Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Banshee Chapter" by Andreas Weidinger

Andreas Weidinger's score for Blair Erickson's riveting horror thriller "The Banshee Chapter" contains some very well executed sound design. Weidinger does an excellent job creating an unsettling atmosphere that hangs around the periphery and provides great tension for the film's numerous scares. His impacts are perfectly timed with the picture to make you jump five feet out of your seat every time a new ghoul is suddenly revealed. Despite the fact that the film uses essentially the same device repeatedly to scare us, it somehow manages, or at least it did for me, to work every time.

In my opinion, found footage has reached its saturation point and is on its way out, but The Banshee Chapter uses it sparingly without relying too heavily on it for cheap thrills.

The underrated and always great Ted Levine (also a member of the excellent cast on the absorbing and highly recommended FX serial "The Bridge") plays an over the top character based on Hunter S. Thompson who provides some comic relief, and Michael McMillan does a great job in his role, (and - shameless self promotion warning - also plays the lead character in "Jon Davis Gets A Sex Robot" which I did some of the music for in this episode

I saw another review of the Banshee Chapter that said "you can't have the non-found-footage part be as wobbly as the found-footage parts." I don't see how that criticism holds up to scrutiny, because, why can't you? I don't understand that rule, or why critics make up arbitrary rules for films and never explain why it's necessary for anyone to ascribe to them.

It's a tight one hour and 30 minutes; it doesn't overstay its welcome, and is intriguing until the end. As with many high tech horror movies, one is probably best advised not to overthink things and just enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Babadook" by by Jed Kurzel

The Australian horror film "The Babadook" (dir. Jennifer Kent) is a feast for eyes and ears. The whole team involved in shaping the sound of the film does great work here; Frank Lipson's sound design is excellent and does well in avoiding stock horror effects that even good horror movies too often can't seem to avoid; the placement of music, original and otherwise, is perfect, and Jed Kurzel's score is superb. The music remains on the periphery for most of the film and sets us ill at ease while remaining eerily beautiful and also quite melodic; a quality that is often missing from modern day horror. Kurzel's sound sculptures tend to hang in the center of the stereo field while we're surrounded by unsettling yet gorgeous chimes and bells and music boxes in long reverbs.

The film itself is abundant with fresh ideas. Like any good horror movie, it is about much more than monsters. As with the score, it avoids stale gimmicks and also injects some ideas we don't see very often in modern day horror: one particularly astonishing scene features the sleep deprived lead character Amelia (very well played by Essie Davis) having a hallucination in which she sees on her TV a sequence of antique films in the style of Méliès' "La Voyage Dans La Lune" or the dream sequence from Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" in which our monster (the Babadook) appears and reappears.  Later another TV sequence shows a newscast in which Amelia eerily leers out of a window in the background, perhaps the best shot in the film. The original music that lies under the former augments it perfectly with an ambient soundscape without ever overdoing it. A very well made film with one of the best scores I've heard all year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The Taking of Deborah Logan" By Haim Mazar and Logan Mader

It seems to be a mystery among horror fans that Adam Robitel's "The Taking of Deborah Logan" wasn't released in theaters when so many subpar, by-the-numbers horror movies have been in the last few years. The film is so well executed that it's hard to have a gripe with any lack of originality it might exhibit from time to time. And it's very scary. Jill Larson's performance as the seemingly possessed lead character Deborah Logan certainly should be in the conversation as one of the best performances ever in a horror movie.

Haim Mazar and Logan Mader execute the score perfectly, with an excellent sense of when to bring the music to the fore and when to lurk in the background and create an atmosphere that gives movement and atmosphere to the onscreen environment without becoming cumbersome or muddling the dialogue. There's some tried and true methods on display here as well but like the film they work to provide exactly what's needed for good scares. The music rarely completely reveals itself as a point of focus for the viewer, and this augments the movie perfectly, but there are a few times the music is more noticeable and particularly effective, especially during the end credits, where a sparse piano and an ambient backdrop lend the perfect sense of unease. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of psychological horror.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Oculus" By The Newton Brothers

The Newton Brother's sparse score for Mike Flanagan's engrossing horror film "Oculus" has a lot of ominous movement; low end synthesizers up front pulse and lose and gain tempo, while strings hang further back in the mix and glide downward in murky reverbs. This creates a perfect backdrop that never distracts or draws undue attention to itself. It calls to mind classic 70's and 80's scores without sounding trite; it's innovative enough so that everything sounds fresh and reverential at the same time. The spooky piano tune at the end is especially notable.

