In 1971, Hammer Films, who had jolted the horror genre back to life in Britain fourteen years earlier with The Curse of Frankenstein (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957), were still prolific, producing (some might say with dangerous complacency) traditional, Gothic costume dramas such as Countess Dracula (dir. Peter Sasdy), with Ingrid Pitt as a blood-drenched Hungarian hag, who sacrifices virgins to make her young and beautiful in a medieval castle. Twins of Evil (dir. John Hough) cast Peter Cushing as a Puritan vampire hunter in a Gothic never-never land (in fact, the inevitable Black Park so often exploited by the studio for its sylvan shudders). There was a sex-change involved in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (dir. Roy Ward Barker) but the setting was Victorian London, as it was for Hands of the Ripper (dir. Peter Sasdy). Meanwhile, director Don Chaffey took audiences back in time rather further for the prehistoric romp, Creatures the World Forget. The only two Hammer films with a contemporary setting for that year were On the Buses (dir. Harry Booth) – a big screen version of the popular TV sitcom – and an update of Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, for Seth Holt’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. This ill-fated but nonetheless intriguing film has much to recommend it, and screenwriter Chris Wicking’s decision to remove Stoker’s tale from its original Edwardian setting might well be said to have foreshadowed the contemporary milieu of The Omen (dir. Richard Donner) in 1976, which Mark Gatiss has called “the first horror blockbuster.”1
Contemporary settings and a much more realistic agenda were a way of making horror movies more engaging to an audience sated with period settings, obvious supernatural monsters and a style of movie making that was becoming all too predictable. Alas, Hammer failed fully to adapt to the wind of change, making only few contemporary horror films (such as Dracula A. D. 1972 in 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, just under two years later, both directed by Alan Gibson). Hollywood, however, was unflinching in its approach to the possibilities of what one might term supernatural realism. In their recollections, those involved in the new wave of horror refer to realism as the key to their overall intentions. The screenwriter for The Omen, David Seltzer, remembered that his aim was “to do something preposterous and it’s going to look real.” Gregory Peck, who brought, in Seltzer’s words “a straight face” and “incredible dignity”2 to the film said that “if we can convince them with this ****, we all deserve Oscars!”3
Seltzer does not believe in the devil, but William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist three years before, took his supernatural theme rather more to heart. He claimed that the film “strongly and realistically [my emphasis] tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe – both good and evil. […] It’s about real people in a real street in a real town,” and continued, “I knew that this was going to be – or needed to be – something more than just another horror film. This had to be a realistic film about inexplicable events.”4 He therefore aimed to transfer the screenwriter William Peter Blatty’s similar aim of documentary reality to the screen, and thus changed horror films for ever.
The decade began with a contemporary vampire film, which went on to inspire Hammer’s groovy but less daring approach to updating vampire narratives. The film in question was Count Yorga – Vampire (dir. Bob Kelljan, 1970), in which Robert Quarry, an enthusiastic horror film fan himself, played the eponymous role. Yorga has left his native Bulgaria to refresh himself in contemporary Los Angeles, shots of which open the film. He presides over a seance, fascinates a young woman, attacks her, outwits with her concerned menfolk and is eventually dispatched, though not before he has infected another victim.
Combining camp, cool and brief but shocking moments of bloody horror, Quarry’s performance is unnervingly effective. Formally, sometimes even theatrically dressed, with an understandable penchant for scarlet and black, he cuts a suave, ironic but also genuinely frightening figure, assisted by his grotesque, disfigured and presumably resurrected servant Brudah (Edward Walsh). Amid the somewhat chilly modern furnishings of Yorga’s home are more traditionally Gothic details, such as crimson candles, and even a kind of throne in the basement, which Quarry’s commanding presence manages to make weird rather than absurd. The contemporary setting of the film is matched by up-to-date techniques such as the use of a hand-held camera, which immediately lends the narrative a quality of cinéma verité, predating the impact hand-held camera work had on the television police series Hillstreet Blues, by fully a decade. Kelljan also effectively uses montage with voice-over dialogue for a conversation between the two male leads early on in the film, the action of which shows them walking through various Los Angeles locations.
