Much like the titular “it” in the film’s title, the musical score in David Robert Mitchell’s beautiful, downright-terrifying new horror film It Follows never lets up: It stalks audiences’ ears, constantly reminding them they’re watching a dread-soaked waking nightmare. Mitchell wastes no time assaulting viewers with the multi-faceted, all-encompassing synth-heavy soundtrack, composed by Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace. The opening scene establishes It Follows’ modus operandi: A teenage girl runs out of her house and frantically circles her otherwise-quiet suburban street, fleeing from an unseen force, and looking petrified. She’s being chased by that “it,” a supernatural entity that manifests as someone, anyone, slowly walking behind its victims at all times. Vreeland’s music for that opener is ferocious, a loud, bombastic, alarm-like medley of rumbling bass and blaring synths that sound like Psycho’s infamous shower-scene music remixed by Aphex Twin. Or Trent Reznor, circa “Closer”-era Nine Inch Nails, angrily channeling John Carpenter’s score for The Fog.
Alternating between reiterations of that opening sonic boom and more melodic, yet still unnerving synthesizer arrangements, the It Follows score is just as imposing as the film’s STD-transferred haunting. In a way, it’s the modern-day answer to the classic score for Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterwork Suspiria, by Italian prog-rock group Goblin. Ever-present and wholly original, it’s the best horror-movie score in years. Yet the excellence of Vreeland’s work on It Follows also calls attention to a troubling fact: It’s so memorable because, frankly, it’s one of only a few scores in modern horror that’s both impressively singular and intentionally designed to be iconic. “I knew that we needed something really unique,” Mitchell says. “Of course there are the John Carpenter references, but I still wanted there to be something modern about it, and something special. The goal was, across the board, to be bold with It Follows, and I knew a part of that had to be a score that’d stick with you long after the film ends.”
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, horror-film composers lived by that philosophy. Those decades were vibrant and fruitful for the genre, namely in establishing horror as a playground for ambitious, bold musicians. Goblin turned Dario Argento’s startlingly violent giallos into lucid cinematic dreams pushed further into terror by their darkly melodic soundscapes, from Suspiria’s music-box-from-hell vibes to the infernal rock ’n’ roll arrangements in 1975’s Deep Red. Stateside, the premium on creating alternately original and scary scores was even more in vogue. John Williams’ orchestral attack in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became an instantaneous standout, while John Carpenter used stripped-down, minimalistic pianos and synthesizers to give his horror efforts—particularly Halloween, The Thing, and Christine—the distinctive edge responsible for turning the musically gifted Carpenter into horror’s patron saint of soundtracks.
In recent years, however, genre movie scores have gone one of three ways: carbon-copy sonic imitations of those old Carpenter sounds, nondescript orchestral arrangements that owe nearly everything to John Williams and Bernard Herrmann, or sparse and transparently avant-garde combinations of jump-scare-ready ambient sounds. To hear anything approaching iconic, you’d have to look overseas—in France, specifically, where composer François-Eudes Chanfrault has gifted his aggressively electro scores to hardcore films like High Tension and Inside. In America, though, horror scores have been far less idiosyncratic.
The abundance of Carpenter wannabe scores was especially dominant throughout 2014; the trend was omnipresent enough to inspire an Entertainment Weekly article titled “2014’s Most Influential Director: John Carpenter?” Reporter Clark Collis interviewed the filmmakers who most obviously paid homage to Carpenter’s synth-laden scores, including Jim Mickle (Cold In July), James DeMonaco (The Purge: Anarchy), and Adam Wingard (The Guest). (Joe Begos’ Almost Human also gets a mention.) “I often temp score movies with Carpenter soundtracks,” Mickle told EW. “[For Cold In July] we just made the decision, ‘Hey, don’t replace that with more contemporary stuff. No strings—all ’80s synthesizers.’”
One 2014 horror release, though, offered a terrific wrinkle in the year of Carpenter-lite scores. Written and directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, Starry Eyes marries David Cronenberg and David Lynch for the story of an aspiring actress (Alex Essoe) whose desperate ambition drives her toward Hollywood Satanists, murder, and extreme gore. The sneakily brutal character study has a deceptively Carpenter-like soundtrack, composed by Jonathan Snipes, who previously crafted the music for Rodney Ascher’s trippy The Shining documentary Room 237. Snipes’ Starry Eyes score is never as on-the-nose as films like Cold In July or The Purge: Anarchy; it volleys back and forth between dreamlike music-box melodies to ramped-up, almost Satanic synthesizer explosions backed by chanting. Similar to Vreeland’s It Follows tracks, it recaptures the best thing about scores like those heard in Suspiria and Halloween: it accentuates the film’s underlying horror so perfectly and completely that the film would be a shell of itself without it.
For It Follows, Mitchell wisely, though unconsciously, recruited a composer who couldn’t help but approach the film’s score differently. It Follows is the first movie Vreeland has ever scored. He’s regularly works in the independent videogame industry, giving lo-fi games like FEZ and January his elegantly retro brand of 8-bit-Nintendo-like soundbeds. A few years back, Mitchell was playing FEZ after having finished his It Follows script; something about Vreeland’s music for the game spoke to him. He had a hunch that it’d match nicely with horror. Vreeland, for his part, gladly accepted the job, even though he isn’t much of a horror-movie guy—he does, however, love listening to Carpenter and Goblin scores on their own. That lack of a fanboy’s affection for the films themselves, merged with his videogame sensibilities, allowed Vreeland to create a score that’s undeniably its own thing—think The Legend Of Zelda: Nightmare Edition.
