Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge movie Ms.45 is all too often forgotten by film fans. Maybe it’s because, in the UK, it never made it onto the Department of Public Prosecution’s final banned list in the early 80s, like Ferrara’s iconic video nasty Driller Killer (1979). Or maybe it’s because, for exploitation fans, it’s just not as grisly as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). What is certain is that Joe Delia’s score has never received any real appreciation outside the context of the film because, up until now, it has never been released.
The Ms.45 LP sleeve artwork by Alice X. Zhang and sleeve notes by composer Joe Delia.
Ms. 45 is the New York tale of Thana (the late Zoë Lund), a mute seamstress who survives not one rape attack, but two: first in the street, and then, when she gets home, a burglar, waiting in her apartment, repeats the ordeal. What follows is a shocking one-woman rampage against all male chauvinists.
Joe Delia started out in music in the late 60s, touring in backing bands for the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers. In the 70s he studied composition, and got his big break with Ferrara’s first feature, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976). His career in film and TV now spans almost four decades.
The score of Ms.45 was his third feature-length effort. He had the tough job of jamming out the real sounds of New York, as well as making up for the glaring silence of our mute anti-heroine. For example, down-tuned guitars cling to a racing post-punk rhythm, intensifying the horror as Thana is dragged from the street in the first attack. Whereas, when the burglar points his gun at her, the shrill of a saxophone, like a crazed seagull, pleads: not again, because she can’t. When her transformation into Ms. 45 is complete, Delia subverts this saxophone motif to signify Thana’s rebirth as a woman of vengeance. Her full red lips take centre stage as the music demands you know she’ll no longer be a victim. These dramatic, broad musical tones are complemented by gentler, stripped-down piano compositions.
Everyone who knows this movie knows ‘Dance Party’, and its Liquid Liquid/ESG-type disco-punk groove. On screen a band performs it at a fancy dress party as Thana – in a sexy nun’s habit – bides her time before her final, fatal act of vengeance. [SPOILER] For this climax Delia switches, on the first gun shot, to the haunting Gregorian sounds of ‘Voices’ as Thana shoots every man she finds in her cross hairs at the party – only to be halted when one of her fashionista colleagues (literally) stabs her in the back.
Delia recorded four other tracks for Ms. 45, but they only featured as snippets in the final film. He doesn’t consider these part of the score so they do not appear on the Death Waltz record. However, they are included as digital extras when you buy it, together with two elements tracks – 25 and 45 minutes long – thrown in for good measure.
Recently, a couple of my friends were having a light scuffle about music formats on Facebook. The conversation shifted from ‘Why are you listening to that?’ to ‘Why are you listening to that on CD?’ The suggestion was that any physical format for storing music was now absurd: ‘Why would you when you don’t have to?’ Such an outcry would be ignored by the boozy congregation that met earlier this month in Islington’s deconsecrated church The Nave. They were out in their legions to pay homage at the launch of the heavyweight 180g luxuriance that was the limited, double coloured vinyl edition of John Carpenter’s self-scored soundtrack to The Fog (1980), released by Death Waltz Recording Company, founded by Spencer Hickman in 2011. Also unveiled that night was renowned artist Dinos Chapman’s specially commissioned cover artwork: a spidery, skinless semi-human face that seems to emerge from a graphite fog and be consumed by it at the same time.
More information on Cigarette Burns Cinema can be found here.
Rare celluloid print screening masters Cigarette Burns, founded by Josh Saco in 2008, who co-hosted the event, treated us further to lurid trailers from 70s movies, including Burnt Offerings (1976) and Demon Seed (1977), getting us in the mood for the 16mm full scope projection of The Fog itself: Carpenter’s tale of 19th-century undead sailors who descend upon their old haunt, the Californian fishing town Antonio Bay, to avenge their betrayal. They were drowned when their ship was sunk by original Bay folk who were not keen on the sailors’ mission to establish a leper colony nearby. The eerie thick fog that heralds their anniversary visit is a portentous means of transportation. The fog is more than this though: its ubiquity and unearthly toxicity are incomprehensible. A motif perhaps, of the world beyond, an anarchic space outside society, that Carpenter evokes across his films. The Fog is certainly worth celebrating, and the dimly lit, smoke-filled arts venue provided some great visual echoes, especially during the scenes set in Father Malone’s church.