Crucially, this general approach also required something quite different from the resonant and Romantic musical style of traditional horror film music, such as that by Hammer films’ James Bernard. Consequently, Yorga’s composer, William Marx (the adopted son of harp-playing Harpo Marx), followed the approach that Elisabeth Lutyens had virtually pioneered in the previous decades on her scores for Amicus portmanteau horrors such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (dir. Freddie Francis, 1965). This was to confine his orchestrations to chamber music proportions, thus creating a more intimate, even claustrophobic style. Marx exploits spare string writing often featuring solo timbres, playing atonal material. Indeed, in the opening shots narrated by George Macready, and during the seance that follows it, the string writing is suitably reminiscent of the second movement Adagio of Schoenberg Third String Quartet. Occasionally, these string textures are expanded with the addition of harp or percussion (as in the final killing scenes set in Yorga’s cellar). Flutes also join in during the seance, as they do during the initial drive to Yorga’s creepy mansion; but Marx saves fuller string resonance for the love scene between Erica (Judith Lang) and her boyfriend. Later, there are touches of more traditional horror timbres, such as the use of an organ and low register flute when Yorga paces through his domain at night. String glissandi also accompany Yorga raising a storm, but Marx restrains his use of these more hackneyed effects. Sometimes all he needs is a snare-drum rhythm as in the scene during which the menfolk drive over to Erica’s flat only to find her assuaging her new-found thirst for blood by feasting on a kitten.
Before Yorga makes his attack on Erica in the camper van in which she and her lover find themselves stranded, Marx and Kelljan remove music altogether from the soundtrack and rely on sound effects to do the work of raising dramatic tension. Cicadas, and barking dogs provide the crescendo and musical punctuation that a traditional vampire film score would have used at this moment. The result is not only more naturalistic but in 1970 it would also have been much more unnerving, in much the same way that the replacement of music with naturalistic sound effects in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula would have been to audiences who had been accustomed to wall-to-wall musical accompaniment in so-called ‘silent’ films. (At one moment, Yorga even plays the piano himself, ironically strumming the film’s ‘love’ theme and perhaps referencing the way in which so many silent films in the past were once accompanied.)
Later, eerie wind effects help heighten to mood entirely without the aid of music. Silence, in particular, is also an extremely effective tool, especially when the Count stares at his opponents in the particularly unsettling way that Robert Quarry perfected for this role. And during Yorga’s surprise attacks, hands out-stretched and fangs bared, Marx relies simply on a kind of electric bell effect, the unexpected nature of which very successfully heightens the intended shock. Again, silence is used with particular success immediately after this effect: Yorga staggers back, impaled and bloody, but complete silence reigns for a good ten seconds before his exaggerated screams and final death agony.
Wind effects return to even greater impact in Kelljan’s sequel The Return of Count Yorga the following year, the most notable element, from a musical point of view, being the main attack scene, in which a group of female vampires burst into a contemporary living room and slaughter nearly everyone in it. Significantly, there is not a note of music for this scene, which is played out entirely with naturalistic sound effects – screams, footsteps, furniture being moved, etc. It has a similar effect to the brutal murder scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), for which Bernard Herrmann originally scored a cue in his habitually intense symphonic style, but which Hitchcock ultimately rejected. However, the effect of Herrmann’s score has subsequently been demonstrated, and while heightening the dramatic effect it might also be said to weaken its brutality by reassuring the audience that this is a “only” film with the kind of film music we have grown to expect at such a moment. By removing the music, the action becomes much more disturbing and “real.”
The Return of Count Yorga also experimented with electronic manipulation of musical sounds, such as fazing, which was still a relatively unfamiliar and hence unnerving sound on film soundtracks in 1971, and this general approach towards manipulating recorded sound were to inform Jerry Goldsmith’s much more elaborate soundtrack for Paul Wendkos’s The Mephisto Waltz (1971). Adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel of the same name, Wendkos’s film is entirely structured around Franz Liszt’s famous work of the same name, which is the party piece of an arrogant, insufferable and also devil-worshipping pianist by the name of Duncan Ely, played by Curt Jurgens. Ely, who is dying of leukemia, aims, with the help of his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins), with whom he is involved in an incestuous affair, to transfer his soul into the body of Myles Clarkson, a young music journalist, played by Alan Alda. Ely is fascinated by Clarkson’s ‘Rachmaninoff hands’ – the perfect tools for his genius. The occult transfer complete, Myles’s wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset) is disconcerted to find her husband sexier but meaner, more ambitious but also more arrogant. Jealous of Ely’s daughter, who is responsible for the death of her daughter, she eventually murders Roxanne, and having summoned the devil herself, transfers her own soul into Roxanne’s body, so that she can enjoy Myles’s youth and torment Ely’s soul for ever.
