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A Bloody Complicated Relationship With Horror Soundtracks: To Reissue, or To Let 'Em Rot?

Vintage horror movie soundtracks are being reissued left and right, but one old genre fiend wonders if it's worth it.

Phantasm III poster The first enduring cinematic experience of my life happened on a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1984. My family had moved to the southeastern Philadelphia suburbs, and things were getting weird. My young parents were going through a divorce, and my house had become a cauldron of bad vibes. The nice-enough toddler I had been a year or two before was quickly growing into a hyperactive piece-of-shit child; I threw tantrums on the regular, and didn't play well with other kids. Somewhere around this time, I became aware of my mortality and became obsessed with the idea of my impending violent death. I stopped sleeping. The days were hard enough, but nighttime brought unmitigated and unyielding terror. Everything in my brain was fucked and getting worse by the moment, then Phantasm came along…


I had been to the movies before, but watching Phantasm with my dad that autumn afternoon on WPHL 17 cracked my four year old skull wide open in a way that The Rescuers or whatever disposable Disney fuckery was getting peddled to kids at the time never could. For those of you who have never seen Don Coscarelli's borderline surrealist horror masterpiece, here's a brief synopsis: A mortician (dubbed The Tall Man and played to immense effect by Angus Scrimm) sets up business in a small town and people start disappearing. Two orphan brothers and with the local ice cream truck driver get suspicious. A bunch of creepy, barely linear shit happens involving fortune tellers, tuning forks, dwarves, daggers, shotguns, severed fingers that turn into giant wasp creatures, portals to other dimensions, flying robot orbs that operate like swiss army knives and kill people, and Angus fucking Scrimm walking around in this fucking black suit with this fucking slicked back white hair and this fucking scowl on his face bellowing the word "BOY" all the fucking time.

You with me so far? Sick.

It turns out that the Tall Man is an alien or some shit who was sent to earth in order to harvest humans and turn them into these super-strong dwarf slave things to work on his planet. The brothers and the ice cream truck driver put up a solid fight, then the ice cream truck driver dies and shit gets weirder and eventually the Tall Man falls down a mine shaft, and the younger of the two brothers wakes up in his bed and it turns out that the whole thing was a dream, and the ice cream truck driver is alive, but his brother died in a car crash along with his parents a few weeks earlier. The ice cream truck driver takes pity on the younger brother (who has been experiencing these nightmares ever since his family died) and suggests that they go on a trip to clear their heads. When the younger brother goes into his room to pack for the trip, the goddamn Tall Man is waiting for him behind a door and says "BOY" again and some fucking dwarves pull him through a mirror. The end. Cool.


Phantasm is about a billion times stranger than described above. Vince Canby said in his review of the film for the New York Times that, "If you've ever listened to a bright, imaginative eight-year-old child make up a ghost story, you'll have some idea of what it's like to watch Phantasm." Perhaps that's why it struck such a chord with me at the time. After all, my fears were that of a small, fucked up child: all-consuming and completely irrational. Seeing this movie, with its absence of cohesive narrative, dreamlike visual flow, and aura of generalized dread gave language to the nonsensical terror that I was experiencing in my four year old brain.

Adding to the brooding hodgepodge of violence, the occult, aliens and robots is one hell of a score, courtesy of renowned classical composers Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave. The main theme burrowed its way into my subconscious like a parasitic worm and every time I would close my eyes to try to find quiet, that fucking song would be there, haunting me and forcing my mind's eye to recall what it had seen on the screen. Years later, I read that Myrow and Seagrave were intentionally trying to rip off Goblin's soundtrack work, but they had a very hard time replicating the sounds because of the primitive nature of the synths they were using and just kind of had to accept whatever came out. This is fortunate, because I doubt that anything more complex than a string of single notes and a simple bass line would have stuck with me in such a primal manner. The music was just as integral to the final product as the film itself.