Carpenter is known for scoring and performing the music for his own film projects and The Fog’s soundtrack is indicative of his pared-down, minimal style. The detuned sense of foreboding puts me in mind of his outsider antiheroes, who are at odds with the dominant social forces. This includes my favourite Carpenter character, psychopath turned hobby bobby Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston in Assault on Precinct 13, who also turns up in The Fog as the coroner. Also, Michael Myers, played by Tony Moran, the slasher who gets to walk away unscathed at the end of Halloween. Whether Carpenter gives us the electro alienation of the Assault score or the agoraphobic mix of The Fog, these spaces are populated by drifters, the disenchanted and the vengeful.
Carpenter’s re-issued score would work on any format because it’s good, but I like Death Waltz’s double vinyl edition that can be handled and played on an analogue system. For me, this is part of the phenomenological pleasure of space, and objects that occupy three-dimensional space and reflect light. It’s also about an enjoyment of the residue of this: the whirring of the projector, cigarette smoke in a beam of light or the suspense of opening a double album, searching for inserts.
In Halloween II, the first of the series on which they collaborated, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth built up a tight skein of tension woven from music that often sounded like atonal, percussive noises, and incidental noises – alarms, buzzers, etc. – which interacted in various ways with the music. The sound was cold, relentless and utterly inhuman – the perfect counterpart to a masked killer in the process of being transformed from psycho on the loose to embodiment of all evil.
Its follow-up, Halloween III, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Based on an original script by Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Year of the Sex Olympics), who later asked to have his name removed from the credits, Season of the Witch often feels like a very classy movie that has had a series of decidedly unclassy moments rudely inserted into it by a grubby-fingered juvenile – it just so happened that the grubby-fingered juvenile’s name was Dino De Laurentiis, one of the most powerful producers then in Hollywood. Fortunately, the score that Carpenter and Howarth produced is definitely on the classy side.
The Halloween III soundtrack comes on a limited orange and black vinyl with cover art by Jay Shaw and sleeve notes by Alan Howarth and Jay Shaw. Spin the Film Roulette for your chance to win a copy.
Although it was the first score realised using the method Carpenter would refer to as his ‘musical electronic colouring book’ – i.e. improvising and recording live to tape while watching the film on a TV monitor – the pair began with much the same set of instruments they had used on its predecessor: Linn drum machine, Arp sequencer, and a pair of Prophet synths. But the sounds wrought from them could scarcely have been more different. Where Halloween II was all sharp attacks and high mids its successor is built of slowly evolving wave shapes, warm lower mids and deep, deep bass thuds.
As if in self-parody at their new lush sounds, Carpenter and Howarth even named one track ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ – a nod perhaps to the previous year’s chart-topping Chariots of Fire score by Vangelis. But ‘Pumpkins’ is no tub-thumping anthem, rather a highly atmospheric blend of insistent pulses, four-to-the-floor Linn kick drums, and sweep-filtered arpeggiating Prophet synths: the soundtrack not to a race for Olympic glory, but to a man running desperately for his life from a factory full of murderous autons.
Fans of the series were put off by the absence of regular baddie Michael Myers, but the film boasts some equally disturbing adversaries – and plenty of gruesome murders. Nonetheless, it works best in moments when almost nothing is happening. Such as the scene taking place outside, on the first night the protagonists spend in Santa Mira, when the swollen flanks of deep, salebrous sawtooth waves become the motif of a machine vision that hovers over the town like a murder of clockwork crows, beating time with the convulsive impatience of a Hoffmannian automaton. Waiting.
The soundtrack to Halloween II is also released in a limited edition by Death Waltz on 18 October 2012 with new artwork from Brandon Schaefer.
The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.
Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naÃ¯ve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.
Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.
The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.
Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.
Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.
The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.
Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.
Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.
Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.
Film4 FrightFest presented a preview screening of Berberian Sound Studio on August 26.
For the first Film Jukebox compiler of 2012, who better than Barry Adamson, writer of imaginary film soundtracks (see 1988’s Moss Side Story) and a musician who’s long been associated with cinematic sounds. Known for his work with Magazine, The Bad Seeds and other luminaries of various music scenes as well as having written the score for an award-winning ballet, Adamson has also garnered a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won prizes for his short stories and even written and directed a movie. His new album I Will Set You Free is released on 30 January 2012 and he plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 February 2012. Download the taster track ‘Destination’ from Barry Adamson’s website. Delia Sparrer
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 urban masterpiece begins with Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) taxi emerging into the cinema frame, all fire and brimstone; cruising through the ‘foul’ landscape that will see him set out on a deranged crusade. This movie is the ultimate depiction of alienation, obsession and perverse desire, where reality is played out as an insomniac nightmare of rejection and racial hatred and the need to save mankind’s angel/whore as Travis’s angst builds into an apex of horror. An amazing study of ‘God’s lonely man’. The screenplay by Paul Schrader and the score by Bernard Hermann begin and finish one of the greatest films ever made.
