Friday, May 24, 2013

Music to Horrify the Undead Soul

I'm a  little bit pissed off at myself.

Last night, while flipping channels and enjoying a 5Vulture  Dark Ale, I happened across the 2005 remake of John Carpenter's The Fog.

I'm pissed because I watched it.

I'm pissed because I broke my 'No PG-13 Movies. Ever.' rule.

Mostly I'm pissed because it was so terrible.

The simple truth is the the original Fog from 1980 is not in any conceivable sense Carpenter's best. Story-wise, it was actually pretty bland. It was not necessarily scary - at least not in the way that Halloween was. The story, and especially the end, were not as tight as they could be. Sandwiched between probably his two greatest horror masterpieces, Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), it is a borderline disappointment on many levels.

 It did, however, have a great feel to it that was classic Carpenter. For all of its failings, there was still some of the classic Carpenter brilliance that makes it stand out. Rob Bottin's effects were spot on. The way it was shot gave it a spooky, creepy feel that was unmistakably scary. It was low budget as low budget can get, but Carpenter shot it like a big budget film and it feels greater than it was. The scenes with the stalking ghosts, especially on the boat, the Sea Grass, in the beginning, have a chilling dread that is palpable. So, even when Carpenter sucks, he's still good.

As an added bonus, this movie is a study in horror references. For the devoted horror fan, you can see them everywhere. There are Lovecraft references, Poe references, Hitchcock references, sly asides to other horror auteurs and characters named after horror greats like Dan O'Bannon, or Vincent Price's classic Dr. Phibes. There's even a cameo by Carpenter himself, playing a character named Ben Trammer. Also - and this is a really important piece - it featured Nancy Loomis (nee Kyes). The same actress who played Annie Brackett in Halloween. I can honestly say that I have had a crush on her since I first saw her in Halloween. Look at it this way, when one looks back on the unholy fascination and attraction Dr. Zombie has with horror movie scream queens - the top three will always be Linnea Quigley as Trash from Return of the Living Dead, Charlie Spradling from numerous early Full Moon outings, and Nancy Loomis as Annie Brackett.  

So, based on my... love is too strong a word; let's say, based on my respect and deep like for the original, I thought I might want to see the remake. Add to that the fact that it was still produced by Carpenter and Debra Hill, and Debra helped with the re-writes. It was also her last film before succumbing to cancer. I felt kind of obligated to watch it.

I should have known better when, in the opening seen, they started with a Fall Out Boy song and I saw that the lead was the dude who played Clark Kent in Smallville. Goddammit. How do you replace Tom Atkins with some 19 year old pretty boy? How do you replace Jamie Lee Curtis with the blond snotty chick from Lost?

It all went down hill from there. There was no gore, it wasn't scary at all, and the entire cast was - apparently - put together by sending an email to the WB and seeing if any of the ridiculously pretty and vacuous leads from whatever passes for teen drama over there were interested.

It was mind-numbingly stupid. It was insipid. It lacked anything remotely scary, gory, or at all redeeming. I feel mortified for the memory of Debra Hill in that this was her last film. I feel shame for myself because I was forced to endure a horror movie that wasn't a horror movie and that just kept getting worse and worse - like the progression of some horrible blood poisoning as it marches inexorably up your arm from a wound, the veins it is climbing up turning black with an ichor-like venom as it crawls slowly, lethally, towards your doomed heart.

This movie was that fucking bad.

So, why am I telling you about this? Because I - in my circuitous, long winded way -- want to talk about music.

'What?' you may be asking, "What are you talking about, Doctor Zombie. What in the bloody blue fuck does that have to do with a really bad remake of a bad Carpenter film?!"

That or, maybe, "Are you off your meds again?"... as you back slowly away from my wild-eyed looks,

No. My point here is that music matters. I mentioned it before, but the fact that this crappy remake started with a Fall Out Boy song says volumes about the chances of this movie being any good.

One of the crucial keys behind the success of John Carpenter's movies is the fact that he controls the music in them almost pathologically. He writes many of his themes and - although in many cases they're seemingly simplistic - in most every other respect they are brutally effective at setting a mood and are almost a character in and of themselves. It is not an overstatement to say that the jangling 5/4 timed Halloween theme was a huge part of Michael Meyer's and Halloween's success.

I think that - from a horror standpoint - music is a key element. I am a music person and it is an important part of my own creative process. I listen to music when I write, critically listen to it when watching horror cinema, and also listen to creepy stuff when I'm relaxing. Like ALL of us old Goth, horror hounds do.

So, I decided to do a post about some of the things - musically - that are rocking Dr. Z's creepy world right now.