“David had a definite affinity for the music from FEZ, and we did take some steps to honor that aesthetic but also bring something new to the film,” says Vreeland. “A few of the cues are loosely based on cues from FEZ, which was not my favorite idea at the time, but in hindsight I think it was a worthwhile and challenging exercise. David actually used some of the music from FEZ in the temp score, and developed a serious case of ‘temp love.’ It was very difficult to steer him away from those initial pieces that he felt already worked well in capturing emotions he wanted to express.”
Vreeland’s gamer style helps It Follows’ score accomplish what every other horror-movie score made in the last several years couldn’t: it repurposes horror’s most beloved and influential scores in a modernized way that avoids pastiche. Whereas Vreeland didn’t necessarily know he was reinventing the wheel, Snipes actively tried to subvert horror’s cherished music with Starry Eyes. “I love Carpenter and Goblin, and I had already done an intentionally retro score with Room 237,” says Snipes. “With Starry Eyes, I came to the realization that these sounds can’t just be nostalgic, and we can’t just be using them because we miss our childhood. There has to be a reason why what Carpenter and Goblin made for those movies was so scary and effective. I tried to find ways to pull from those techniques used in Carpenter and Dario Argento movies, and utilize whatever made them effective, rather than just pull at people’s nostalgic heartstrings.”
It Follows and Starry Eyes have the kinds of soundtracks that cinephiles will want to own and replay outside of their respective movies. They’re worthy of sharing vinyl and CD shelf space alongside vintage Halloween and Suspiria LPs, which guys like Snipes, Vreeland, and Mitchell own and swear by. “Of course all current horror filmmakers are imitating Carpenter—that’s the age we all are,” says Snipes. “A lot of the people making indie horror movies now are in their early-to-late 30s, and those are the movies we grew up with. Part of it is nostalgia, the same way Carpenter was nostalgic for the old Hammer horror movies he grew up with.”
As Snipes sees it, the key to making a horror score that’ll last beyond the film’s end credits can be boiled down to one word: melody. “In so many horror movies these days, there are these textural scores without melodies, where it almost feels like the composer isn’t really invested in the textures, and just creates a bunch of ambient crap and loud sound hits,” Snipes says. “It’s not that a textural score without a melody is always bad for a horror movie—it’s just that some composers feel that if they don’t get to write something with a melody, then it doesn’t really matter, and they churn it out really quickly. As a result, it lacks movement, it lacks dynamic, and it lacks response to the story.”
In many horror films, the default audio settings seem to be on either “Random Loud Sound Bursts” or “Disorienting Noise.” In James Wan’s micro-budget hit Insidious, for example, the often-funereal creepiness of the film’s first half is repeatedly disrupted by shrill string hits and booming piano strikes that sound as if an anvil has been dropped on a Steinway. Although Insidious is regarded as one of the best horror films of the last five years, its score isn’t nearly as memorable. It just sounds like horror-movie music—nothing more, nothing less. “Maybe it’s Stanley Kubrick’s fault, and maybe it’s The Shining’s fault,” Snipes says, “but we have an immediate association between dissonant, experimental music and horror films. Dissonant and harsh music naturally feels like horror to us, and maybe that’s because of all the [Krzysztof] Penderecki in The Shining.”
It Follows does include some Shining-like dissonance—in a surrealistic scene where protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) encounters a hideous form of the “it,” Vreeland’s score briefly transforms into a messy rainstorm of choppy synths. But it’s in total service of that particular scene, which Mitchell presents in hallucinogenic slow motion. It’s an effective contrast against the rest of It Follows’ score, which favors melodic and hypnotic dread over disorientation. “Weird and ambient sounds may be effective in the moment and could make a certain scene a little bit scarier, but they’re not something your brain latches onto,” says Mitchell. “That kind of weird ambiance puts you off-balance momentarily, but it doesn’t work if that’s all you have to offer. For It Follows, ultimately, I wanted the kind of score that people would want to listen to outside of the movie, and I can’t imagine that people would want to put on an album full of only odd sounds without any melody or personality.”
But it can’t just be about giving scores post-viewing lives on vinyl and Spotify. There needs to be a symbiosis between narrative and audio. In Starry Eyes, Snipes’ music charts the protagonist’s descent from innocent dreamer to horrific monster, evolving from angelic to demonic sounds. “It’s always a tough balance,” says Snipes. “What you want to do as a composer is make music that’s compelling and stands on its own as beautiful music regardless, but that’s not really your job as a film composer, right? It has to work with the picture and serve the picture the whole time. It can’t just support and fill, which is what jarring sound cues and weird sounds essentially do—it has to embellish and tell you the things you can’t see and hear. The music is the film’s subtext, like when you read a novel and the author’s telling you what’s in the character’s head—that’s what music should do in a film.”