The film’s occult premise is an engaging and ultimately quite accurate exposé of how unpleasant highly successful people in the world of the arts (or any other world, for that matter) can be. The various party scenes demonstrate all too realistically the kind of back-biting and sniping indulged in by the cognoscenti, regardless of the fact that, here, they are all meant to be devil worshippers as well. The real star of the film, however, is Jerry Goldsmith, whose score adapts Liszt’s demonic war-horse and filters it through a series of avant-garde techniques, virtually re-inventing the piece in the process. He uses the stock in trade of 1960s composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski, employing dramatic string glissandi and tone clusters, as well as electronic instruments and other special effects. Goldsmith also often distorts the sound by means of reverberation, distortion or even playing the music backwards, all such manipulations being added during the mixing process. The Mephisto Waltz was released two years before The Exorcist and five years before The Omen, for which Goldsmith won an Oscar for Best Score – a highly unusual achievement for a horror film. Goldsmith’s score for The Mephisto Waltz was therefore among the first to ally such extreme avant-garde techniques with the emerging new wave of occult shockers.
The main title introduces the initial open fifths of Liszt’s piece and juxtaposes them with the celebrated “Dies Irae” chant, which is first presented by ecclesiastic tubular bells against a disorientating string glissando. Hector Berlioz had first demonized the “Dies Irae” in the final movement of his Symphonie fantastique of 1831. Before then, this plainchant sequence had none of the Romantic terror Berlioz invested it with. Subsequently, however, the opening four notes of the “Dies Irae” chant have become a kind of musical shorthand for the demonic.
Goldsmith’s approach to the music differed vastly from that of previous occult thrillers such as Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (dir. Terence Fisher, 1968), with music by James Bernard, or even Eye of the Devil (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1966) with its contemporary setting and Gary McFarland’s lightly jazz influenced symphonic score. Eye of the Devil, however, does use occasional open fifths, sung by a wordless choir, which combines the idea of a Black Mass with the sound of plainchant. This is highly suitable for a story (ultimately derived from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough) in which an aristocrat sacrifices himself to save the grape harvest of his ancestral chateau.
When Myles becomes Duncan Ely he also becomes more amorous, as do the dancers in Lenau’s poem (the inspiration of Liszt’s piece) under the influence of the devil’s music. Liszt’s “amoroso” section is the perfect accompaniment to this. So too is the repeated use of the “Dies Irae,” which is either played by bells or punctuated by bells during Duncan’s funeral (in a ceremony replete with peacock feathers and sinister mourners). It also accompanies the various nightmare dream sequences and the grizzly deaths yet to come. None of this musical symbolism would have been possible without Berlioz’s demonization of the ‘Dies Irae’ and the cult of the Mephistopholean hero, which Liszt’s piece celebrates.
Goldsmith’s ingenious re-working of Liszt could be nothing but neo-Romantic, and while aiding the supernatural realism of the film no end, it is stylistically Janus-faced. It is also very much ‘film music’ in a foregrounded manner, aiding the suspension of disbelief, certainly, but simultaneously reinforcing that this is a cinematic fiction. By contrast, William Friedkin realised that if one really wanted 1970’s audiences actually to believe that what they were experiencing in the cinema was real, a wholly new approach to the sound track was necessary. Not only did he grasp that the traditional language of film music would be inadequate for this purpose (predominantly tonal, with discordant elements viewed from within the context of that tonality) but he also understood that the emerging art of sound design could provide a much more realistic way of exploiting sound for atmospheric effect than music could ever achieve. Indeed, the sound design of The Exorcist is far more significant than the relatively brief musical excerpts it channels, principally from the catalogue of that twentieth-century Polish master of the avant garde, Krzystof Pendercki. Penderecki was indeed approached by Friedkin to score the film, but declined, feeling horror films beneath him,5 but this did not prevent the director from using extracts from a variety of his works including Polymorphia, Kanon for Orchestra and Tape, his 1960 String Quartet and The Devils of Loudon, as well as works by Hans Werner Henze and Anton Webern, consequently expanding the audiences of these composers no end. Identifying precisely which extracts from which pieces appear at what moment is beguiling but not perhaps particularly helpful from the point of view of the way in which they contribute to the film, for they adopt similar (and now very familiar) avant garde effects such as tone clusters (sometimes moving through a glissando), fragmentary pizzicato effects and aleatoric elements, which from the point of view of the majority of the film’s audience are, quite frankly, interchangeable from one piece to the other. It is the disorientating effect of such techniques (particularly so in their original 1970s context, when such sounds were much more unfamiliar to cinema audiences than they are today) that is more to the point than playing a game of trying to identify the specific piece that is being used.