Music to Soothe the Undead Soul

Midnight Syndicate - Midnight Syndicate should be part of any horror fan's musical library. Now, as a matter of full disclosure, I am a non-biased promoter of Midnight Syndicate. I have a link to them at the bottom of my page and I am also listed on their website. I'm featured as a member of their Legions of Night - artists, musicians, and writers who are fans and who draw inspiration from Midnight Syndicate's unique sound. I am also listed on their site for a review I did of their last album, Carnival Arcane. 

But even if one takes my bias out of the picture... Midnight Syndicate is awesome. They write horror and Halloween themed music that is at times simultaneously haunting, beautiful, and creepy. They specialize in Halloween and music that evokes images of abandoned graveyards, or sanitariums, or lichen-covered catacombs. They are our kind of people, my lovely undead minions. The twisted minds behind Midnight Syndicate - Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka - create soundscapes of horror and fantasy.

For my part, they are crucial when I'm writing. Nothing helps me get in the mood more than Midnight Syndicate. I will wait until everyone goes to bed, pour myself a glass of Irish whiskey - or perhaps a glass of absinth - light some candles, and let the voices in my head scream at me as I try to coax them out in writing onto my laptop.

In fact, I'm listening to them as I write this right now. I'm listening to Darkness Descends off of their Halloween Music Collection. I'm looking forward to their upcoming release - Monsters of Legend. Their soon to be released CD is an homage to the classic horror movies we all know and love. As Edward writes on their website:
"Our approach on this upcoming album is to transport you 'into' the world of classic horror films by Universal, Hammer Films, and others. We want you to feel like you've been dropped right into one of those films - a mysterious world where any creature could be lurking in a shadowy forest or passing by your window at night.... As we did in The 13th Hour and Carnival Arcane we try to achieve this through music and sound design. This will be another great disc to listen to with headphones in a darkened room. "

Check them out, dear reader. You won't be disappointed.

Tonight of the Living Dead - Created by the band, 400 Lonely Things, Tonight of the Living Dead is an interesting experiment in music that I've been listening to for the last week or so. This song (album? musical composition?) is a long remix of the music from the original 1968 Night of the Loving Dead (NOTLD) soundtrack and it captures the cool, ambient musical nature of the greatest zombie film of all time. Go to the link above and take a look at the accompanying video (embedded below as well). It cuts the music together with a neat video mix of the original movie. It's a neat idea and the music is way cool. It's also, in my mind, a very good example of the nature of music and its impact on cinema. NOTLD is another of those movies that owes much of its horror ambience to the soundtrack. In the case of NOTLD, all of the music was catalog music purchased from the library of Capitol Records. Much of it has appeared in other movies and TV shows contemporaneously. However, the music itself is uniquely a part of Romero's vision. It adds to and makes the movie better.

I first discovered it when a new fan posted a link to the web page on the Living Dead Festival Facebook page. The page is run by Gary Streiner - the sound guy from the original Night of the Living Dead. The members of the page over there jumped on the poster pretty hard as there's a history of exploitation of the NOTLD copyrights and brand. Many felt this was another case of that. The exploitation of the property is valid, the jumping on the fan maybe not so much. She was just sharing something she thought was cool.

I think it's cool too.

Aklo - Of course, it's not a proper post by Dr. Zombie if it doesn't in some way reference the greatness of H.P. Lovecraft. I discovered Aklo quite by chance. Aklo is another band experimenting with sound and music. It's random weirdness, disconcertingly odd, and an altogether discordant mixture of what madness must sound like. In other words, I love it. Aklo, by the way, is a language that Arthur Machen made up and was used by Lovecraft in several of his stories, most notably The Dunwich Horror. Aklo (the band) makes Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos-themed albums that try to capture the weirdness that Old Man of Providence wrote about.

I am - as we all know - a geek of epic proportions. One of the ways in which that geekiness manifested itself - at least back in high school and college, was through role-playing games. And, being the horror fool I am, Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu remains my all time favorite RPG. It was the first serious game I played and it introduced myself and legions of new fans to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. My friends and I -and especially our Gamemaster, Jay - were all huge fans of the game and we went to enormous lengths to set the mood. We always played at night, with candles, and played eerie music in the background. To this day, whenever I role-play (sadly not often enough anymore), music is an essential part of the process.

And Aklo is the perfect music to fight cultists, Cthulhu, Nyarlothotep, Azathoth, and the other pantheons of Outer and Elder Gods to... or at least to lose gobs of insanity to. Take you pick.

And, by the way, for any of my friends reading this, that reminds me... I need me some horror roleplaying. Anyone interested?

And, finally to wrap things up, I wanted to add the theme to the original Fog, as composed by John Carpenter. The sad fact is that many of today's horror movies lack the passion of the classics, and that's because they lack the music.

Seriously, listen to this and tell me differently.

If only we could get some of the modern studios to look at music by groups like Midnight Syndicate, or Aklo. Horror movies, and horror music, by horror fans. How awesome would that be?!?

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