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The Tracks of My Fears: Confessions of a Horror Movie Music Collector

John Llewellyn ProbertThe soundtrack CD for Hammer’s 1973 production The Satanic Rites of Dracula arrived in the post the other day and as I removed its cellophane wrapper I realised I hadn’t heard most of the music on it for the best part of thirty years, which also happens to be pretty much the length of time that I’ve been collecting music written specifically for films and horror films in particular. With that in mind John Cacavas’ score for Christopher Lee’s final bow as Dracula finally making it onto disk seemed as appropriate a moment as any to share my experiences in what I think can most definitely be termed a minority interest.

“Movie soundtracks are a part of the music business that just refuses to roll over and die” said an article in a prominent broadsheet back in the 1980s. I have loved horror movie music for almost as long as I have loved horror movies. Younger fans may find this hard to believe but in the late 1970s it was actually very difficult to get hold of the kind of film memorabilia we take for granted today, especially if you lived in a provincial Welsh town like I did. While the occasional movie tie-in book or film poster came my way there was no way of reliving the movie you had just seen on late night television other than talking about it with your friends. There were no computers, and it would be a few years before video recorders were to become available. The only piece of audiovisual technology we had in our house apart from the television and my Dad’s wireless (that was what we all called it) was a tape cassette player.

So that was what I used.

The first film to be committed to C90 cassette was Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial and the first thing I noticed on playing it back, apart from the gravedigger’s whistling, was that composer Ronald Stein’s opening music (a macabre variation on ‘Molly Malone’) was actually quite marvellous. In fact it was the music throughout that was the reason I listened to that tape over and over, and that was just the first. A couple of weeks later the Amicus film Asylum was committed to cassette. The score to Asylum is particularly rich, consisting of a mixture of composer Douglas Gamley’s original work, a generous mix of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and, over the opening credits, Night on the Bare Mountain.

It was the scariest music I had ever heard in my life. I played it over and over, more than any record or tape I had owned in my life. Other movies followed and I soon realised I had developed a preference for the music of British horror films of the early 1970s, quickly becoming a fan of the composers, too. It did mean, however, that my appreciation of classical music became a little misinformed to say the least. Apart from thinking that Gamley had written music actually attributable to Mussorgsky, on the basis of Vault of Horror and From Beyond The Grave, I also thought he had come up with the ‘Dies Irae’. Other favourites included Horror Express, Dracula Has Risen from The Grave, and far and away the best of all, Theatre of Blood. I suspect my parents can probably recite all the dialogue to that, it was played so often in the Probert household.

It was a couple of years later when I purchased (by mail order of course) my first copy of Fangoria magazine (No.17 if you must know), that I received an epiphany. There in black and white was an advert for soundtrack albums – all, admittedly for films I hadn’t been able to see yet but nevertheless it was one of those moments in childhood when you realise that You Are Not Alone – someone else out there other than just me was interested in long-playing records of the soundtracks for The Howling, Piranha, and Horror Express. The only problem was you had to order them from the US. No problem, I thought, reading that for orders from abroad you had to send an International Money Order. I can still see the wretched old lady at our local post office telling me in no uncertain terms that there was No Such Thing. But all was not lost – a chance perusal of a film magazine in WHSmiths and there they were – available from a company called Dress Circle located in Monmouth Street in London.

John Harrison Creepshow SoundtrackThe first soundtrack LP I bought was John Harrison’s Creepshow. It now sounds quite dated, which is hardly surprising seeing as apparently he wrote most of it on the early 1980s equivalent of a Bontempi organ (actually a synthesiser called a Prophet V) but I can still see myself taking that bright orange record sleeve out of the packing now. The music was on a label called Varese Sarabande and since that day nearly 30 years ago my collection of music on that label has swelled considerably. They’re still going strong and the most recent Varese Sarabande release to be added to my collection has been Brian Tyler’s score for Final Destination 5, which I happen to be listening to as I write this.