Having failed to win over Penderecki, Friedkin approached Lalo Schifrin, who provided music of Pendereckian style, with some nods in the direction of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. Schifrin’s music was originally used for the six minute trailer for the film, and it was largely responsible for the overwhelming impact it had on audiences and studio executives; but Friedkin later rejected the rest of the music and decided to use Penderecki et al anyway – simply by extracting the extracts he wanted from already existing pieces.
The film opens with a typically avant garde cluster effect. Significantly there is no extended main title sequence – another important way in which the film distances itself from Hollywood norms and proclaims its “reality;” but this soon segues into a Muezzin call, not only indicating the opening location of Northern Iraq but also suggesting something of mystical nature and ‘otherness’ of the events that are about to unfold. Penderecki’s music returns for the shot in which Max von Sydow confronts the demonic statue that his archeological dig has uncovered. We then cut to contrasting street noise, anvils ringing out as they are hammered, and wind effects, all designed to assault the senses and provide sonic contrast. Just as Friedkin famously shot pistols and shotguns on set to startle his actors and thereby create realistic emotional responses, so too does he exploit contrasts of light and darkness on screen and stark contrasts of sheer decibels on the soundtrack to assault the sensibilities of the audience. After all this street noise, we cut to the interior of a museum room, accompanied only by the sound of a ticking clock.
Such use of sound design, and only minimal exposure of then- unfamiliar musical sounds, plays a significant role in creating the impression that the film is a presentation of documentary evidence rather than carefully manipulated fantasy – though, of course, this approach would be considerably developed in later years (such as, for example, in The Blair Witch Project, [dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999]). Right from the start, Friedkin always highlights the details of his ambient soundscapes, almost making mundane sound effects serve the dramatic function of a traditional film score: distant Muezzin calls, footsteps, truck engines, bells on a cart; and then, as if to emphasize his inversion of our musical expectations, no music at all for the shots in which von Sydow walks though a ruined temple. Only when he looks at the sun-lit demon statue does Penderecki’s music really make itself felt; but as we fade to an establishing shot of Georgetown, where the remainder of the action takes place, snarling dogs (again suggesting the vicious tussle with evil with which the film is preoccupied) are mixed in with it and again we return to a soundtrack without music. Instead, we hear only emphasized ambient sounds: cars outside the study of Ellen Burstyn’s study, the sound of her pen against paper and then the striking ‘demonic’ scratchings from the attic, which she at first puts down to rats.
Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, a movie actress; and by opening the film with scenes showing her acting in film that is being made (a Warner Brothers’s film no less – just like The Exorcist itself), Friedkin is able to give the impression that the action that follows these scenes is, by contrast, not like the film we observe being made at the outset: The Exorcist is really happening. Even the policeman who later investigates the murderous goings on in Burstyn’s flat is a film enthusiast and asks for her autograph. The implication is that the film world lies beyond the narrative and events of The Exorcist itself.
As Burstyn walks back from the day’s shoot, Friedkin inserts a brief extract from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which provides the closest thing to Main Title music the film possesses (though no titles are shown on screen against it). Tubular Bells had only just been released at this time, and it not only aids the sense of the film’s self-conscious contemporaneity, but also aids the demonic mood: The main theme of Oldfield’s piece does indeed contain the principal intervals of the ‘Dies Irae’ chant, which, either consciously or not, are improvised upon in the opening phrases of Oldfield’s theme. However, Friedkin fades this out fairly soon and noise from a jet plane obliterates it as we briefly glimpse Jason Miller’s Father Damien Karras being consoled by another priest, his fear that he has lost his faith being overheard in the process.
