21 July 2024

[continued from Part I]
Well before becoming synonymous with 1970s/80s horror, Pino Donaggio's international pop music career had already included such familiar names as Paul Anka and Elvis Presley.

Upon being discovered (literally...in a nearby gondola) by director Nicholas Roeg, and their subsequent collaboration on Don't Look Now, the Italian composer's body of work would then take a turn for which we know and love most. His reputation for adding a "touch of class" to many low and mid-budget horror films of this era has since made him one of the most conspicuous composers in the genre.

Often compared to Hitchcock stalwart Bernard Herrmann, such associations are fitting given Donaggio's exclusive alliance with Brian DePalma. Fans continue to debate which of the director's suspense films are their favorite. However, from an auteur theory perspective, there is no doubt that Dressed to Kill is his absolute masterwork...and alignedly, Donaggio's as well.

The story of an unfulfilled housewife contemplating adultery, her genteel psychiatrist who declines her advances, a high-priced prostitute who sees too much - and the Manhattan slasher stalking them all - was undoubtedly DePalma's most controversial film to date.

With outcries from women's and civil rights groups, the MPAA, and polarized reactions from critics, Dressed to Kill proved a commercial success. Reviewer Pauline Kael coined DePalma a "master spy, master seducer."

Donaggio's melodic motifs here steam of soapy eroticism...lavish and luxuriant as any traditional romance theme. Sensual subvocals harmonize impeccably with DePalma's elements of voyeurism and impure thoughts. Suspense moments are given maximum mileage, with Donaggio intensifying the strings and brass to an audibly glorious climax every time. One of the maestro's best!

While Tony Scott's oeuvre is rife with explosive blockbusters, his most personal, exquisite film remains his first. The $13 million adaptation of Whitley Streiber's The Hunger was ravaged upon release, yet its cultural impact has prospered for three decades.

The story of an immortal vampiress in modern-day New York, her centuries-long male companion whose "eternal youth" suddenly degenerates, and the female doctor (a specialist in aging) who may take his place, was given fashionable treatment by way of Scott's evidently commercial 'mise en scene.'

Artistically and thematically ahead of its time, The Hunger has sumptuous production values to spare - courtesy of revered cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, glamour make-up artist and Helmut Newton associate Antony Clavet, esteemed costume/fashion designers Milena Canonero and Yves Saint-Laurent, among others.

The film's erotic lesbian sex scene has placed it...and its two female stars...well at the top of the gay/lesbian audience base. In addition to stunningly convincing make-up effects by Dick Smith, its soundtrack selection remains one of its most discussed attributes.

Known mainly for his eerie opening theme to HBO's The Hitchhiker series, composer Michel Rubini (teaming here with sound designer/innovator Denny Jaeger) has created a number of equally menacing, flanging synth-horror cues.

Borrowing largely from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon via mutual "music room" scenes, The Hunger's capacious classical palette almost single-handedly introduced viewers to several since referenced Schubert trios and sonatas, and Delibes' 'Flower Duet' from "Lakme." The appearance of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in the prologue has likewise pleased goth/punk-chic purists. All in all, a superbly ecclectic compilation of music on display.

The bountiful career of composer Frank de Vol began in the 1920s from the orchestra pit of his father's movie house. Later a traveling musician, and a composer of numerous pop radio hits...de Vol's work includes numerous recognizable television themes (The Brady Bunch being perhaps the most famous) as well as over fifty film scores and five Academy Award nominations therein.

Collaborating with director Robert Aldrich on sixteen pictures alone, his beautifully lachrymose score for Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte remains one of their best. The "Grand (Dame) Guignol" classic depicts a wealthy, middle-aged spinster...tormented by the murder of her married lover decades earlier, publicly persecuted ever since, and suffering a mental breakdown when her long-lost cousin returns to help save the estate from freeway requisition.

Glittering with class, the film is often trivialized for its ill-fated attempt to re-team Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, co-stars of Aldrich's 1962 smash hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Crawford's early departure and inevitable replacement with Davis' close friend Olivia de Havilland.

Beneath its diva quotient is a truly heartbreaking story of guilt, betrayal, and southern Gothic family "skeletons in the closet" drama...and de Vol's score nails all of the above victoriously.

The forbidden lovers' song is given a dash of youthful innocence-cum-trauma via repeated music box motifs, with later harpsichord renditions yielding a hauntingly dusty quality in accordance with the crumbling estate and all of its painful memories.

