The Score: The Return of Composer Richard Band, Master of Horror
For the better part of the last quarter century, composer Richard Band has composed quality scores for frequently less than quality science fiction and horror films. While he certainly has made music to some genre classics, like RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND and the cheesy yet entertaining PUPPET MASTER series, Band’s music has also accompanied a cornucopia of reviled genre offerings; even fairly enjoyable films retain the low-budget stigma that has accompanied Band over the course of his career. To his credit, Band has always ignored budgetary stigma and given even the cheesiest of films a high class score. Even a mediocre toxic-zombie invasion film like MUTANT (1984) got a classy orchestral score, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra; while 1994’s family fantasy film, DRAGONWORLD, was performed by none other than the Royal Philharmonic. The score for 1986’s TROLL featured a complex and innovative chorale composition, while 1991’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM featured choir and full orchestra throughout. Band’s music for 1983’s slasher movie, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, as an elegant and melodic score, rich in tonality and mysterioso, while his music for PUPPET MASTER accomplished the same kind of tonalities for electronics that he did with orchestra, brimming with clever, carnival like tunes that bolstered the films’ tongue-in-cheek sense of theatrics. With his reverently tongue-in-cheek pastiche on Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho music for Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR, the composer began a decades-long association with the noted director, scoring FROM BEYOND, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and CASTLE FREAK.
It was Stuart Gordon’s influence that recently brought Richard Band back into the realm of horror scoring after nearly a decade away from the genre, with a trio of masterful and innovative scores for the Showtime cable TV series, MASTERS OF HORROR. Band provided a richly textural score for Gordon’s DREAM IN THE WITCH HOUSE (first season, 2005), incorporating choir, orchestra, and electronics, portraying vividly the dark, cosmic nameless horrors of H. P. Lovecraft’s celebrated story of multiple dimensions, dream travel, and influential witchery. Band’s angular musical score fit the fantastic geometry inherent within the Lovecraft tale, while also enhancing the brooding text with Gordon’s vivid visualizations. Band’s collaboration with Gordon, which more often than not centered on the director’s adaptation of Lovecraft, resulted in Band’s being invited to attend the H. P. Lovecraft Festival in Oregon this month (October, 2007), to receive an award and participate in panel discussions on HPL in cinema. Band also received an Emmy nomination for best original score last year for his work on DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE.
In the second season, Band scored Mick Garris’ VALERIE ON THE STAIRS, based on an original Clive Barker story, providing an ambiance-based composition that embellished the film’s literal interpretation of the figments of writers’ imaginations. It’s a small but quite elegant score, incorporating an eerie, almost ghostly choir (almost a red herring, as if initially suggesting what we have is a ghost story – as the tale develops, this is clearly not the case, and Band’s score becomes less ethereal and more mechanical in its layered tonalities). There’s a pretty piano melody, frequently played against sustained strings. A cool motif for eerie, hollow-sounding winds and metallic tonalities transpires as the protagonist goes to investigate strange sounds on the stairs. A variety of screaming stingers are unleashed to support shock moments, and the score erupts in the end with large, energetic brass figures for the characters’ final confrontation. For the show’s denouement, the music turns sad and sorrowful; a synth melody (significantly, not acoustic but synthetic) accompanies the hero’s moment of realization, the music, by turns, regretful and melancholic, then resolute and amenable, culminating in a majestic musical moment of profound grace as the score ends, synth trumpets and heavy percussion, and then evaporates like scraps of paper in the wind.
Band’s most recent episode was for the second season episode, THE WASHINGTONIANS, for director Peter Medak. The latter featured as especially eloquent score, plush in orchestral warmth, quite the opposite of VALERIE’s textural shards. Again, piano comes to the fore with a recurring melodic figure, associated with the family whose deceased relative opens up awareness of a bizarre historical aberration of our first president. High shimmers of strings and an eerie choral motif represents the titular band of white-wigged cannibals, emerging into a disconsolate and menacing violin tonality under strident, purposeful piano. Band uses lots of reverb and reflective sound to create an increasing sense of peril for the protagonists, culminating in a massive sonic undulation of resonated choir and strings, growing in increasing awe, incredulity, and horror in Medak’s fantastic sequence in George Washington’s Feasting Lodge. Band carefully balances a few touches of patriotic music (including a fragment of “My Eyes Have Seen The Glory” as the family departs the Lodge, saved by the timely arrival of SWAT) with his danger music, as well as an assemblage of large and profound chords for a striking flashback scene from Washington’s Revolutionary War command post.
