Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sine Waves, Serialism, and Slasher Flicks

What is it that draws us to horror movies? I'm a huge horror movie geek myself; from the big budget Lion's Gate slashers to the so-bad-it's-genius Troma horror comedies, I love em' all, and not at all ironically (I even harbor a legitimate affection for 80's grind-horror, so lovingly satirized/paid homage to by Robert Rodriguez with his Planet Terror). For me, there's really no way to ruin a horror movie: even the crappy ones are, at worst, mindless fun.

However, the best ones have an ability to do something completely different: rather than letting us suspend our disbelief and lose ourselves in a movie for a couple of hours, these films send a message to some oft-dormant receptor inside of us that our fears are real and valid; that things like we see in the movies CAN actually happen. These films are the ones that evoke real emotion, and it's these same films that, understandably, attain classic status.

So, what's all this about my horror movie fetish doing on a music blog? Well, as any horror buff knows, half of horror is in the movie score. Horror movies have always pushed the envelope, score-wise: from Bernard Herrmann's classic Psycho score, to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" in The Exorcist, to John Carpenter's eerie electronic textures in The Thing, horror movie scores have kept abreast of contemporary composition trends, rather than wallowing in a morass of outdated and uninspired (if not often plagiarized outright) Neo-Romantic tripe (I'm looking at YOU, John Williams). Let's look at the three scores I mentioned and place them contemporaneously with their respective compositional movements. The famous Psycho stabs would be equally at home in Penderecki or Xenakis' mid-1960s output; "Tubular Bells" could easily be a Rhys Chatham or Philip Glass composition, and Carpenter's Thing score? Well, Carpenter's work is weird enough that it probably deserves recognition among 1980's electronic musicians independent of its merits in film.

However, all hoopla about horror scoring aside, horror movies take us to a different side of emotion. Horror reminds us that sometimes, we WANT to be scared; we WANT to take a few hours and walk on the dark side, knowing full well that we can retreat into the safety of our locked houses when the movie is over. This is where I find the real parallels between horror and contemporary music. Horror movies aggressively challenge their viewers to suspend disbelief and invite emotion in the same way that contemporary music challenges listeners to suspend preconceived notions of musical precept and invite emotion from that which is new and different. Contemporary music, like horror cinema, is not afraid to explore the darker emotions of the human psyche. Because of this, many listeners and viewers retreat into the safety of that which is not so challenging. This isn't to cast judgment upon that which has established mastery already; certainly, both Brahms' 4th Symphony and Lawrence of Arabia are masterpieces of unparalleled beauty, but do either of them challenge us to explore our most difficult and uncomfortable emotions? If the purpose of art is to explore the realms of human emotion, then shouldn't music (and cinema) seek a total understanding of emotion, not excluding the darker side?

Contemporary music is often marginalized in much the same way horror movies are: people unwilling or uncomfortable with the experience of challenging emotions often reject the art that evokes them outright. It's a good thing that composers and filmmakers with integrity continue to soldier on under the banners of expanding the human experience. As for myself, you can find me in the basement with a copy of Phantasm and my Xenakis recordings.

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