With then-primitive electronic cues adding horror ambience in the many "frightening vision" moments, and buxom, lower-octave suspense orchestrations amidst the "evil doings" subplot, de Vol's score really glistens in the lighter strings and harmonica passages that identify with our main character's suffering (and eventual freedom).

Incidentally, Hush...Hush earned seven Oscar nominations - more than any other horror film of its time - including one for de Vol's score, and a shared nomination with Mack David for its theme song (later adapted as a Patti Page pop favorite). A wonderful soundtrack, and a great thriller.

When Suspiria proved an enormous distribution success for 20th Century Fox, the studio hastily conferred with Dario Argento on co-producing another feature...and the second installment of the director's "Three Mothers Trilogy" seemed just the ticket.

Though Argento later lamented that his relationship with Fox on Inferno was unpleasant, he also declares the film itself to be one of his most personal. Fans expecting Inferno to match Suspiria in tone, Technovision splendor and auditory chaos were clearly disappointed. However, upon closer evaluation and with said expectations removed, the film is actually one of Argento's most controlled and accessible works.

Pertaining to alchemy rather than witchcraft, Inferno involves a music student in Rome who urgently returns to New York upon the disappearance of his sister, only to find diabolical forces at work in and around her labyrinthine apartment building.

Despite many Argento production regulars involved, the film's divergently Gothic countenance manifests in all areas...including in its unique electronic score by progressive/synthesizer maverick Keith Emerson of supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

In a highly collaborative process, Emerson met Argento's request to include a variation on Verdi's "Nabucco" by adapting the piece for 5/4 time...resulting in the wildly dexterous synth-rock piece accompanying the colorful "taxi ride" sequence.

Though largely electronic, Emerson's terrific score is surprisingly traditional and baroque. Pianos are at the forefront here, with docile, morose melodies in the earlier expositional intrigue moments, followed by vociferous piano banging in the climactic "get out of there" passages.

Live chorals, with occasional vibrato-synth samples, add a wonderful hint of "supernatural conspiracy" throughout - and then cut loose triumphantly upon introduction of the film's respective "Mother." A fine Gothic score with a high-tech spin.

Psychiatrist and jazz musician Denny Zeitlin never fancied himself a composer for Hollywood films. However, when one-time Chicago acquaintance Philip Kaufman approached him in the fall of 1977 with a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he ambivalently accepted.

Kaufman firmly believed Zeitlin's work as a psychiatrist gave him a necessary understanding of paranoia that could be showcased nicely in a largely electronic score.

Buoyed by Kaufman's faith in the project, Zeitlin gathered a credible creative team, deferred his psychiatric practice for five weeks, and fully invested himself in one of the most effectively bizarre, idiosyncratic soundtracks ever to grace the sci-fi/horror subgenre.

With the help of the newly-available, digitally controlled synthesizer called "Prophet 10" - then, still in a prototype phase, and thus shorting out intermittently - Zeitlin was committed to Kaufman's concept of audibly "organic life."

The 1978 adaptation of Jack Finney's classic 1954 serialized novel focuses on two San Francisco Dept. of Health co-workers, a writer friend and his wife, and a pop psychologist. The group comes to suspect that the strange flower which has recently blanketed the Bay area may explain the sudden phenomenon of emotionless, alienating behavior they are beginning to see in others around them.

With its strong performances, implicit craft and mood, Kaufman's remake was unanimously well-received. Zeitlin netted marvelous reviews, and consequently, new score offers poured in. Though he admits he found the process disruptive to his affairs and would therefore never compose another score, Zeitlin reflects gratefully on the project to this day.

His work here is an oddly omnipotent fusion of differing styles. Traditional orchestrations are appropriately suspenseful, yet exhibit enough campy grandiosity to match the film's respective subgenre. While the jazzy love theme is evocative of the film's San Franciscan setting, his synthesizer compositions are pulsing with paranoid tension and the tonal equivalent of an "unfamiliar lifeform." A one-of-a-kind genre gem!

Genre fans have become well accustomed to the notion of directors "getting their start in horror," then moving forward to great industry success abroad. However, it is even more refreshing when this sequence is reversed....as with 1978's Magic.