From renewing acquaintance with H. P. Lovecraft to Edgar Allan Poe (Band’s music appears in Dave Dakota’s new adaptation of THE RAVEN, but it’s not an original score; Dakota licensed music from various films Band had scored previously and used that rather ingenuously to score his movie), Band’s music is just as potent a force in MASTERS OF HORROR as it has been in the more than five dozen genre films he’s composed since 1978.
I’ve enjoyed and been moved (or scared out of my socks) by Richard Band’s music for many years. In fact, one of my original “The Score” columns for CFQ (“He’s A Low-Budget One-Man Band,” published in Vol. 13 #5June/July 1983) featured my first interview with Band, and I’m pleased to have remained acquainted over the ensuing twenty-plus years. I interviewed Richard Band recently and, for a while, the topic turned to MASTERS OF HORROR and his most welcome return to genre film scoring.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: During the second half of the 1990s, you moved away from horror scoring and composed the music for some family oriented films, and now you’ve come back with some wonderful scores for MASTERS OF HORROR. What was it that led you back to the genre?
Richard Band: A phone call! Well, you’re right; I did leave horror for probably seven or eight years, and went into scoring more family orientated films, comedy and animation…
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Was that a conscious decision to do something else?
Richard Band: Oh, absolutely. There was a time where I just finally said, ‘Look, I’ve done so much of the sci-fi and horror stuff, I’m tired of it.’ I got bored, and I needed to branch out and do other stuff. So, maybe to my detriment, I definitely and consciously put a stop to it. I didn’t want to do it anymore. But, having said that, I expanded my horizons a lot by going into other mediums, which is fine. What got me back to it was, one, the phone call from Stuart Gordon, but also the whole concept of MASTERS OF HORROR. That was really good, because it hadn’t been done in years, the sort of TWILIGHT ZONE or AMAZING STORIES anthology thing. The whole idea behind it was to get thirteen of the top genre directors in the world, give them a decent budget, and let them do a one hour movie, giving them cart blanche. I thought that was a really good concept, and then needless to say the other thing that enticed me, when Stuart called me on the first one, DREAMS FROM THE WITCH HOUSE, was coming back to H. P. Lovecraft. I think I’ve done the more movies or TV episodes than anybody when it comes to H. P. Lovecraft, so that interested me, as did working with Stuart again, since it had been many years since we had worked together. All the ingredients were right at the time. Stuart gave me license to do whatever the hell I wanted to do also, which was nice. So it was, in a sense, going back to the ‘leave me alone’ style of film scoring that I prefer. Needless, to say, since it brought an Emmy nomination [2005, for Best Original Score], it all worked out!
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: What was it like coming back to the genre after your sabbatical? Was it like coming back into something new versus returning to where you once were?
Richard Band: It didn’t feel new, but it felt… let me put it this way, I felt refreshed. That’s the best way to put it. It felt familiar and all those ingredients were there, but I felt refreshed, and once again, I was sort of given license to do some things that ordinarily they wouldn’t necessarily be done, like on DREAMS I actually brought in an 8-piece chanting choir who did all this vocalizing for the witchcraft stuff, which was fun and very challenging. It was a nice episode to work on.
Richard Band: Mick is wonderful. He has a reputation as being probably one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, and he is – very nice and very supporting. Again, he trusted me implicitly, left me alone the whole time, not to say I didn’t play him some stuff. He was abroad most of the time when I was scoring, so I would post some cues on the web for him to listen to, but he never saw anything against film until he walked onto the dubbing stage at the end. He had heard the main themes and probably about a third or fourth of the cues before hand. That all worked out.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: THE WASHINGTONIANS was certainly one of the most bizarre episodes of an already notably bizarre series. How was it working with Peter Medak on this episode?
