Theme from “Tombs of the Blind Dead”:  This is one of my favorite types of bad horror movie soundtracks  churchy fake Latin chanting accompanied by gutteral groans and metal scrapes. It’s better by far than creepy children slowly la-la-ing nursery rhymes, though not quite as riveting a standalone soundtrack as Penderecki- and Varèse- and Stockhausen-derived scores, or musique concrète industrial noises by Tobe Hooper in the 70s, or inappropriately triumphant-sounding prog rock synths in giallos and zombie movies of the late 70s and 80s. But it’ll do.

I particularly like when horror movie music doesn’t quite fit with what’s occurring onscreen. I can’t think of an example from “Tombs of the Blind Dead,” but Lucio Fulci does it all the time when scene tension appears to be building to a synthy climax, and then there’s an abrupt cut to a cute cat, or an extreme close-up of someone’s eyes, or just an establishing shot of a house, and it’s like the soundtrack just forgot what it was doing.

When David Lynch used Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” on the Twin Peaks reboot, I wanted to give up on the whole series — because, surprise surprise, he associated Penderecki’s music with an atomic blast, and the janky special effects in slow-motion arty black-and-white were absolutely inferior to the music in every way. In fact, while I think Lynch could probably have gotten away with no sound over those scenes at all, adding the “Threnody” made his visuals fall straight to shit, because the music is so much more creative, surprising, visceral, even visually compelling, than any image he could come up with. I’m not even that convinced by Kubrick’s famous Penderecki and Ligeti steals.

If you’re going to use modern classical music for movie shock effect, it has to be earned, by playing it over images that are already strong enough to shock on their own, otherwise you’re just ‘dropping the needle’ on someone else’s accomplishments and it shows. The use of Webern’s third of “Five Pieces for Orchestra” in The Exorcist, or Tarantino’s use of soundtrack themes from other movies in all his movies, I think both stand up to the challenge of the originals by adding something otherwise unimagined to them.

It’s as though the images find a way to bring out special subtext in the music, in a similar way that great film composers, like Herrmann or Rota or Morricone, bring out otherwise unnoticed subtext in the movies they scored. The music and images benefit by each other’s presence, because both are allowed to function semi-independently, two separate but interrelated layers rather than using one as just programmatic accoutrement to the other. When the right kind of wrong fit happens between a movie and its music, the complex emotional aesthetic result is so satisfying it just makes me jump up and down . . . or at least write a long, boring, nerdy blog post.

Michael Tencer

Michael Tencer

Purveyor of fine reading material printed on soft paper