Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Well, October has come and gone, and with it my annual horror movie marathon. Started back in 2003, originally it was intended more as an excuse to trim down my Netflix Queue of several of the movies in it, but it’s now become a personal ritual that has deepened my appreciation and knowledge of one of the oldest- and most problematic- of film genres. This year didn’t see nearly as many older films discovered as in the past few- mostly it was a way to catch up on recent genre entries that I missed- but when I did see an older film, it made an impression (I think Warner Bros.’ entire Val Lewton box set is now a must for my collection, as is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr”). And then there were many of the personal favorites, collection stalwarts that continue to intrigue and inspire me.

That inspiration has manifested into artistic expression in addition to just a greater critical appreciation for the genre. The past two Octobers I’ve composed pieces that capture- I’d like to think- the mood and nature of good horror films (and horror film scores), both of which are available on Sonic Cinema. In 2004, I composed “Otherworldly March” (which can also be heard on MySpace), an electroacoustic work whose title came from the steadily unsteady percussion at the heart of the work. In 2005 came “Gothic Twilight”, a more elegant work musically and in instrumentation that nonetheless maintains the same darkness in tone and theme that’s prevalent in not just “March” but also earlier works such as my “Chant of the Vocoder” trilogy. This year I was very much set to write another piece in this vein, this time not interested in doing another electroacoustic work but something orchestral, inspired not so much by the films and scores but very much in keeping with a demo piece I had done for one possible score commission last summer, a piece entitled “Symphonic Dread”.

But something just didn’t really feel right this year. Just as my horror movie marathon took time to get revved up, my work on this year’s “Halloween” piece- as it was initially called- sputtered. I was intrigued by the orchestration I had chosen- for mixed voices (intended for 8 performers), string quartet, and tubular bells- and some good musical ideas came through, but on the whole my heart just wasn’t really into the piece this year. On Halloween day, I figured out why- I didn’t like what I was writing. I feel as though I’ve progressed greatly in the past couple of years as a composer, but I wasn’t feeling like it was coming through in the writing of this piece. With “March” and “Twilight,” and many of the other pieces I’ve written along these lines, I was inspired by the work of others; with this piece, I was motivated more to compose something sounding more like my own past work. And I began without much of a musical idea- even one as simple as a tempo- to guide me. Watching “The Ring,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and “The Shining” this October 31, I realized I hadn’t let the indelible chill of those films- and many others listed below- inhabit me. I hadn’t absorbed the bold artistry of scores like Elliot Goldenthal’s elegantly-classical “Interview With the Vampire,” Hans Zimmer’s eerily-epic “The Ring” or “Hannibal,” the evocative moods in scores for the silent masterpieces “Nosferatu” or “Caligari,” or the classic broad strokes of Franz Waxman’s “Bride of Frankenstein” or David Lee’s “Masque of the Red Death” the way I had in years past. Now inspired, I began the piece again, starting from the beginning, and holding over the ideas I was pleased with in the earlier attempt (including the orchestration). I don’t have anything for you to hear just yet (it’s still yet notes on a page), I do have a title for you though (“‘Darkness’ for Voices, String Quartet & Tubular Bells”), but I will let you know when a recording- either by MIDI or by real musicians- is available to hear. For now, though, I hope you enjoy reading about some of the movies that inspired me this month, and will continue to inspire me about this rich genre.

Thanks for listening,

Brian Skutle

“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontations. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face. Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film.”- David Cronenberg (director, “The Fly,” “Spider,” “A History of Violence”

Brian’s 4th Annual October Halloween Horror-a-Thon: The List
“Stephen King’s It” (1990)- A-
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VI” (1995)- A
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V” (1994)- A-
“Saw” (2004)- B+
“Saw II” (2005)- B
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV” (1993)- B+
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III” (1992)- A+
“Pulse” (2001)- A
“Final Destination 3” (2006)- D-
“The Premature Burial” (1962)- B
“Isle of the Dead” (1945)- A-
“Bedlam” (1946)- B+
“Cat People” (1942)- A
“Vampyr” (1932)- A
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Fear Itself” (1999)- A+
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror II” (1991)- A
“Feast” (2006)- B+
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush” (1999)- A+
“The Masque of the Red Death” (1964)- A+
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror” (1990)- A+
“Hostel” (2006)- B-
“The Woods” (2006)- B
“The Omen” (2006)- C+
“The Grudge” (2004)- A-
“The Grudge 2” (2006)- C
“Scream” (1996)- A
“Saw III” (2006)- B+
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)- A+
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Halloween” (1997)- B+
“Nosferatu” (1922)- A+
“Slither” (2006)- B-
“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII” (1996)- A
“Psycho” (1960)- A+
“Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn” (1987)- A
“The Ring” (2002)- A+
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919)- A+
“The Shining” (1980)- A+

