“I’m a [John] Carpenter fanatic. I drive people insane — I drive my family insane — by always playing the Assault On Precinct 13 soundtrack,” Rue Morgue music editor and writer Aaron Lupton mused to Vehlinggo over Skype one afternoon recently. He in Toronto and I in Brooklyn. Just a couple of people talking about horror scores. “I’m always humming it when I’m walking around the house and everything like that.”
Lupton and fellow horror soundtrack aficionado Jeff Szpirglas have harnessed their collective energy into Blood on Black Wax: Horror Soundtracks on Vinyl, from 1984 Publishing. It’s a Rue Morgue-presented, full color, 240-page hardcover that spotlights the intricate artwork on the LP sleeves of horror scores, as well as album reviews, release details, and vivid anecdotes. They interviewed a host of greats, including Fabio Frizzi, Christopher Young, Lalo Schifrin, Harry Manfredini, and, of course, Carpenter. The book is currently available for pre-order and officially goes on sale May 13, but for Record Store Day (April 13) you can get it signed plus you’ll get a 7-inch with unreleased disco cuts from Prom Night (more on that later).
Carpenter. He generally gives concise answers in interviews that would make Hemingway proud, but Lupton and Szpirglas had an enriching conversation with him for 45 fruitful minutes. It’s an opportunity most horror film/film music writers don’t get, but the two Canada-based authors got it. Carpenter was actually the first interview they did for Blood on Black Wax.
“A really high point was Carpenter, because to me he’s my favorite guy,” Lupton said. “I think that he’s the one — even more than Goblin, more than anyone else — who has really made this type of music popular, and I think it obviously fits in with the whole synthwave/horror synth movement.”
They also interviewed Denny Zeitlin, a relatively obscure film score composer who’s nevertheless had an impact on the horror landscape. That exchange really stuck out for Szpirglas.
“He only ever composed one film score, and that was for Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, a process that sounds like it completely satiated and exhausted him,” Szpirglas said in an email exchange recently. “Zetlin’s a real Renaissance man. He got brought onto the project due to his background as a jazz pianist, but he also worked as a psychiatrist. It was really interesting learning how he had to shuffle different components of his life — and put some on hold — while scoring the film… His music adds such a rich layer to the film, which has a very specific and unsettling sound design.”
The bones of the book came together when Szpirglas brought the idea to Lupton. Rue Morgue had been issuing special “digest issues” on specific subjects, and Szpirglas felt that a volume on horror soundtracks was a notable topic with a large fan base, he says.
“The project evolved and became more visual, with an emphasis on the album covers as well,” Szpirglas says.
They collaborated on questions for the interviews, whether both or only one of them were actually conducting the interview, he says. They allowed each other to focus on their favorite subjects.
“When I get going on a non-fiction project, I go overboard with the research,” Szpirglas says. “I created a library of files that incorporated research, old interviews, and notes we could draw upon. That was half the fun.”
The result is an onslaught of important information for horror film fans — especially those into the music. Going forward, I’ll be presenting my discussions with Lupton and Szpirglas as a series of topical discussions, rather than a sequential Q&A or Vehlinggo’s more traditional narrative profile. Stay tuned and enjoy the ride. (It’s safe to say these interviews were edited and condensed for clarity and format.)
The Exorcist and The Lost Score of Lalo Schifrin
Vehlinggo: This had to have been an exciting project for you to work on, being such a big fan of horror film music. Which composers were high points, in addition to Carpenter?
Aaron Lupton: Lalo Schifrin was huge, because… he’s this absolute legend. This is the guy that did Dirty Harry and Bullet and stuff like that. The fact that he spoke about The Exorcist, when he never talks about that — that was really really a huge bonus for us. [Editor’s Note: Schifrin originally provided some music for The Exorcist, but filmmakers ultimately rejected his score in favor of a lighter touch by Jack Nitzsche.]
That was a funny interview. It was basically me screaming into the phone as slowly as I could, because he’s an old guy and he can’t hear very well any more. We were told not to ask him about The Exorcist — and I said, “You know what, my very last question is going to be about The Exorcist, because the worst thing that could happen is he hangs up on me.”