A much-developed project that originally passed through several prospective directors, Sir Richard Attenborough's film adaptation of William Goldman's 1976 novel remains a curiosity of late 70s highbrow horror.

With sparkling talent on display and unmistakable competence on all sides of the camera, the film's quiet saliency seems to reside most in the stark images of its incorrigible prop-cum-character.

This subtle psycho-thriller interprets the related fears which often define the creative personality - fears of success, failure, rejection, sex, violence (and the capability thereof), etc.

The story concerns a self-conscious magician/ventriloquist who once revealed promise through the guidance of an old-school promoter, but who now suddenly deserts his budding career after he reconnects with a long-lost high school sweetheart. When his stage dummy persona seems to object, a body count begins.

The restrained, nuanced tone that beacons Magic is thankfully evident in all corners, including its score by the usually grandiloquent Jerry Goldsmith. Abandoning his expected suspense bombast here, his music is somber and touching throughout. Harmonica motifs - further explored in Goldsmith's later Raggedy Man score - idyllically recall such thematically appropriate sounds as an antiquated sideshow, a broken toy, or a lonely stage performer.

Romantic passages are delicately accompanied by one of the composer's gentlest piano melodies, identifying beautifully with the main characters' shared feelings of lost love, insecure melancholy and wistful courtship. Effective, knifelike horror strings appear as needed without overwhelming Attenborough's intended understatement. A lovely departure for Goldsmith, which serves its story well.

When Brian DePalma and Paul Schrader attended a VistaVision screening of Hitchcock's Vertigo, the two soon began collaborating on what was originally titled Deja Vu. Fearing this would mislead audiences into believing it a foreign film, their shared project was re-titled Obsession.

DePalma's first of three notable partnerships with producer George Litto began with this $1.4 million Hitchcock hybrid, which solidified the director's reputation as a formidable auteur in the making.

Haunted by the botched kidnapping and unfulfilled ransom that left his wife and daughter dead years earlier, a wealthy New Orleans businessman traveling in Florence becomes infatuated with a young woman who bares a striking resemblance to his late bride.

Substantial adjustments were required to temper the story's incestuous themes, with DePalma and Schrader's relationship severed over the director's decision to omit a superfluous final act of their story...a decision encouraged by many involved, including the kingly Bernard Herrmann.

Having earlier scored DePalma's Sisters, and now in ill health, Herrmann somehow defied all expectations and revitalized his own sound on Obsession...rightfully considered his latter day best.

The inclusion of then-unfamiliar choral and pipe organ passages, the score's prominent motifs, are befitting the film's emphasis on misty, candle-lit churches and the characters' impending doom. (Not surprisingly, the score was recorded in a London church.)

A mellifluous waltz serves judiciously as the primary love theme, while violent strings and percussion dominate the conspiracy/intrigue subplots. The excerpt accompanying the central character's ferry ride to deliver a bounty is a magnum opus in and of itself, and strongly reflects the composer's emeritus focus on concert performance and conducting versus composition.

An audibly overwhelming, magnificent score, which deservedly earned Herrmann a posthumous Oscar nomination (alongside his work on Taxi Driver).

After various incarnations in the early 1970s, briefly moonlighting as "Cherry Five," the band we know and love as Goblin was discovered by Italian contemporary classical composer Giorgio Gaslini on Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso.

The groundbreaking band's sensational soundtrack for that film would give way to their most important work yet. Consisting then of keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, guitarist Massimo Morante, bassist Fabio Pignatelli and drummer Agostino Marangolo, Goblin's members seem to agree then - and now - that the process of creating the score to Argento's masterwork Suspiria was unconventional.

The director's mission of creating an auricular equivalent of "infernal atmosphere" took shape well before principal photography - with no traditional orchestra. Borrowing inspiration from Greek and African musical motifs...specifically, the pandura (also called "bouzouki") - and supplemental industrial sounds as rustic as banging on found objects under the mic...Goblin's work on Suspiria, the first of Argento's "Three Mothers Trilogy," has remained one of the most coveted scores in the genre.

The story of an American ballerina arriving at a Bavarian dance academy, and discovering brutal murders, supernatural phenomenon, and witchcraft at work, was shot in typical Italian fashion without live sound. All the more logical in this case...considering Argento's M.O. of blaring Goblin's pre-recorded score on-set in order to invoke the film's intended tone for all.

