“Vinyl is one of those beautiful mediums that should not die out. I think film scores are in general enjoying more of a renaissance as a celebrated art form, and that’s beautiful. Vinyl is one of the things that contributes to letting people know that the scores to films are in themselves works of art that are worth being treasured.” – Michael Abels, Composer of Us and Get Out
In the foreword of 1984 Publishing and Rue Morgue’s latest book, Blood on Black Wax: Horror Soundtracks on Vinyl, writer/director/producer Mick Garris writes “film music is its pulse, and when the right film and composer meet, magic happens”. While film scores and composers do not always get the recognition they truly deserve, there is no denying that horror scores linger in our memories and have tendencies to haunt listeners years later. If you’ve ever heard John Williams’ “Main Title” from Jaws in your head while at the beach or Bernard Herrmann’s “The Murder” from Psycho while taking a shower, then you understand.
Rue Morgue Music Editor Aaron Lupton, and Rue Morgue contributor Jeff Szpirglas, collaborate as co-authors on the hardbound, 240-page book to capture the beauty, talent, and terror behind horror scores by filling the pages with album reviews, original and rare artwork on LP sleeves, and exclusive interviews. Blood on Black Wax even accompanies a vinyl release of its own with a first-time pressing of Prom Night in either a disco ball variant or the acid flashback variant.
Vinyl has experienced a resurgence over the last decade with cornerstone record labels like Waxwork, Mondo, and Lakeshore producing gorgeous and colorful records such as Waxwork’s most recent Friday the 13th “Campfire” vinyl. However, the collector pool is still relatively esoteric and books on the subjects are practically non-existent – that is, until now.
What sets Blood on Black Wax apart is its dedication to art as well as music, a marriage similar to sight and sound within a film itself. While interviewing Lupton, he disclosed that he and Szpirglas wanted the book to be “accessible to horror fans in general, not just horror fans who collect vinyl and similar to record album books of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s where 70% of the book is art and 30% is text”. He continued, “when it comes to horror fans, they need to have everything. They don’t just watch the movie. They want a library of every movie. They want to own all the t-shirts; they want to own the movie poster; they want to get tattoos of their favorite horror movies on their bodies. It’s not something you just go and watch, it’s something you live.”
Lupton hits the nail on the head. Horror fans are a unique breed, and Blood on Black Wax is a labor of love dedicated to the genre’s loyal obsessives and collectors.
Adhering to their goal of showcasing original prints, artist Andrew Wright provides killer illustrations that augment the allure of the book with pops of pink, blood-red, and violet which capture a viscously striking cover. Each film score and soundtrack accompanies either original artwork from vinyl releases or the soundtrack art (many of which comes courtesy of Lupton’s expansive personal collection). Prolific genre artist “Ghoulish” Gary Pullin showcases his work on the pages dedicated to House, Re-Animator, Scream, Creepshow, and many others. A die-hard horror fan, known for his lavish and vibrant signature style, Pullin is one of the many talented artists pumping new blood into the genre and enhancing the resurrection of vinyl through art.
Blood on Black Wax is comprised of seven chapters, each dedicated to a different horror subgenre. Entitled “Supernatural Horrors”, Chapter 1 discusses some of the most beloved genre franchises including A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, Hellraiser, and Candyman. Composer powerhouses such as Christopher Young, Jerry Goldsmith, Philip Glass, and Ennio Morricone created many of the most iconic sounds in the supernatural subgenre and Lupton and Szpirglas consistently offer engaging yet concise details about each release without getting submerged in figures or music theory. Their approach to reviews for each score are engaging for fans and newcomers alike. Interviews with composers are sprinkled throughout each chapter and provide enlightening behind-the-scenes content about their use of instruments to capture the tone of the film, collaborative processes with the film’s directors, professional influences, and even a career retrospective from beloved composer John Carpenter. Each interview is delightfully distinctive and renders layered insight on the artform of horror score composition.
In chapter 1, Lalo Schifrin discusses the chances he took on The Amityville Horror. He notes, “during the Middle Ages there was an interval – like a harmony – that was called Diabolos in Musica in Latin, which means ‘The Devil’s Music’. That harmony was forbidden by the Catholic Church. Any organist in the church, or any singers or composers, who used that harmony were burned by The Inquisition. They considered the musicians to be breaking the laws of God. That’s exactly the harmony I used in the main theme of The Amityville Horror.”
Further exemplifying the complexity of artistic influence and innovation, Harry Manfredini talks about Bernard Herrmann, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Jerry Goldsmith on his work for Friday the 13th in chapter 4, titled “Murder Maestros”. Piggybacking off of Goldsmith’s use of duplicated harmony or intervals in Coma, Manfredini performed a similar moment with screeching violins and an Irish tin whistle. Even his use of scraping a cymbal with a quarter to mimic the sound of a match lighting speaks to the guerilla filmmaking he and many other composers utilize in their work.
A surprisingly common misconception about the horror genre is an absence of emotional gravity. Many non-genre fans assume horror films are merely out for jump scares and saturated slasher scenes. However, the core of true terror lies in the emotion and fear of the unknown. Love, loss, pain, and fear are all components which make us human – even if those feelings and experiences are personified through ghosts or monsters.
In speaking with Get Out and Us composer Michael Abels, he stated that his style is “very visceral” but his approach to Get Out was cemented in the emotional story of Chris, the film’s protagonist. Since the film is “a slow burn, it is important for the music to be beautiful but unsettling in the beginning, to foreshadow rather than scare. That’s part of how the harp came about. In the hypnotism scene, the music had to seep in so delicately, and I thought what was the most delicate instrument I can think of… and that’s the harp. So, all that music was designed to be hypnotic in a gradual way but not terrifying and that’s the beauty of how Get Out works.”
Abels’ compositions are a prime example of how horror scores can be unsettling but also elegant, as seen on tracks like “Chris & Rose (Love Theme) and “Pas De Deux” on the Us soundtrack. This sort of audible juxtaposition and diversity within the genre is also practiced by Jerry Goldsmith through his use of haunting lullabies in his eerily playful score for Gremlins and chilling compositions in Poltergeist.
There’s a singular type of experimentation allowed solely within the horror genre which enables composers to flex their creative muscles to relay the emotional response off-screen to audiences. For example, while interviewing Christopher Young, he discussed various instruments on the lower tone that he favors and how he recently used the sound of a chainsaw which he transposed really low to get “this ungodly sound that’s really disgusting and aggressive”. He also recorded the sound of a pile driver which he utilizes in several of his scores along with solo female voices like in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Young’s creativity within his compositions allows him to embrace his love of the genre and “fulfill a fascination with darker elements dating back to childhood while imagining invisible worlds that cannot be seen”.
After browsing compelling chapters like “Creature Features”, “Italian Horror”, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmares”, Christopher Young closes out the book with an afterword. He further elaborates on the creative freedom horror allows composers to have in their work and their lack of recognition by the Academy. However, his passion (along with all of the other seasoned composers and artists in the book) permeates off the pages. Young states, “what I love most about working on genre films is the opportunity to lead the audience on a journey down a path into the invisible world behind the screen, where all things dark and mysterious are divine”.
Blood on Black Wax takes its readers down a similar path, illuminating an artistic medium that combines some of the best elements of horror while also giving a voice to the composers who deserve to be celebrated and amplified just as loudly as their memorable music.
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