A year or two after seeing Phantasm, I caught John Carpenter's Halloween on the same television channel. The simple plot (kid kills sister and is locked away in an asylum, only to escape on Halloween night fifteen years later and start slaughtering babysitters in his hometown. Really, that's it. Subplots and side stories are introduced and abandoned within the subsequent franchise, but the first movie is just about a nutjob hacking up babysitters), stark atmosphere, expert pacing and flawless delivery would not have had a fucking hair of their overall effect if it wasn't for the theme music. Carpenter's repetition of a simple piano melody and a rudimentary ascending bass line took what was already a deeply unsettling movie and turned it into a fucking atom bomb.

Halloween poster Watching Phantasm with my dad that afternoon has proven to be the most important thing that has ever happened to me. It was my introduction to horror and genre cinema at large, and my life has never been the same since. Horror informs just about everything I do: it's the underlying current to the music that I make, the words that I write, and the conversations that I have with friends and peers. That terror I felt as a small child never really went away, and at this point in my life, I hope it never does. All of the fantastic and the awful and the real and the absurd and the cold and the gregarious and the beautiful and the filthy shit that horror has to offer gives my deepest anxieties a frame of reference. I try to take that reference and turn it into some sort of art. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For better or for worse, everything I do has something to do with fucking horror movies.


Over the past handful of years, it appears that the record collector and the genre cinema fan have come to a meeting point. Boutique labels have made names for themselves by issuing limited runs of previously hard to find (or bootleg only) horror soundtracks. These records often tend to feature exquisite packaging, and aided by new masters and digital enhancement, the music sounds better than it ever has. Due to the high quality and these releases' prior lack of availability, they tend to sell out quickly. The preorder world can be rough; obsessively refreshing a page in order to score a copy of a record can seem like a waste of time, and online vinyl flippers can be opportunistic and cruel. That's the game, and if you care about owning these records you'll play it or you won't. If you're really committed, you can find most of the out-of-print titles from these labels on Discogs or Ebay for prices varying from reasonable to fucking silly.

I spent my formative years shelling out lots of cash to weird classical record shops (which for a long time seemed to be the only places that regularly stocked this stuff) in order to grip the film work of Tangerine Dream, Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Goblin, Simon Boswell, David Hess, John Carpenter, Paul Giovanni and Magnet, Popol Vuh, and many others. The thing is, these records were always around at these shops, not because nobody knew to look for them there but because nobody gave a fuck. Most record collectors seemed to have only a passing interest in horror, and most horror people cared more about the films themselves than owning an expensive piece of wax or a CD that they couldn't watch. Lots of these records (in particular the more prog-, ambient-, and disco -eaning ones) worked well as standalone objects, but the majority only seemed to succeed within the context of the films themselves. It's one thing to casually listen to Goblin's captivating Buio Omega soundtrack as you would any other record, it's something completely different to manufacture affection for Rick Ulfik's score to Street Trash outside of its intended purpose (although that Tenafly Viper song is next level dope).


Street Trash poster

That's where the culture is today. If it's from a semi-obscure horror flick that played on 42nd Street and features a score consisting of a bass note from an analog synth, a four on the floor kick sound, and some spooky filigree bullshit, it has a built-in audience and it will sell. The question to me is: Should it? This is a world where Fabio Frizzi's effective yet boring-as-fuck score to Zombie occupies a similar cultural space to John Carpenter's minimal opus that is Halloween III's opening music. Does the act of introducing these scores into contemporary record collecting (and flipping) culture spark interest in the films that they come from, or does it cheapen the movies that I love by making their music the object of yet another trend, a temporary cultural fixation that will soon burn out?

If it is indeed opening doors and generating interest in genre cinema, I fail to see how the current soundtrack boom is a bad thing; horror movies are my life, and I would love for those who are curious to dig a little deeper and find some movies that speak to them. There is a lot of garbage dressed up in gold out there, and ultimately, the individual has to decide if it's worth it to them. Either way, at the end of the day, I'll be curled up with a something repugnant and a smile on my face, enjoying a soundtrack the way it was intended: within a fucking movie.

Michael Berdan plays in Uniform and is chilling with the Tall Man on Twitter.