Thursday, January 29, 2015

American Horror Story by James S. Levine

One can't watch FX's hit series "American Horror Story" without noticing the excellent score by James S. Levine or the alarming theme song by the increasingly more accomplished Charlie Clouser along with César Dávila-Irizarry.

In the theme song, jarring atonal synths blast their way through a spartan groove complete with scrape-y percussive noises, upright bass and a barebones drum beat along with some sort of weird repetitive ghostly whisper.

In Levine's score, a recurring theme features a fingerpicked spanish guitar while a child like voice sings "la la la"; it seems to be an homage to Komeda's theme song from "Rosemary's Baby", but it never comes close to being a direct ripoff. All sorts of familiar sounds occur during the score, cleverly referencing any number of horror classics but the addition of modern production techniques and some innovative ideas take the music into the now; it's all expertly executed. The entire music department at AHS does an enviable job; the music is such an important part of the show; it would only be half as good with your typical stock TV thriller sounds.

Though AHS treads a lot of familiar territory, even the most cynical horror fan would have a hard time denying its effectiveness, both visually and sonically, and for a basic cable TV show it's very graphic and is able to get satisfyingly freaky. And it's one of the highest rated shows on cable TV. It's silly that the same Hollywood that produces such a high quality product for television continues to churn out sub-par, tired tripe to release in theaters.

I doubt very many horror fans have managed to miss American Horror Story, but even if you're not a horror obsessive, you'll still enjoy the show; particularly the first season.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Blue Ruin" by the Blair Brothers

Jeremy Saulnier's revenge thriller "Blue Ruin" is an instant classic, and the Blair Brother's score for the film augments it perfectly. The brother's atmospheric sound sculptures and pulsing synths never obstruct. They do a great job of avoiding convention; blaring brass cuts through a fog of distant strings. High pitched tones create confusion and unease. Dreamy atmospheres make the film feel almost surreal. They're not trying to grab your attention, they're working to advance the story.

The film itself is so tense it's sometimes nearly unbearable to watch. This is aided by sparse dialogue and a great performance by Macon Blair as the male lead Dwight Evans (named after the mustachioed outfielder for the Red Sox in the 70's and 80's?). Blair isn't sexy or Hollywood handsome but in a just world he'd be in the conversation for a best actor Oscar. We cringe as we watch him accrue flesh wounds and blood soaked clothing. In one scene he vomits and it's not fake, he's got to be actually vomiting. The performance, the movie and its score are top notch. It's streaming on Netflix so watch it immediately or risk living a life of regret.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Under the Skin" by Mica Levi

Mica Levi's astounding score for Jonathan Glazer's 2014 surreal thriller "Under the Skin" is an example of how the sonic aspect of a film can be so pivotal that it informs how we perceive the images on screen. The film's atmosphere is shaped by Levi's taut, atonal string arrangements and sparse, distant drum pulses, which seem to exist in a three dimensional realm that floats around us as the film bores its way into our consciousness.

Under the Skin is a visually stunning film, and despite its other-worldy, dream-like pacing, it never risks losing you. It doesn't hurt that a considerable amount of screen time features a completely nude Scarlett Johansson, and also a fair amount of erect penises. If you think modern cinema has a dearth of erect penises, this is definitely the film for you.

It reminded me at times of Louis Malle's "Black Moon", although it's much less silly than that. This is a solid surreal thriller, and I'd also recommended it for fans of horror and sci-fi.