2. Seconds (1966)
Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson but regrets it, too late, before meeting a surreal, eerie fate. Extraordinary 1960s black and white paranoia movie bearing depressing truths about today, with its theme of transformation through plastic surgery. Using distortion and exaggeration, cameraman James Wong Howe and director John Frankenheimer reveal the mind of a man who is struggling to break free from an emotional straightjacket, by painting a frightening picture of a dehumanised and controlling world, where, ultimately, fulfilment cannot be found by changing the outside.
3. Humanity (1999)
A beautifully mundane film displaying director Bruno Dumont’s trademark cinematographic blend of lush widescreen landscapes, glossy-eyed close-ups and clinically objective (and graphic) staging of sex to personify his idealised vision of ‘the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of… Emotion’. Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) is an incompetent detective, who longs desperately to connect with humanity but is frustrated at every turn. This is intense tedium observed with clinical precision.
4. Enter the Void (2009) Gaspar Noé shocked everybody with Carne, Seul contre tous and Irréversible. With Enter the Void, he creates a magnificently deranged melodrama that surrounds the tragic and strange relationship of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). This is a tripped-out journey into and out of hell: drugged, neon-lit and with a fully realised nightmare-porn aesthetic that has to be seen to be believed. Unlike anything seen before, it has a vitality and originality that are at once bold and strikingly inspiring.
5. Mirror (1975)
Stifled by the Soviet Union due to its ‘confused narrative’ and therefore not getting a proper release at the time, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, indeed appears at first to be a hotchpotch of ideas thrown together. In this dreamlike and evocative film, childhood memory is pitted against newsreels of war and left open for the viewer to pin their own childhood onto. Mirror represents the closest Tarkovsky would ever come to total abandonment of what many people would consider the most important aspect of any film – a coherent story! There are sequences in this film that are breathtaking and it deserves watching again and again.
6. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is haunting and magical. It’s a deeply strange film, constantly subverting narrative clarity and demanding that its images be taken as metaphors rather than at face value. It charts the story of Valerie’s (Jaroslava Schallerová) transformation from child to adult through the onset of puberty, which is expressed as a nightmarish fantasia, a dreamlike fairy tale populated with vampires, grisly violence and lurid sexuality. A genius tripped-out tale of innocence kept, with one of the great film scores by Lubos Fischer.
7. Performance (1970) Performance stands out as being (at the time) the most visually daring major studio film dealing with questions of sanity and identity rarely touched on in mainstream filmmaking. A gangster on the run (James Fox) hides out in the home of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger). Co-directors Nicolas Roeg (who also photographed) and Donald Cammell (who wrote the screenplay) explore self-discovery through sex, drugs and violence. The film’s madness unfolds in a bizarre unconventional examination that many baulked at but that suits its themes perfectly, giving them real cohesion and truth. The score by Jack Nitzsche is brilliant too.
8. Mother and Son (1997)
Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinarily lyrical film is a beautiful and tender exploration of the deep affection between an ailing mother and her devoted adult son. In a hauntingly beautiful landscape, which Sokurov’s camera transforms into stunning cinematic canvases, the pair recall happier times as the dutiful son lovingly nurses his mother in her final hours. Often this movie feels like watching paint dry in a most exquisite, almost narcotic way. Slow, ponderous and genius.
9. In Cold Blood (1967)
I came to this story written by Truman Capote and directed by Richard Brooks via its Quincy Jones score. It’s the story of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson), who, after a botched robbery, kill a whole family, are caught, and then tried. Capote wrote the whole thing from memory after befriending Smith on jail visits and then interviewing the townsfolk. Four Oscar nominations later, this remains a great re-telling of something truly awful.
10. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock was a sly genius who scared audiences out of their lives (and showers) with Psycho. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her boss and goes on the run, ending up at The Bates Motel, where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes her in. The nightmarish, disturbing film’s themes of corruptibility, confused identities, voyeurism, human vulnerabilities and victimisation, the deadly effects of money, Oedipal murder and dark past histories are realistically revealed through repeated uses of motifs such as birds, eyes, hands and mirrors. Bernard Hermann scores a motif that would end up (at Scorsese’s request) in his Taxi Driver score too!