The film itself has plenty of good thrills, clever misdirection and psychological horror a la "The Shining"; the tension rarely relents as we watch an antique mirror manipulate a family into bloody murder. Although the mirror as a prop for good scares is a longstanding and effective device in horror films, I can't recall another film that specifically centers around a mirror itself, and the music gives it life and breath.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"The Brood" By Howard Shore

A young Howard Shore's score for David Cronenberg's "The Brood" is thrilling if a little by the numbers; it's difficult to get the full breadth of it because it is, for some reason, in mono. But it knows when to come to the fore and it knows when to sit in the background, and it pays homage to earlier horror films like "Psycho" and "The Omen". Shore, of course, went on to score almost every Cronenberg film, as well as every film made in Hollywood between 2004 and 2013.

As a film "The Brood" has its moments but never fulfills its potential. There is something that really works about about mutant child murderers in snowsuits but it never feels especially scary. There is very little explanation of how the film's strange environment came to be, the result is a film that's supposed to be heavy but feels very light. Robert A. Silverman's performance is notable for being hilarious, perhaps unintentionally so; it's hard to say. However it is worth a look if you're a fan of horror, particularly of classic 70's horror.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Black Moon" by Diego Masson

Louis Malle's "Black Moon" (1975) doesn't have much music in it; the lack of a soundtrack somehow adds to the surrealism and anytime music does emerge it is either being played on a piano onscreen by the main unnamed character played by Cathryn Harrison; or sung by the also unnamed male lead played by Joe Dallesandro, or, in one of the film's creepier scenes, created by cat walking across a piano. Both actor's performances are Wagner pieces; the former a love duet from "Tristan und Isolde"; and the latter "Prize Song" from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" (both adapted by Diego Masson). The duet from Tristan und Isolde is particularly astonishing in that it is sung by young children which makes it sound other-worldly, and the dearth of music up to that point only punctuates this effect.

The film itself is completely mind blowing for the first 20 minutes; after that it occasionally works and mostly doesn't. It is definitely worth checking out for its beautiful, surreal moments. It is part of the Criterion Collection - you can watch it on Hulu Plus in HD if you have a subscription.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" By Carmen Dragon

Carmen Dragon's score for the classic sci fi/horror film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) is a timepiece and a very well executed, big Hollywood soundtrack, albiet made on low budget. The film itself holds up astoundingly well, which is due to the strength of the story and also in part to the lack of a need for impressive special effects. The action is augmented beautifully by the score. Listen to the score here and watch the movie (really, watch this movie) here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Repulsion" By Chico Hamilton

The soundtrack for Roman Polanski's beautiful classic "Repulsion" is a sparse affair composed by the great jazz drummer Chico Hamilton. The feeling of Polanski's claustrophobic cinematography is accentuated exquisitely by splashes of avant garde jazz. Watch it here or check out the soundtrack here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The Omen" by Jerry Goldsmith

1976's "The Omen" holds up incredibly well in 2014, there's very few moments that look badly executed which can be quite rare with older movies in the horror genre, a fact that would not stop me and many millions of others from watching them anyway. 

The score by the late great Jerry Goldsmith suits the film perfectly. It was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the cinematic debut of Richard Donner who went on to direct many box office smashes including the first "Superman" and the Lethal Weapon franchise. We'll definitely get into more of Jerry's scores later, there are many to cover, most notably the original "Planet of the Apes". 

The score itself ranges from the almost saccharin orchestral music which occurs mostly at the beginning when director Richard Donner is establishing the doomed Thorn family as a normal happy family to the intense and gothic, sometimes atonal choral symphony of the latter part of the film. During the happy family scenes no irony here, no hints at trouble ahead; the whole of the orchestra cooperates with each other, there's no foreshadowing that son will soon be trying to kill both mother and father.

Choirs chant mostly monotonous latin often spiraling into dense cacophonies of noise (listen to "The Killer Storm" which is laid under the scene with the priest trying to escape an evil storm which eventually dislodges a church spire that falls from the roof and impales him on the ground (which he inexplicably makes no attempt to get away from despite the fact that he spends several seconds watching it coming toward him; maybe he's just accepted his fate.)

Standout moments (which can be heard on the soundtrack here) include the aforementioned "The Killer Storm", "Safari Park", which starts tranquil and descends into chaos by the end, and underscores what is definitely the most gripping and well shot scene in the movie, when little Damien and his mother are driving through a zoo and are attacked by a group of chimpanzees; "A Doctor, Please" which is a variation on a simple and eerie piano theme that occurs throughout the film, and "Ava Satani", which plays under the opening titles.

My favorite musical moment in the film, however, is not on the soundtrack and was most likely not composed by Goldsmith, but perhaps instead by the sound effects team (maybe someone out there can shed some light on this in the comment section). It occurs during the first appearance of the stray rottweiler that Damien and his future nanny Ms. Blaylock later take in, the dog seems to mentally manipulate Damien's current nanny into hanging herself. Much more in the vein of Wendy Carlos with an analog synth playing a plodding monotonous bass line, hear it here.