The advance compositions further cemented the group's intentions of creating an all-inclusive, elliptical sound of relentlessness, rather than the more familiar approach of scene/moment-specific compositions.

The results have resonated with fans since the film's release in 1977. The celeste-driven main theme resembles a music box, rightly referencing Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi's vision of a twisted fairy tale.

Freckled with demonic vocals by Simonetti throughout, numerous other electric and synth-rock tracks affirm the film's fashionable ecclecticism, but also stand alone as irresistible progressive rock. Loud, jarring metallic wrappings subjugate the primary "witch/murder" track, and beautifully match the film's violent action and saturated color palette in each respective moment used. A must-have for any horror enthusiast!

Following the mainstream success of Chinatown, Roman Polanski unpredictably returned to his obscure, Euro-art film roots on The Tenant AKA Le Locataire. Re-teaming with Repulsion screenwriter Gerard Brach, the two adapted Roland Topor's 1964 novel, thus finishing off Polanski's "apartment horrors" trilogy (which also included Rosemary's Baby).

Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) is a timid Polish bachelor who moves into a spooky Paris flat previously inhabited by a young woman who committed suicide. He obsessively begins to assume her identity, and believes the building's other denizens are conspiring for him to take his own life as well.

The director gives a surprisingly convincing performance, but the film was unfortunately reviled by many of his most avidly supportive critics.

However, recent re-evaluations have shown it to contain some of Polanski's finest work. With a delicious international cast, swarms of mood and atmosphere, and supremely stark cinematography by Ingmar Bergman partisan Sven Nykvist, the film is quiet psychological horror at its best.

Veteran French composer Philippe Sarde, whose brother Alain co-produced the film, began a three time collaboration with Polanski on The Tenant...proffering a very distinctively gloomy score that fits like a glove.

Inspired by a meeting with Polanski - in which the director was rimming a drinking glass - Sarde's clever choice of incorporating the near-obsolete glass harmonica becomes the score's dominant motif. The correlation between the chilling use of this instrument and the film's themes of reflections, window panes, and broken glass, is made clear from reel one.

While its mournful tone is consistent with the protagonist's elegiac isolation, traditional suspense moments are ladled with elegant, mid-octave strings and plucky stingers to spare. A sublimely sad score...for an underrated classic psycho-thriller.

As evidenced by his novel and screenplay adaptation of The Seven Percent Solution, Nicholas Meyer was clearly enjoying speculative "what ifs" of merging disparate historical figures into a concurrent story line. In doing so, his 1979 directorial feature debut Time After Time was born.

Based on Karl Alexander's book of the same name, Meyer's tentative story of H.G. Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper from Victorian England into modern-day San Francisco, and finding romance along the way, was not an easy sell to a resistant Warner Bros. - who felt the otherwise exotic concept did not lend itself to the blockbuster conventions established by Star Wars and Co.

Believing his time travel tale should have a "timeless" sound, Meyer - himself originating from a family of musicians - wisely sought out veteran Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa.

Despite 17 Oscar nominations and three wins (including Ben-Hur)...Rozsa, like many of his contemporaries, had been neglected during the New Hollywood takeover. Ebulliently accepting Meyers' offer, their friendly collaboration would produce one of Rozsa's most beloved works.

Both agreeing the music should subjectively represent Wells' point of view, Rozsa also embraced Meyer's supposition to the French folk tune "L'Aio de Rotso," modified to serve as the Ripper's menacing pocket watch theme. Copyright issues thwarted Meyer's initial wish for the romantic leads' lunch date to be set to Rozsa's theme from Hitchcock's Spellbound, instead resulting in the alluring piano waltz heard in the finished film.

The mutual respect between Meyer and Rozsa was solidified by one of the most brazen acts of loyalty in Hollywood history. When the studio deemed the score "dated" and "inadequate" during test screenings, and was commissioning Rocky composer Bill Conti to draft another, Meyer shamelessly took out a full-page ad in Variety praising Rozsa's work...thus persuading Warner Bros. to reverse its own decision.

Serpentine in its composition, the score slyly interweaves three separate melodies - the Wells theme, the Ripper theme, and the love theme - revisiting them with a variety of low and mid-range strings and woodwinds.

With robust, luscious romance passages and dreamy contemplations aplenty, Rozsa's compositions always remind us at just the right moment that danger is near. A fantastic score that will have you ready to sweep your partner off their feet and guard them at every turn...

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