Brian’s 10 Favorite Frightfests
10. “Scream” (1996; Wes Craven)- Nine years after this classic slasher send-up- which is as funny as it is suspenseful- and five years after he made the final film of this trilogy, Craven returned to teen horror with the dreadful werewolf thriller “Cursed” (which was plagued with production issues). However, he came back to form later in ’05 with the entertaining B-movie kidnapping thriller “Red Eye,” showing that he was still capable of gripping thrills after 30-plus years. Still, it’s this tense teen masterpiece- with one of the great openings in genre history- that keeps the director of “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Hills Have Eyes” ahead of the pack in the gore genre.

9. “The Grudge” (2004; Takashi Shimizu)- Genre master Sam Raimi got into the business of Japanese horror remakes in 2004 by hiring J-horror master Shimizu to remake his own popular thriller “Ju-on: The Grudge” with a largely American cast headed by “Buffy’s” Sarah Michelle Gellar. The result is a haunting and brilliantly-structured ghost story that is a strong blend of both American and Japanese sensibilities (skip this year’s “Grudge 2,” which lacks a strong narrative interest). The score by Christopher Young is one of the genre’s best in the modern age.

8. “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964; Roger Corman)- The pull of low-budget king Corman’s mesmerizing horror epic- based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe- is the highly theatrical look and style of the film’s production design and the charismatic villainy of Vincent Price as the diabolical Prince Prospero. Though the Universal monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s and the Hammer thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s have always gotten their due, Corman’s dramas- most of which from Poe’s stories and starring Price- don’t really get theirs. One look at this film, you’ll give yourself over to Corman’s macabre vision of evil.

7. “Psycho” (1960; Alfred Hitchcock)- Shot on the cheap after two of his best and most elegant films (“Vertigo” and “North By Northwest”), Hitchcock directed this seductive and wickedly devious thriller about stolen money, murder, dead mothers, and insane children with unforgettable twists, Bernard Herrmann music, and performances by Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as the woman he kills because it threatens his feelings about his mother. We all go a little mad sometimes; no director was more maddingly brilliant that Hitch.

6. “Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn” (1987; Sam Raimi)- The film that launched a trend- that of the low-budget horror film with no-name talent (the 1991 craptastic thriller “Troll 2” is of its’ vein), none yet has topped Raimi’s sequel/remake of his sensational 1982 debut, with pal/whipping boy Bruce Campbell in his finest performance as the not-so-bright-but-oddly-resourceful Ashe, who must battle an all-powerful evil that takes many forms, from an omnipresent force to a tree to a possessed hand. It must be seen to be believed- no movie is a better blend of fright and funny.

5. “Nosferatu” (1922; F.W. Murnau)- No other pure horror film (except maybe my #1 film on this list) exerts quite the hold of Murnau’s unauthorized Dracula adaptation, a silent masterpiece that came before the more known versions by Universal and Bela Legosi and Hammer Films and Christopher Lee, but towers over both in its’ haunting imagery and artistry. If you’re a horror fan, or a fan of film in general, you moviegoing life won’t be complete without having seen this landmark of the genre in all its’ mesmerizing glory.

4. “Cat People” (1942; Jacques Tourneur)- An early classic in the genre of the supernatural, Tourneur and producer Val Lewton’s sinuous and subtle drama does what the best thrillers do in looking at real-life issues and emotions by way of unnatural subjects- in this case, a young woman’s fear of giving into her deepest desires for her husband, at the risk of unleashing inner demons manifesting as a cat. Simone Simon is haunting and sensual as the young woman in this singular low-budget movie that casts a tantalizing spell over the viewer.

3. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush” (1999; Joss Whedon)- It’s not a movie, but the startling originality and power of Whedon’s largely-silent horror thriller- about fairy tale demons who deprive the citizens of Sunnydale of their voices for 29 haunting minutes- is on the par with any of the movies listed here, be they from the realm of Japanese horror to Stephen King adaptations to classic supernatural masterpieces of style and story. The episode garnered the show’s lone writing Emmy- that it didn’t win is the TV Academy’s eternal shame, ’cause this episode will live on and continue to frighten long after the show left the airwaves in 2003. It is a masterpiece on every level.

2. “The Ring” (2002; Gore Verbinski)- Modern horror isn’t scary to me, which is to say that it doesn’t really contain anything that literally shocks me nowadays. That said, “The Ring” came closest to making me jump in my seat when I first saw it. Three years and one sequel later, Verbinski’s gripping reworking of the Japanese horror classic “Ringu”- starring the luminous and tough-minded Naomi Watts- has all of the elements- including a handful of genuinely scary moments- to join the American classics of the genre.

1. “The Shining” (1980; Stanley Kubrick)- Would it be rude to suggest that this movie- Kubrick’s epic, visceral adaptation of Stephen King’s classic masterwork- is ground zero for every Japanese horror story involving haunting spirits? Not really, when you consider that all the elements- great family tragedy, creepy children, harrowed female characters, places with a past- are all there in Kubrick’s gripping thriller, with a never-crazier Jack Nicholson at the top of his form as Jack Torrence, the writer who’s serving as the caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel for the winter with his wife and son in tow. If Kubrick’s films sometime contain a dreamlike quality that evolve from the director’s style (certainly “Eyes Wide Shut” seems to), then “The Shining” is cinema’s greatest nightmare.

Other Noteworthy Nightmares- More of Brian’s Faves:
-“The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror I” (1990; Rich Moore, Wes Archer, David Silverman)
-“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935; James Whale)
-“Bubba Ho-Tep” (2003; Don Coscarelli)
-“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919; Robert Weine)
-“The Devil’s Backbone” (2001; Guillermo Del Toro)
-“The Exorcist” (1973; William Friedkin)
-“The Frighteners” (1996; Peter Jackson)
-“Horror of Dracula” (1958; Terence Fisher)
-“Jaws” (1975; Steven Spielberg)
-“Sleepy Hollow” (1999; Tim Burton)
-“Stephen King’s It” (1990; Tommy Lee Wallace)

Macabre Masterworks I Plan on Adding to My Collection
-“Army of Darkness” (1993)
-“The Birds” (1963)
-“Creature From the Black Lagoon: The Legacy Collection” (1954-1956)
-“Dawn of the Dead” (2004)
-“The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)
-“Dracula: The Legacy Collection” (1931-1945)
-“The Evil Dead” (1982)
-“Freaks” (1932)
-“The Grudge (Director’s Cut)” (2004)
-“Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” (1922)
-“Horror of Dracula” (1958)
-“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959)
-“In the Mouth of Madness” (1995)
-“The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection” (1933-1944)
-“Ju-On: The Grudge” (2003)
-“Lord of Illusions” (1995)
-“Man With the Screaming Brain” (2005)
-“May” (2003)
-“The Mummy: The Legacy Collection” (1932-1944)
-“The Mummy” (1959)
-“The Omen” (1976)
-“Red Eye” (2005)
-“The Revenge of Frankenstein” (1958)
-The “Saw” Movies (2004-2006)
-“Silent Hill” (2006)
-“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974)
-“Troll” (1986)/”Troll 2″ (1991)
-“28 Days Later” (2003)
-“The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection” (1935-1946)

“The Horror…the Horror”: 2005 in the Genre
=“Silent Hill” (A-)
=“Saw III” (B+)
=“Night Watch” (B+)
=“Feast” (B+)
=“The Woods” (B)
=“Snakes on a Plane” (B)
=“Slither” (B-)
=“Hostel” (B-)
=“The Omen 666” (C+)
=“The Grudge 2” (C)
=“Final Destination 3” (D-)
=“An American Haunting” (Haven’t Seen)
=“Bloodrayne” (Haven’t Seen)
=“The Descent” (Haven’t Seen)
=“The Hills Have Eyes” (Haven’t Seen)
=“Pulse” (Haven’t Seen)
=“See No Evil” (Haven’t Seen)
=“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (Haven’t Seen)
=“Underworld: Evolution” (Haven’t Seen)
=“When a Stranger Calls” (Haven’t Seen)
=“The Wicker Man” (Haven’t Seen)

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