The proper soundtrack is a crucial element in a classic horror movie.
The best fright flicks are the ones that eschew jump scares for psychological unease, leaving the viewer unsettled for days after viewing. So many elements must work in concert for a horror film to be successful. Along with a novel concept, a script that doesn’t pander to the audience and great performances from its actors, the proper soundtrack is a crucial element in a classic horror movie.
Specialty label Waxwork Records has brought many soundtracks from the genre to vinyl lovers, reminding us that an excellent score can stand apart from its film. Recently, the label released two very important scores, Krzysztof Komeda’s work for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) (initially released in 2014) and Pino Donaggio’s Don’t Look Now (1973), reminding us that music can be just as unsettling and beautiful as the film it sprang from.
Komeda (1931-1969) was a Polish jazz musician who met Roman Polanski when he was a student filmmaker. Finding a kindred spirit, Polanski asked Komeda to score his first feature film, Knife in the Water). After British union laws kept Komeda off Polanski’s breakthrough, Repulsion, the director’s increased stature allowed him to use the composer for his subsequent projects. Once Polanski hired Komeda in 1967 for Rosemary’s Baby – the director’s first American film featuring Mia Farrow as a woman co-opted by a cult to bear Satan’s child – Komeda immediately set to work, writing a handful of lullabies.
The vinyl reissue begins with the film’s main theme, a lullaby featuring wordless singing by Farrow. It is haunting in its simplicity, a melody almost as indelible as Rosemary’s Baby itself. The theme returns, in different variations, throughout the soundtrack, weaving between incidental music and demonic chanting. Komeda’s background in jazz also infiltrates the score in various places, providing some levity and keeping the soundtrack from feeling completely oppressive.
Sadly, Komeda’s career would come to a tragic end soon after Rosemary’s Baby earned him a Golden Globe nomination. In late 1968, the composer was carousing with some friends in the Hollywood hills when he fell and struck his head. Even after reassurances from his physician, Komeda suspected something was wrong and eventually sipped into a coma. He passed away in April 1969 from a blood clot in his brain.
Like Komeda, Donaggio (1941-) dabbled in other sorts of music before making a name for himself in film scoring. Born in Venice, the setting for a large part of Don’t Look Now, Donaggio broke into music as a classically trained violinist. Despite coming from a family of musicians and training at a reputable conservatory in Venice, Donaggio eschewed his classical roots in 1959 upon discovering rock ‘n’ roll. He then gained prominence as a singer-songwriter. Best known for his work with Brian De Palma, Donaggio’s first scoring gig came in 1973 with Don’t Look Now.
While Polanski hand-picked Komeda for Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now director Nicolas Roeg didn’t choose Donaggio for his film. Instead, casting director Ugo Mariotti spotted the musician on a boat in Venice. Initially skeptical since he had never scored a film, Donaggio decided to give it a try upon meeting Roeg. The director and producers were enthusiastic with Donaggio’s try-out and hired him on.
A simple piano piece is the foundation for much of the soundtrack. Donaggio, not an accomplished pianist, claimed that his lack of technique helped add a certain tentative innocence to the melody. Out of context, some of the segments might sound somewhat pedestrian, yet that stately and haunting piano melody is timeless.
Neither of these soundtracks are the screeching and sometimes tacky music that accompanies modern horror. Instead they are tasteful pieces of art that can stand on their own. The true question is whether the films propelled these soundtracks to greatness or, perhaps, was it the other way around?