Vehlinggo: Do you know why you weren’t supposed to ask?
AL: I don’t know, actually, the real reason, and I don’t know if anyone knows the real reason. There may be some legalities and everything like that, but basically what it is, is he did the original score for The Exorcist, and the story is that they hated it. The answer that he gave me was that it was so bad that he claims it freaked people out so much they were throwing up in the theater.
Vehlinggo: Oh my God.
AL: Which, I don’t know if it was the music that was making people do that or if that actually happened, but for whatever reason they didn’t use it. They didn’t go in that direction. I don’t know if it’s one of those things where he was just really pissed off, like maybe they never told him that they weren’t using it.
Prom Night Disco
A major tie-in with Blood on Black Wax is the release of the full Prom Night soundtrack on limited edition vinyl. The music, by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer, has become infamous — especially its disco songs. The film, which stars Jamie Lee Curtis, is a Canadian slasher that arrived in 1980 in the wake of her turn in Carpenter’s original Halloween.
AL: When we were initially talking about the project and talking about the book, of course we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we put out an actual horror soundtrack with the book. So we started digging into that, and it’s getting harder and harder to find soundtracks that haven’t been released on vinyl, because every week there’s a couple of them, it seems.
I had done an event in Toronto — I hosted a Q&A with the composer Carl Zittrer — and I thought, well let’s see what Carl has put out that hasn’t been put out.
I thought about the film Curtains, and I thought about the film Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, and I realized Prom Night‘s never come out, and in fact the only time [the] Prom Night [soundtrack] has ever come out, it wasn’t an official release. There was a Japanese bootleg. So I shot him an email and said, “… Do you own the rights to Prom Night? Because that’s never come out, and what if we put it out?” And he just kind of said, “Yeah, I think I own them, let’s do it.”
So it’s just amazing that its first official release is going to be with our book. Obviously we’re super super excited about it.
We are releasing a full LP soundtrack that includes both the score for Prom Night, as well as all the legendary disco songs. But the thing is that we wanted to get the book into Record Store Day, and it would be really difficult to package a book with a full 12-inch. So it’s almost like a logistics thing where it’s really awkward to package it. What we’re going to do for Record Store Day is… package the book with just a seven-inch. So the seven-inch is two score cues from the film, as well as two songs: “Prom Night,” obviously, and “Love Me ‘Til I Die.”
The story that Paul Zaza gave us — and I don’t want to repeat it all because it’s in the book — but he says basically what happened was that, when they filmed the disco scenes, the dance scenes, you know when you make a movie, you make a temp track, or temp music, that’s not necessarily in the film. In Fright Night they did the same thing. In Prom Night they were dancing to [Gloria Gaynor’s] “I Will Survive” and songs like that, and apparently if you watch the dance scenes close enough, you can almost see the actors mouthing the words as they’re dancing to that music. But then of course they couldn’t use the music, because it was going to cost them more than the entire budget of the film. So they were like, “We’ve got to write new disco songs.”
But the movie was due out in like a week, so Paul Zaza somehow — in 48 hours — wrote a bunch of songs that sounded exactly like the disco hits of the era. Not exactly like them, because then they’d get sued, but close enough that someone would try to sue them… They wanted it to be close enough, so that if they almost got sued they’d get a little bit of publicity out of that.
In 48 hours he somehow assembled this band in Toronto, got all the singers and the musicians together, recorded the songs, produced them, mixed them, edited them, and everything like that. That to me is a huge story in and of itself.
Jeff Szpirglas: This release comes straight from the master tapes, with some cool new art from Gary Pullin. Dust off those disco shoes, because this slab of vinyl will get you shaking your booty. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
“I… like horror movies where the score is so over the top that it raises the film to a whole new level.” – Jeff Szpirglas
What Makes for a Good Horror Score?
A question that pops up a lot in interviews is “what makes for a successful score?” In horror that question is as important as in other genres. Szpirglas has some insight on the subject.
JS: [A good horror score is] one that strengthens the film; but there’s no magical formula to doing so. Sometimes a film needs quiet, almost subliminal sounds to add menace, but I also like horror movies where the score is so over the top that it raises the film to a whole new level. The Witch, by Mark Korven, is like that. It’s almost operatic in parts.
