It’s the movie genre that 84% of U.S. citizens say they love. It’s the type that’s on the constant rise of production. It’s the type of film your parents cringe at but brings in billions of dollars a year. And it’s the genre that subconsciously feeds movie-goers great modern music.
Horror movies, specifically psychological thrillers, are notorious for ominous foreshadowing, hallucinations, bad weather, and amazing cinematography. But what the average movie-goer might not realized is that the soundtracks of these enticing pictures include some of the best film music, whether it is written specifically for the movie or a compilation of different artists. Many emotions of modern music are dark, eerie, or supernatural, and these coincide perfectly with psychological thrillers.
I was listening to Pandora recently after typing in “artists similar to Olivier Messiaen,” and as soon as Krzysztof Penderecki’s “The Dream of Jacob” began to play I immediately thought of Shutter Island, a recent psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese that used another Penderecki piece, his third symphony. The clarinets playing their ominous B-flats triggered such a sensory memory that it brought new meaning to the piece that I hadn’t uncovered before. “Jacob woke from his sleep and said: Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it," Genesis 28:16 reads. After connecting the movie genre and the piece, this phrase suddenly sounds much more ghostly. The piece abruptly became not only a sound-canyon of dissonance, but one with meaning and images.
This piece is used in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, a beacon in horror films and, in my opinion, the holder of one of the creepiest soundtracks of the 20th century. Kubrick’s movie puts Penderecki to great use, using 7 of his compositions. Penderecki’s unharmonious voice mirrors Kubrick’s, and King’s, haunting images perfectly. What else could accompany gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator? Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” (forgive me if I’m wrong) plays during one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film, when Danny is being chased by his father in the hedge maze. The Shining includes Penderecki’s “Kanon for 52 string orchestra and tape,” which was also used in The Exorcist. The film also utilizes György Ligeti’s “Lontano,” and Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique." The Shining, as well as other psychological thrillers, has gained cult followings and has gained these composers much traffic.
Ligeti is a larger part of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which could be called a psychological thriller to some extent. 2001 has many of Ligeti’s microphony pieces (“Lux Aeterna,” “Requiem,” “Aventures”) that leave you shivering and twitching in your seat. Seeing 2001 for the first time is something you won’t soon forget—I was about 8, sitting on my grandfather’s old carpet, staring at the screen with confusion and amazement. This emotion, though obviously brought upon by the mind-twisting ideas and images of Kubrick’s film and Clarke’s novel, also has to be attributed to Ligeti (as well as the Strauss’s).
|The eerie monolith/space-mansion scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey|
Darren Aronofsky, arguably the master of recent psychological thrillers, also utilizes great music in his films. From p to Requiem for a Dream to the more recent Black Swan all have soundtracks that fit their specific personality—for p, it’s electronic and frantic, for Requiem for a Dream, desperate and tragic, and for Black Swan scurrying and almost itchy, for lack of a better word. What Aronofsky’s films do better than anyone else’s is intrigue the average viewer to go after the music once the movie is over; I have seen multiple cover’s of Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna,” even one done by an accordion duet. Mansell also composed the soundtrack to p. Aronofsky’s films also use amazing performers, such as the Kronos Quartet.
Modern music is often criticized for being confusing and remote. But the uncomfortable aspect of some modern composers is perfect for psychological thrillers, as that emotion saturates these films. From Scorsese to Kubrick to Aronofsky, films of this genre open up different meaning to these pieces. To someone who might not understand or feel entirely relaxed listening to Penderecki’s dissonant pieces, after seeing these movies, now they are what Jack Torrence’s mind is filled with instead a bunch of notes.