Now we cut to a subway, the shrieking train of which exploits the famous effect first used in Val Lewton’s 1942 film Cat People (dir. Jacques Tourneur), and subsequently referred to as the ‘Lewton Bus’ effect. No music could be as startling as this sound. As Jason Miller walks down a shabby street and enters his mother’s antiquated apartment, Friedkin allows the ambient sound of car horns, footsteps, youths playing on top of a car, the rustling of keys, the distorted voices speaking various languages emerging from a radio, to create the mood of depression, loneliness and alienation, removing the need for music altogether (though earlier film makers would no doubt have relied on an atmospheric music cue to support a sequence without dialogue such as this).
The priests in this film are presented almost as spiritual “cops,” no doubt to make them more believable, modern and urban. (“You’re the best man we’ve got,” says one to Father Karras.) Friedkin also introduces strong language during a distraught phone call make by Burstyn, “fuck” still very much a taboo word in 1970’s popular culture. After the supernatural is briefly brought to the fore by an incident with the planchette of an ouija board, which Linda Blair’s Regan demonstrates to her mother, the demonic noises recur in the attic. Burstyn investigates, taking with her a candle, which might be seen as a rather more traditionally Gothic symbol, to heighten the sense of expectation here. The expectation is fulfilled by the sudden appearance and high-pitched vocal register of Burstyn’s odd-job man. There is, of course, nothing demonic about him, but the candle does flare up as he speaks, suggesting that something demonic is nonetheless making its presence felt.
In his introduction to the 25th anniversary DVD edition of The Exorcist, Friedkin argues that if you believe the world to be an evil place, the film will confirm your beliefs. Conversely, if you belief that good triumphs over evil, you will be getting close to what he tried to convey. However, if one believes in neither good nor evil as moral forces beyond the sphere of humanity, what one comes most strongly away with from The Exorcist is an awareness that this is a very well-made movie that uses a variety of sophisticated sound devices to create a mood of supernatural expectation and physical horror.
Throughout the film, sound montage takes the place of the music we might otherwise expect. During Father Karras’s dream sequence, in which he observes his mother emerge from a subway – surely a symbol of hell – ambient, though electronically manipulated sound is used throughout, not music. When Regan is given her series of unpleasant medical tests in hospital, Friedkin emphasizes naturalistic hospital noises (clanking bars around the bed, the whirring and clicks of monitoring equipment, the rustling of clothing and sheets). These all lead to the truly terrifying martellato noises of the X-Ray machine itself, which sound fully as demonic as the rats in the attic, and are actually far more frightening than anything Penderecki’s music could have created.
The foul language continues, of course, during Regan’s subsequent and increasingly lewd scenes on her bed at home, as the devil takes over more of her body and soul; but again, music is not necessary here. The fully focused ambient sounds are all that is required to create the illusion of realism. Throughout the film, Penderecki’s music and that of his avant grade colleagues is employed really only as a means of transition from one scene to the next (though not all scenes require this). The atonality of course is intended to aid the mood of unease, which may not necessarily have always been Penderecki’s original intention. After all, Arnold Schoenberg, the fountainhead of all subsequent avant garde music, aimed to convert traditional dissonance into ‘higher consonances’ and even saw the potential of serial style – his own brand of organized atonality – to form the basis of his comic opera, Von Heute auf Morgan. It might very well be argued, therefore, that films such as The Exorcist have undermined the aims of avant garde composers by emphasizing a significatory function the music might not originally have held, treating dissonance, no matter how advanced, from within the context of the tonal perspective that has always been maintained by Hollywood since its inception. Not even Schoenberg himself could alter that, as his unproductive and somewhat absurd encounter with Irving Thalberg during a discussion over his possible involvement in MGM’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth demonstrated all too well.6
The manipulated breathings, gurgles and vocal gymnastics of the possessed Regan (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge) are quite “musical” enough on their own to allow Friedkin to dispense with orchestral support. Exploiting recording technology, after the manner of the experiments in musique concrete first pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in the early 1940s, create a highly effective “demonic” ambience, which Jerry Goldsmith had had laboriously to compose for The Mephisto Waltz. Friedkin had McCambridge’s voice reversed, multi-tracked, superimposed, distorted and mixed with animal noises in ways that would have been familiar to Schaeffer. The man responsible for realizing these effects was the Mexican foley artist Gonzalo Gavira who used an old leather wallet with credit cards inside it to create the effect of Regan’s head turing 360 degrees. Penderecki’s music is only used to signal specifics, such as the extract from Polymorphia to emphasize the words “Help Me,” which appear on Regan’s chest, and the note clusters that underscore the iconic image of von Sydow arriving in the fog at the fatal dwelling (an image itself modeled on Magritte’s surrealist painting The Empire of Lights).
