language and one I’m not very fluent in. So I was very intimidated by the thought of interviewing these brilliant artists who, in a sense, speak this language for a living. Luckily I got over that intimidation, because once I started actually talking to them, it became clear that I didn’t need to speak the language. They could all express their thoughts in layman’s terms and even when they did speak in musical terms, they didn’t mind translating it so that it would make sense to the casual music fan. So that balance you’re talking about was something that I thought and worried a lot about early on, but it quickly became a non-issue as I discovered that each interview naturally found its own comfortable equilibrium between the two.
DG: Would you, in all honesty, compose a horror film if asked?
JBF: I made a body horror short when I was in film school, a love-letter to David Cronenberg, and I did actually score it myself. However, I’m not sure anyone who heard that “score” would’ve called it music. It was more a collection of abstract tones. A classmate compared it to naval sonar, which I thought was very funny…and actually pretty accurate.
By virtue of the fact that I have played in bands, including my own, regularly and semi-professionally for the last 11 or 12 years, I am much more comfortable musically now, than I was back then. I just have more experience playing and recording now. So I would definitely entertain the idea, but I am also very mindful of my musical limitations. If somebody were to ask me to score a film, I would give it a lot of careful thought and if I truly thought that I could lend something valuable to the project, sure I would give it a try.
DG: What’s next on the horizon?
JBF: I’m not really sure. Book-wise I do have a few ideas, but I actually dabble in several different kinds of creative endeavors. I do a regular movie-themed podcast called SATURDAY NIGHT MOVIE SLEEPOVERS with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Dion Baia. So that and rocking the crap out of NYC with my band are likely what are in my very near future…after that, it is hard to say. I would like to get started on another big project, either another book or even a film, very soon though.
SCORED TO DEATH: CONVERSATIONS WITH SOME OF HORROR’S GREATEST COMPOSERS is now available.