Richard Band: THE WASHINGTONIANS was another identical situation where I was left alone to compose the music. In fact, Peter did not want to come over and listen to the music. He trusted me implicitly. I actually had to convince him to hear some of it, just so I could feel more secure about the direction I was taking. He came over and I played him the whole thing against picture the night before the dub, not that there would have been a whole lot of time to do anything! But he never changed a note, so those all worked out. All three of those shows were really good experiences. I’m hoping another season comes up, and it looks like it’s going to.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: In your scores for VALERIE and THE WASHINGTONIANS, especially, I’ve noticed your use of piano motifs or choral passages, introduced early on, and then reprised frequently in moments here and there as the score develops. How would you describe your technique at building a score with these recurring motifs?
Richard Band: It’s kind of like a big puzzle, if you think about it. You’re looking at a lot of little pieces, and ideally when you put the puzzle together at the end you get your desired effect. But while you’re building that, depending on your technique, you might put five pieces of that puzzle together and put if off to the side, and you might take two other pieces or a whole section. Developing a score is very similar to that. But to do that properly you have to have the whole – the final product – in mind before you get going. You have to map it out properly so that all these bits and pieces end up making sense at the end, so when you finalize your puzzle it’s actually what you intended it to be. The crux of good scoring is to have the right themes, the right motifs, the right ingredients, so that when you get to the end of that puzzle they all make sense, and there’s a sense of continuity, drama, emotion, and that all those things make sense at the end. The pieces all fall into place.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How would you contrast scoring films now with when you started?
Richard Band: Well, it’s sort of funny. I think, compared to today, the whole process was so much easier then than it is today. The main reason is that, in those days, when they hired a composer, they basically gave the reigns over to you and they had to trust you, and they didn’t give you a temp track. They didn’t say, “We know you’re not John Williams but we want it to sound like STAR WARS.” The great advent of temp tracking, I think, comes close to destroying the whole art of scoring, because inevitably the producer and/or director and/or powers that be, if they get used to hearing a piece of music that an editor put in there, you know, inevitably they’re even subconsciously even expect that in the final, so it doesn’t give you a lot of room to move today. It also makes it a lot harder today, because if they say, “Hey we want it to sound like STAR WARS but don’t make it sound too much like STAR WARS because we don’t want to get sued!” That’s like two slaps in the face, one from the right and one from the left! On the one they’re telling you, “We don’t trust you enough to come up with something good for our film, so we want it to sound like this,” and then, “God forbid that you make it sound too much like what we want and then you’ll get sued!” So it’s crazy. In those days, it was easier, albeit more daring, to come up with something totally original and not have the constraints of a temp track.
I did several film scores for Igo Kantor, the producer and music supervisor [KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, MUTANT, THE DARK] – and one of the reasons that I liked working for Igo was that he was a trained musician. He had actually gone through music conservatory in his earlier years and was an accomplished film editor, music editor, so he really knew his stuff. And when he hired me on MUTANT, for example, the only thing I would ever do, when I was ready, is have him come over and I listen to two or three themes on a piano – very unlike today, where most directors or producers want to hear every single cue and see it with picture and all of that. In those days, they had to really trust you, and the one area that always made producers and directors very nervous was that they really had to give the artistic reigns over to the composer. If they didn’t like it at the end, they’d throw the score out and hire somebody else! That happened many times – not to me, but it did happen to many, many people.
So what I’m saying is that, while on the one hand it was a lot more challenging, and more daring. There was a type of freedom to it which doesn’t exist on the same level today at all.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You have been a mainstay in horror scoring since you started out in the 1980s, which accompanied the upsurge in horror films, and consequently, horror scores. In other words, there’s been a lot of them over the years. How have you been able to maintain your own voice amidst so many scores for genre films?
Richard Band: It has to do with what sort of hooks are you going to use. I’ve always relied more on themes than hooks, although I always try to incorporate various little interesting hooks, nooks and crannies into various scores.
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Music is especially important to a horror film, which depends so much on an audience’s suspension of disbelief to make its outlandish concepts, environments, or situations work on an emotional level. Music is one of the elements that helps build the whole environment, and brings an audience into the emotional level of the film. If the emotions work in the film, then the concepts and the environments often work.
Richard Band: That’s basically true of all scoring. In some films it’s even more necessary. When it gets to horror films, it’s too often that composers have tended to take the cheaper way out and just make it weird, shocking, ambient, or what have you, and I just never bought that theory. We’re dealing with a two-dimensional medium, and music, as I’ve said many times before, is the third dimension in a two dimensional medium. It’s the emotion and the continuity that themes in the music can create to bring out that other element that is not that apparent.