Most significantly of all, I think, there is no music at all during the actual exorcism itself, reversing entirely the received wisdom, stretching back to the days of Max Steiner, that fantasy requires music to aid the suspension of disbelief. Only McCambridge’s manipulated voice talents and the sounds of crashing furniture are needed to create this illusion of supernatural reality. The silence of the central moment of the exorcism – Regan’s levitation – makes the effect much more believable and supernatural at the same time. The priest’s combined reiteration of the line “the power of Christ compels you” provides a linguistic rather than musical ostinato and fulfills a parallel function to the kind of ostinato figures a composer like James Bernard would have used to punctuate the Magic Circle scenes in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. But here, the effect is realistic as opposed to Bernard’s highly effective though much more melodramatic approach.
Tubular Bells returns at the end of the film, making its third and final appearance, the End Title sequence proper employing Hans Werner Henze’s rather more tonal Fantasia for Strings to usher us out of the film’s reality and back to our own. As Friedkin himself put it, “people actually believed what they saw on the screen,”7 and this was in no small part due to the inventive sound design. One might say more accurately, they believed what they heard on the soundtrack.
The Omen, three years later, took a rather different approach. Whereas one suspects that Friedkin and Blatty shared some level of actual belief in the supernatural, the writer and director of The Omen, whilst playing their story with a straight face, did not. No overt supernatural happenings occur in the film, which is basically a series of bizarre and horrific deaths, the cumulative effect of which is to suggest that the devil has orchestrated all of them, but which Donner insists were only coincidences. Donner’s opinion is that Gregory Peck’s character is actually insane.8 Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen is much more in evidence (and fare more traditional in style) than the brief excerpts from Penderecki et al that appear in The Exorcist, but his approach to the music differs from horror tradition in that the majority of the cues are actually based on the film’s love theme. The impressive demonic chant that opens the proceedings has, however, the greatest impact. It is, in fact, a Satanic reworking of the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem, as well as (according to Goldsmith himself) a conscious attempt to recapture some of the momentum of John Williams’ energetic ostinato for Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975).9 Following the convention that Satanism inverts the symbolism of the forces of good, Goldsmith’s ‘Ave Satana’ chant is the acoustic equivalent of an inverted crucifix, for if we compare the base line that opens Mozart’s piece with Goldsmith’s chant, we see that the ostinato of The Omen begins in the same way, but after D, F, and E it returns to F rather than Mozart’s movement to G. By using this Mozartian model and combining it with his own setting of the Satanic text – ‘Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani, Ave Satani! Ave Versus Christus!’ (‘Drink the blood, eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan, Hail Satan! Hail the Antichrist!’) – Goldsmith powerfully inverts the sacred connotations of the Requiem Mass to create a musical Black Mass. Indeed, he was unable to resist the temptation to subtitle the soundtrack recording of Damien: Omen II two years later as exactly that.
As for the love theme, Goldsmith’s melody has certain things in common with Francis Lai’s romantic melody for Love Story, which appeared in 1970, and thus launched the decade of New Hollywood. What The Omen’s love theme has in common with what became the song “Where Do I Begin?” is the compass of a sixth. Lai’s melody is little more than a rumination on a minor sixth, whereas Goldsmith’s marginally more elaborate melody encompasses the interval of a major sixth. The echo is perhaps deliberate, enforcing realism by branding the film as a mainstream Hollywood product, as opposed to a less believable traditional horror film. Goldsmith is also careful to echo his major-sixth with the minor seventh of the piano solo that introduces the demonic chant. The oscillating two-note motif of the latter (A-flat to B and back again) indeed echoes the melodic contour of Lai’s “Where Do I Begin,” and the troubled Romantic connotation it brings with it is emphasized by its conjunction with romantic scenes between The Omen’s stars Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. The love affair between the characters they play is under threat just as was that between Ryan O’Neill and Ali MacGraw (admittedly due to the apparent intervention of the Devil rather than leukemia as was the case in Love Story).
