The Return of Synths to Horror Cinema

Published by Dorian Dawes on

Within the crossover of horror-nerd and music-nerd, there are a couple of names that provoke spontaneous tumescence: Goblin, John Carpenter, and Fabio Frizzi. The 70’s was a fabulous time for horror cinema in general, with inventive storytelling, artistic visuals, as well as the best damn music. It says a lot about a film’s soundtrack when you can listen to it in its solidarity and find complete enjoyment. Goblin’s title tracks for a majority of Dario Argento’s work are still hailed as iconic themes even today. Search Youtube for any track from Deep Red, Suspiria, or Tenebrae, and you’ll see what I mean. The choices these filmmakers made in using progressive rock for their horror soundtracks is something that hasn’t been mimicked elsewhere, which is such a shame given the energy these pieces contribute to the accompanying visuals.

Next is John Carpenter, who composed the tracks for many of his own films. While utilizing synths wasn’t particularly uncommon in American horror in the 70’s and 80’s, few were better at mastering the simplicity and atmospheric nature of synth keyboards than Carpenter. Though he’s most well known for his work in films like Halloween and The Thing, my particular favorite has to be The Fog. It’s a haunting soundtrack filled with atmosphere and drama; the elegant simplicity makes it instantly memorable.

Unfortunately, as the horror film genre declined over the next several decades, so too did the quality of the music. Creative choices of progressive rock and synth keyboards were set aside in favor of more traditional orchestral arrangements that were nowhere nearly as memorable or interesting. There’s a few quality pieces that emerged here and there, but it’s the exceptions that proved the norm.

Eventually filmmakers who grew up on a diet of 80’s nostalgia started making their own films, and synths came back with a vengeance. Disasterpiece’s epic soundtrack to the chilling stalker film It Follows is a new masterpiece of the genre. Not enough has been written about this beautiful score. It pulses and thuds, adding both timelessness and atmosphere to each scene. Every shrill note and echoing baseline is fueled with tension, especially at its quietest moments.

Prior to It Follows, we saw also the surreal Kubrick-inspired Beyond the Black Rainbows with another unique offering to the musical landscape of the horror genre. Sinoia Caves utilized not only synths – to maintain the distinctly 80’s vibe of the film’s imagery – but also powerful organs to lend an air of weight to specific scenes. The ‘Sentionauts’ sequence is one of the most memorable and visually arresting moments to the film, and it is carried almost entirely on the weight of the score. The dramatic organs jolt the viewer awake and then, even as the track fades into quietness, it’s hard to tear your eyes away. It’s as if the music is pulling the viewer closer and closer into the screen.

Most recently in the vengeance of horror synths is Netflix’s original supernatural-thriller series Stranger Things. Among a series of tastefully selected period-appropriate song choices is an instantly arresting set of tracks by experimental synth quartet Survive. I was reminded of how young I was when I was first exposed to the opening theme for the X-Files, how those haunting notes prepared me for stories of supernatural intrigue and conspiracy.

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It’s not that I have a dislike for classic orchestral arrangements in horror films, in fact there are many great horror scores that I love which have utilized the style to create memorable arrangements. No one is going to forget the opening themes to The Omen or Hellraiser any time soon, but for the most part when it comes to modern horror there’s been little variety or creativity when it comes to these scores. We’ve heard the shrieking violins, the low-groaning cellos and thudding drums to let us know when we’re supposed to feel tension. To the discerning audience member, it’s started to feel cheap and distracts us from the film rather than immersing us fully within it.

As we return to experimenting with various other genres, a sense of the unexpected can return to the screen. Anyone can make a screeching violin scary, but how interesting would it be to see funk and jazz utilized to produce the chilling effect? How unique would it be to see the twanging of an acoustic guitar to signify portents of doom? I’m glad to see the return of one of my favorite instruments to the horror genre, but the possibilities are endless. In this modern era, I’d love to begin to see filmmakers creatively branch out to find new and innovative sounds of terror.