Barry Adamson and band play the QEH, London Southbank, on 9 February 2012.
Close-Up’s recent Theatre Scorpio season, running before the BFI’s Shinjuku Diaries series on the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, focused on Japanese cinema’s 1960s underground – literally, as the Scorpio was situated beneath the Art Theatre Guild’s venue. The Tokyo basement venue also played host to performance, dance and music; and while most of the Scorpio’s live musical happenings are no doubt lost to history, Masao Adachi’s Galaxy (1967) is a fascinating addition to what we know of the work of experimental composer Yasunao Tone.
Galaxy is a sort of psychedelic existential quest film in which a young man, laden with the ‘straight world’ trappings of work, tradition and respectability, undergoes a possibly psychotic meltdown, in a series of increasingly surreal, hallucinatory tableaux interspersed with slow pans across gory, cartoon-like drawings. The ‘rejection of society’ shtick is common to the time, but Adachi’s brilliant visualisation of the film’s city setting as a paranoid dream/nightmare space and Tone’s uncompromisingly dissonant, often disquietingly harsh score resonate together with a surprisingly fresh urgency.
Yasunao Tone’s work for film is rarely mentioned now, most likely because it is only to be heard at these very rare screenings. It’s also just one part of Tone’s long and impressively varied career, which started with improvising ensemble Group Ongaku in the late 1950s. Prefiguring European groups like AMM by quite a few years, Ongaku channelled influences like musique concrÃ¨te and the aleatory techniques of John Cage into spontaneous, visceral sounds far edgier than those of their more academic contemporaries. Tone soon became heavily involved with the Hi-Red Centre, a politicised, Fluxus-inspired performance art squad given to disruptive ‘happenings’ (Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler mentions one piece that celebrated ‘non-victory’ by staging a banquet in honour of Japan’s defeat in World War Two). His interest in emerging technologies saw him curating a computer art festival in the early 1970s; he also wrote extensively about Japanese experimental music, and subsequently left the country for New York, where he has lived and worked ever since, with video, dance and countless other media. Now in his 70s, his most recent release was a 2004 collaboration with extreme Austrian electronic artist Florian Hecker. His documenters, then, can be forgiven for seeing Galaxy as something of a footnote.
Additionally, I’m not sure if Tone composed music specifically for Galaxy, or if the director edited pre-existing recordings to the film – if so, it is extremely well put together, choreographed precisely with the characters’ movements. But in places, its heavy use of tape effects, frantic sax and jarring bursts of noise also sound a lot like the Group Ongaku recording ‘Automatism’, a live piece from 1960 compiled in 2000 on Music of Group Ongaku, and I wondered if it might be an edit from an Ongaku or other group recording of the early 1960s. Whatever its genesis, though, its use as a film score changes its meaning.
Galaxy‘s first half plays out amid the roads, roofs, stairs and car parks of the city, and the music reflects the density of this environment. The claustrophobia of the new concrete city is sounded out by a signal jam of collaged noise, radio fragments and repetitive, harsh percussion; the tiled, cold spaces of an office corridor and toilet echo with sharp sax blasts. Tone’s sense of the inherent music of the city is a natural fit with Adachi’s ‘landscape theory’, in which place becomes or replaces character.
As the film progresses to a long, surreal sequence where the protagonist battles with a violent Buddhist monk on a giant outdoor staircase, the music’s focus tightens, becoming less of a soundscape and more of a kind of abstract dance score, with a percussive, tense, stop-start motion similar to Adachi’s jump cuts and the characters’ stylised gestures. The sounds of Buddhist ritual – prayer rattles, gongs – are employed, perhaps as a none-too-subtle comment on religion. More ‘real’ instruments can be heard, but heavily processed. Tone’s fascination with manipulating recording/playback devices would continue: in 1997 he released Music for Wounded CD, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory. Here, the tape effects are another indicator of unreliability, things not being real: even if they’re recorded, Adachi and Tone suggest, they’re certainly not ‘true’. This offsets the visual uncertainty too, as we follow the ever more unreliable narrator through increasingly trippy scenarios.
Finally, the protagonist is spat back out into everyday life – or perhaps not, says the sound. As Galaxy ends somewhat ambiguously, the music states its claim more aggressively, hitting a peak of distorted noise that is a small precursor, perhaps, not just of Yasunao Tone’s own music, but of the Japanese extreme noise scene that would emerge in the 1980s and 1990s.
