Horror films don’t work without music. Imagine Halloween without the theme, Psycho without the string stabs, Class of Nuke ‘Em High without those three songs played over and over and over again. Horror without music is just a bunch of screaming and a few squelchy noises.I mean I may be being slightly reductive here, but I’m basically right, right?
Horror music without horror films however, is something completely different. Take away all that unnecessary story nonsense and often even the worst of horror can have a soundtrack that soars when heard in isolation. As such this is a series of reviews about the soundtracks to films heard away from the source, and whilst a little context can sometimes help, more often than not the less you know about which rubbish death coincided with which track in the film, the more you will enjoy the music. It also means that I can talk about Ghosts of Mars without actually having to watch it again.
It’s not a series of recommendations, some of this stuff will be terrible (Ghosts of Mars), but will hopefully always be interesting and worth a listen and speaking of John Carpenter lets start off with one of his better films the amazing They Live.
They Live, undisputedly the greatest of John Carpenter’s movies (seriously, don’t dispute this) has a lot of walking around in it. Perhaps influenced by ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper’s, er, ‘limited’ acting ability, the first half of the film sees our hero wandering about Los Angeles and staring at people/things with one mildly confused expression, and not saying a lot.
He walks and he walks and he stares and then he walks some more. Keith David turns up and does some actual acting, and then Roddy walks off again. He of course goes on to thwart a global alien conspiracy to enslave the human race, and along the way has the greatest fight ever committed to celluloid. Throughout all this his expression never really changes, and fittingly neither does the music John Carpenter & Alan Howarth’s music for They Live.
The soundtrack to They Live centres around one repeating blues riff, that plays over and over throughout Roddy’s rambles. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the subtext here- the plodding, endlessly looping music not unlike the life of repetitive, meaningless consumerism the film’s alien antagonists are subjecting the world to.
‘We sleep, they live’ as the film’s iconic billboards shout, and this ambling riff could definitely lull people to sleep. Half of the pieces here are variations on that riff, and in fact variations might be too kind a word. Other than ‘Wake Up’ which adds some ill-advised electric guitar ‘shredding’ to the piece, the other reprises are sonically pretty much the same track repeated over and again.
It’s when Roddy puts on the glasses (PUT ‘EM ON!) and starts to infiltrate the alien underworld that the music starts to liven up a little, traditional Carpenter synth bass and arpeggiators driving the score along. ‘Kidnapped’ is perhaps the highlight, putting the glasses on the main theme and showing an eerie underbelly of slow, menacing strings.
From there the back half of the record descends into even sparser ambient synths, abstract electronic shrieks and the repeated alien request to ’sleep’ on ’Sunglasses on’ followed by several tracks of sustained high-pitched tension, interspersed with occasional blasts of horrific mechanical shocks of noise. By the time the blues harmonica returns on ‘Holly’s Hill’ that blues riff feels like a safety blanket that you just can’t quite find.
And that’s why They Live is a great soundtrack- that main blues riff may get played hundreds of times, but its a good riff, undeniably catchy, and the snatches of melody that break in over the top from mournful saxophones and wailing harmonicas creates a wonderfully lazy sense of isolation and paranoia. As when watching the film itself its hard not to smile when the riff starts up yet again, coming back around the block once more, still wandering about looking a little lost, still feeling more than a little sorry for itself.
The best way to listen to the soundtrack is perhaps how Roddy himself did: put it on your headphones and wander through the city and its hard not to feel like you are in fact existing inside They Live (I mean, we probably are anyway, right?).
Listen to some of They Live below and look out for more horror soundtrack reviews from Jack Crow soon!