But back to 1982. Creepshow, naturally, wasn’t enough. There were hundreds of records I wanted, most of which didn’t actually exist at the time and my efforts to find Jerry Goldsmith’s The Final Conflict and John Carpenter’s Halloween were in vain. For a long time the existence of the score to Halloween was the stuff of legend, with only an overpriced Japanese import available and claims a US release would never happen because there simply wasn’t enough music in the film to satisfy the bare minimum running time needed to make a soundtrack album. My second soundtrack LP acquisition wasn’t a horror film at all but David Whitaker’s splendidly atmospheric and at times delightfully bouncy score to The Sword and the Sorceror released on the UK version of Varese Sarabande, That’s Entertainment Records. Next was Mad Max 2 which for some reason I ended up with the French version of on the Milan label, followed by Harry Bromley-Davenport’s Xtro. I’m still not sure why I bought that one, probably because it was one of the few British horror films out at the time so I had to have it. Interestingly I don’t think it’s ever been released on CD and neither has John Scott’s electronic score to Norman J Warren’s Inseminoid (which I also owned), although I understand from Norman that may change soon.

By now I was sixteen and an obsessive collector. Going to university meant a big city and therefore big record shops. I picked up everything I could. CDs were just beginning to come out and among the very first was the long-awaited The Final Conflict from Varese and, curiously, Evil Dead II from That’s Entertainment. A shopping trip to London resulted in more Italian soundtrack albums than I could safely carry and I drove my housemates mad with, amongst others, the scores for Tenebrae, Inferno and Phenomena.

Final Destination 5Some readers may wince at this but I must confess that my entire vinyl collection has now gone the way of all flesh, if all flesh ends up at the charity shop. Everything has been replaced by CD, of which there are now roughly 400 in my collection. No doubt some who are reading this have many more and I will admit my collection is nowhere near exhaustive – in fact I have limited myself to the soundtracks that I especially like, otherwise the collection would be three times the size. Consequently there’s no point in listing my particular favourites and even a top ten would be impossible. All I would say to anyone else out there who happens to have the CD changer in their car filled with the likes of Hellraiser, The Ninth Gate, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Dracula AD 1972, Lifeforce and Psychomania is: you are not alone.

Now I must be off – the gorgeous new DigitMovies double CD of Claudio Gizzi’s scores for Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula has just dropped through the letterbox.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

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5 comments

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  1. Mark Davies

    I’m still enjoying my Nightmare on Elm Street Vynal and love my From Beyond CD, but I’m always on the look out for the Nightbreed OS Cd by Danny Elfman. Had friend who had it bit subsiquently lost it ( it had the most amazing cover art).
    Good to there other people out there like me.

  2. John L Probert

    I have had the Elm Street / Elm Street 2 double CD since the late 1980s and it still gets played regularly. Mentioning From Beyond, I should also say that Richard Band is one of my favourite composers, especially his earlier stuff like Reanimator, Mutant and House on Sorority Row

  3. David

    Good column John. Like you I recorded horror films off the telly onto tape – I have fond memories of listening to TWINS OF EVIL over and over. I also got some LPs of soundtracks, the first I think was a Japanese edition of HALLOWEEN, but also THE FOG, THE THING, CREEPSHOW and others that I forget now, but which are all now stored in an LP Case. Got loads of CDs as well … from things like TWIN PEAKS and OUTER LIMITS through films like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and all the Hammer stuff.

  4. Jasper Bark

    Great column John, really enjoyed this. I only recently got into soundtracks when I discovered what a perfect accompaniment they were to writing.

  5. ThisIsHorror

    I said this earlier, when I first read through this column my immediate reaction was to listen to a couple of soundtracks (specifically Final Destination 4 and 5). I agree with Jasper that they are brilliant to write to. In fact I almost exclusively write to soundtracks or noise/drone bands like Sunn O))). As an unashamedly huge fan of Resident Evil and Silent Hill I bought all of the video game soundtracks when they were released (I think at their best they rival film scores). I’m actually listening to Silent Hill 2 OST now and earlier checked out Darkness Falls soundtrack. Thank you for reigniting my passion – sometimes it just takes a column to remind us how bloody brilliant something is!

    Michael Wilson.

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