With a plosive stab of white noise, the music of Liquid Sky bursts onto the screen with the title card in the same stuttering neon as the visuals. Casiotones of synbrass and spaceflute match the synthetic apparel of the dancers in this garishly re-imagined Manhattan nightclub. The dancers flail their limbs wildly as a walking bassline trundles up and down its arpeggios, but the beat sounds more like a ticking bomb than a disco drum kit. This is New York in the early 80s, but we are certainly not in Studio 54, and neither are we down at CBGBs. This is some Other New York, caught somewhere between the cartoon concrÃ¨te of Tod Dockstader and the acrylic club scene of Larry Tee.
When diminutive extra-terrestrials land on the roof of a Manhattan apartment, they discover that their best source of food is to be found in the endorphins released in human brains by heroin use and orgasm. Easy pickings among the smacked out fashionistas that strut through this aloofly debauched film, as strung out as it is plumed and primped. Russian emigré director Slava Tsukerman composed the music himself and steers it far away from anything we might expect either from space aliens or drug addicts. There is none of the louche lassitude of the Velvet Underground to these strange jarring noises.
Even notwithstanding that electronic music was by now long out of favour as a soundtrack to alien invasion (remember, in Close Encounters, it’s the humans who play synths – the aliens are represented by tubas and heavenly choirs), Tsukerman’s music here is very far from the kind of smooth whoops and whooshes that characterised SF movie music in the 50s and 60s. Far more crotched and rangy than the Barrons’ work on Forbidden Planet, Liquid Sky‘s score finds itself instead somewhere between the Manhattan Research projects of Raymond Scott and the QY20 sessions of the early Max Tundra. Less the bludgeoning porno-beats of electroclash – the musical genre of recent times most associated with the film – than a curiously childlike take on exomusicology: true sci-fi lullabies, advertising jingles for absurd products not yet invented.
John Hough’s British horror film The Legend of Hell House (1973) concerns the attempt of a small group of psychics and parapsychologists to exorcise the spooks of a notorious haunted house, using the latest scientific equipment. The summoning of ghosts via scientific analysis and electronic equipment could stand as a reasonable description of the activities of the film’s composer, Delia Derbyshire (yes, and Brian Hodgson, but I think by now it is fairly safe to say that in most cases where we see both names credited, it’s Delia’s work that will be making our jaws drop).
By the time Hodgson and Derbyshire left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they had already collaborated on a number of other projects, moonlighting under the pseudonyms Nikki St. George and Li De La Russe. It was under these names that the pair worked on the first White Noise album (which shares with the Hell House soundtrack a tendency towards orgasmic breathiness) and on the Standard Music Library album that would later provide most of the music for ITV’s The Tomorrow People. But this was the first thing they worked on under their own names, and at Hodgson’s own Covent Garden studio, Electrophon.
Back at the Workshop, Derbyshire was known to have had a particular lampshade, favoured for its peculiar sonic properties. I don’t know whether she was able to take it with her when she left (in lieu, perhaps, of a gold watch) or if she found some sort of replacement, but one of the most uncanny sounds to be heard in The Legend of Hell House is distinctly reminiscent of those she found by removing the attack velocities from that lampshade (in the manner of Pierre Schaeffer’s cloche coupée) and leaving the dreamy susurrus of plaintively modulating noise to drift on in its wake. This sound, usually heard first pitched down then pitched up, is probably the film’s most common leitmotiv, acting almost like punctuation, denoting time passing, a sonic ellipsis.
Throughout the film, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between music and sound effects. Even the ostensible theme tune opens with a plangent woodwind motif that echoes the squeak of a rusty gate. This little trill acts like the opening to another world, welcoming in a stuttering electronic rhythm, pulsing with tribal energy, its ons and its offs never entirely stable. An organ stabs out its chords somewhere in the background, more wood wind floats in with a vaguely jazzy sensibility, only serving to destabilise the tonality even further.
The Legend of Hell House was released in the same year as Nigel Kneale’s TV movie, The Stone Tape, similarly about an attempt to apply scientific method to an apparently haunted house and scored by Derbyshire and Hodgson’s old boss at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Desmond Briscoe. But whereas The Stone Tape is rallied around a certain blokey rationalism, Hough’s film is always escaping the bonds of its thin veneer of scientific reason, suffused with a barely suppressed sexuality that seeps out in physical manifestations of ectoplasm and the rhythmic throbbing, the electric murmuration of Derbyshire’s music. It was those same sounds that led to an electronic signature tune Derbyshire composed for a BBC sex education programme a few years earlier being rejected as ‘too lascivious’.
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