Bill Bailey's guide to scary film soundtracks
The comedian and orchestra appreciator on what makes for good malevolent music
What’s your favourite score to a scary movie?
The Bernard Herrmann score to The Day the Earth Stood Still . It’s quite futuristic and incredibly orchestral and atmospheric. He uses the Theremin [an early electronic instrument that can be played without being touched – it senses the hand’s position], which had fallen into disuse at this stage. It had been championed by New York society in the 1920s, even to the point that the Theremin’s muse, Clara Rockmore, had been giving recitals at Carnegie Hall. He resurrected it and used it to great effect.
I always think that that soundtrack is the perfect example of that genre, the 50s science fiction movie. The otherworldly, the strange, the slightly terrifying and unknown – it sums all that up beautifully.
What instruments can be made to sound particularly haunting?
I think the sparing use of a single cello can be very effective. There’s something about the act of the bow creeping across a string. For example, in Psycho you get the high-pitched sweeps of violin which almost mimic the sound of a human scream. A classic, which has become a cliché, is Jaws, where there is a single note on a cello, which can be incredibly powerful.
Are there any day-to-day sounds you find chilling?
Occasionally, the wind will blow through the window in a strange, haunting way, catching you unawares with a sort of whistling sound. Leaves rustling behind you as you walk up the street. The strange tapping noise at night. Tap, tap, tap … what is that? A crow is it, perhaps? Or your own toenails on the headboard? Who knows …
Have you written any scary music?
It was Hallowe’en when I wrote a piece of music for the show I’m doing now. There’s a short film that I show at the end of the routine. I was performing in Belfast – people were dressed as the Jolly Green Giant, and as Star Wars characters, which didn’t seem to be in keeping with Hallowe’en but was entertaining nonetheless – and there was no sound accompanying the film. I always think music and film is a potent combination so I went on and improvised a bit of music, and this music morphed into the music I’m still playing now. I’ve just recorded it with a band for an album and I realise I actually quite like it.
The best film music is the kind you don’t even realise is playing. You’re not aware of it. It captures the mood or there’s something particularly appropriate to the scene which conjures up something which changes what’s on the screen. The image may not seem that threatening but the music tells you, ‘watch out … something’s lurking.’
Are there clichés to avoid?
I think that sometimes there are certain intervals – the devil’s chord, the tritone – which were overused in the metal genre. Though, because we’ve seen so many of these films, you can reference these things ironically because we’re all in on the joke.
(Interview by Murray Robertson.)
Bill Bailey performs his show, Dandelion Mind, at Edinburgh Playhouse on Wed 16 Nov and Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on Sat 26 Nov.