Part of me wants to say that horror scores often work better with short ostinatos or bursts of sounds, rather than more sustained melodies. But then you have a film like The Wicker Man, which uses folk songs to add a real layer of menace. So there’s no real rule, and that’s a good thing.
Horror scores are at their best when they’re inventive and the composer, sound designer, editor, and other filmmakers are coming up with creative approaches to making sound and image mesh in ways you might not expect.
Horror, Synth Scores and the Resurgence of Vinyl
I thought that what has made horror soundtracks so popular these days is the whole vinyl craze that probably started in, I think, 2012, with Death Waltz, and then it just exploded. I think that with horror soundtracks on vinyl, it’s brought in this whole other interest group, a whole bunch of fans that weren’t necessarily consumers of horror soundtracks, but now they are because of the vinyl thing.
Then, as we were going back and forth we said, “What if we did a record album book that basically treated the horror soundtracks the same way you would treat top 100 albums of the ‘70s, or top 200 albums of the ‘80s.” Where it’s very visual — it’s fun to look at — and the idea is that you almost sit down and you look at the book the way that you would look at the liner notes for the record while you’re listening to it.
So absolutely, where Jeff and I are coming at this from is that we’re passionate about the music. We want people to read about the music and be excited about it, but we’ve thrown other stuff in there — visuals and also just interesting facts, and the style of the way it’s written — so that if people aren’t super informed on the subject, but really like horror movies…. like “Hey, I just really like Friday the 13th.” Well, here’s a fun article on how the music for Friday the 13th got made. That type of thing.
Vehlinggo: Yeah. I can obviously respect that approach. I find myself doing that every now and then. That actually brings me to my next question.
It seems like, in the past several years, a lot more of the soundtracks, or scores for any films — not just horror but across the board — have leaned more toward the synthesizer sound. Maybe not totally ‘80s-sounding per se, but there’s been a heavy emphasis on more overtly synthesizer-driven scores. I mean, I’ve built this entire site on this.
But it seems like, to me, that horror is sort of the main driver of this. Like you said, Death Waltz, Waxwork, and Lunaris. There’s Burning Witches Records and Giallo Disco Records, too. Whether the scores are for real horror films or ones only in the composer’s head.
AL: Absolutely it is… Obviously there’s John Carpenter: his scores have legitimate staying power, because again, even his solo music is getting popular, and all these people are coming out to hear Christine played live, and Halloween played live, and The Fog played live. So it definitely has staying power. ‘80s retro nostalgia is huge. Everybody loves the ‘80s… The ‘80s was an incredibly creative period of time for pop culture. The scores that were coming out, I think, really were largely being done electronically for budgetary reasons, because they couldn’t hire a full orchestra.
And then there’s also the fact that the chilling sounds … Synth music, not always, but often times, the keys are a lot colder. It’s a colder sound, so that sound kind of goes along with horror.
Vehlinggo: Right. If you think about it, It Follows, having Disasterpeace and his synthesizer-driven, electronic score, is perfect for that. It’s not necessarily straight up ‘80s or anything, but it has that sort of economical and menacing vibe to it that somebody like Carpenter would’ve employed.
AL: I actually wrote about It Follows in the book proposal. I mentioned it because the film, to me, was the first modern horror soundtrack that young people really gravitated towards, and I noticed that people were posting pictures of them with their It Follows record the same way that … It’s almost like people rushed out to buy the It Follows soundtrack the way that they would’ve rushed out to buy Guns ‘N Roses’ Use Your Illusion when it came out in ‘90 or something like that.
It was a big hit, people really wanted to listen to that kind of music. Again, it’s different, it’s weird. Electronic music is big now: it’s modern and it sounds ‘80s — you know what I mean. It kind of has its teeth sunk into both those things. And there’s just, that aesthetic just kind of exists too, like the Cliff Martinez scores. Like, Drive was huge right?
Pre-order Blood on Black Wax now from Amazon or find it at your favorite bookseller. Don’t sleep on the Record Store Day release version, though. It does have that 7-inch. Go to your local record store and see if they have it. Even if they don’t, pre-order it anyway and buy some other stuff.