We are asked to believe that the devil of The Omen has been incarnated in a boy called Damien (played by Harvey Stephens), coincidentally the same name as the priest in The Exorcist, who, very briefly at the end of that film, is similarly possessed, before he plunges to the pavement in the film’s violent finale. The Damien of The Omen is apparently responsible for a variety of equally gruesome deaths, beginning with his nurse, who hangs herself at his birthday party. Goldsmith signifies the demonic nature of the dog who compels her to such an act (Damien is perhaps not quite old enough to compel her to do this entirely by himself), by featuring a throbbing synthesized ostinato, but sound effects also play their part here – notably the at first cheerful screeching and then terrified screaming of the children who witness the tragedy. Goldsmith does employ avant-garde effects, such as string glissandi, but nothing as advanced as Penderecki, mostly relying on ostinato rhythms to connote the demonic element at work in the action sequences. These, such as the cue for the ride to the church, the Windsor Safari Park sequence, when Lee Remick’s car is attacked by Satanically-sensitive baboons, and the build-up to the impalement of Patrick Troughton’s priest all palpably derive from the driving ostinati of the “Dance of the Adolescents” in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
However, other set pieces dispense with music altogether, reprising Freidkin’s approach. Indeed, the dispatch of Remick by her demon-child was later borrowed by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980), a film that also featured a boy purposefully pedaling a squeaking tricycle. Goldsmith announces Remick’s imminent demise with a female choir, but then allows the wheels of Damien’s trike to provide the acoustic momentum required during what follows. Silence is also a powerful tool here: a slow-motion shot of a plummeting goldfish bowl is mute before the bowl smashes on the floor at the correct speed. By dispensing with music at this moment, Goldsmith and Donner are able to suggest a greater sense of realism, echoing the techniques of The Exorcist but, crucially, from within The Omen’s rather more traditionally melodramatic context. Indeed, tried and tested conventions return for the highly Gothic scene in the Etruscan cemetery at Cerveti later in the film. Warner and Peck visit this terrible place to discover the grave of Damien’s mother (which turns out to have been a jackal) and here Goldsmith employs col legno strings (another macabre effect first codified by Berlioz, again in his Symphonie fantastique). Flutter-tongued flutes (previously heard to underline the anxiety of the hospital scenes in which Remick pleads with Peck not to let her son kill her) are also apparent. The sound effects function much as one would expect them to do in such a context: the crickets stop chirping, a disturbing wind rises, and the hounds of hell start barking. The ostinati Goldsmith lays under these are also conventional enough and perhaps even unnecessary under such an acoustic barrage.
Goldsmith’s use of the choir at his disposal adds a extra element of Gothic frisson to the proceedings, inverting the heavenly choir convention of previous Hollywood Biblical epics. Particularly effective is his instruction for the choir to whisper rather than sing during the climactic scenes in which Peck is pursued by a demonic dog prior to his attempt to sacrifice Damien. Goldsmith elaborated on his choral inventiveness in the sequel, Damien: Omen II (dir. Don Taylor, 1978), in which the choir is asked to imitate the sound of the carrion crows, which replace the various hounds of hell of the original film as the Devil’s heralds.
Apart from the desire to reinvent the horror film and consequently to gather a new audience for the genre, The Omen might also be interpreted as a response to the revival of Cold War anxieties, which are more often associated with 1950’s science fiction films. By placing the Devil’s child at the centre of the world of politics (“From the eternal sea he rises/ Raising armies on either shore,”) Donner’s film does seem to reflect an anxiety felt at that time that those who lead us are leading us into damnation rather than delivering us from evil. To make this subtext more apparent, greater realism was no doubt considered necessary, and the approach to sound effects, which Donner learnt from the example of The Exorcist, together with the mainstream scoring of Goldsmith, helped to suggest that what we are watching is “real.” The soundtrack was crucial in helping to place the film in the mainstream- not merely a ‘horror’ film, but the kind of entertainment we regard as being parallel with, rather than opposed to reality.
1. Mark Gatiss, A History of Horror (dir. John Das), BBC 2010 (“The American Scream”).
2. op. cit.
3. op. cit.
4. The Exorcist, 25th Anniversary Edition DVD, Z1 16176, “The Fear of God Documentary”.
5. Robert Barry, “Sound on Film: Penderecki and the sound of radical evil”
6. Salka Viertel, The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Holt, 1969), pp. 207-8.
7. The Exorcist – 25th Anniversary Edition DVD (Note 4).
8. The Omen, 30th Anniversary Edition, DVD F1-OGB 3448001001 (commentary).
- op. cit. (Jerry Goldsmith on The Omen score).