Friday, 6 March 2009

The Devil's Music

I’d like to add a few words about the music of Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, which really relates to what Neil was saying about the centrality of the English rural landscape to these films. Because both invoke the spirits of the great romantic English pastoralists which soundtrack all of our visions of what’s left of the traditional English countryside.

Paul Ferris’ score for Witchfinder General begins after the opening hanging has taken place in stark, grimly determined silence, punctuated only by the wind and the screams of the condemned witch. As the camera pulls away from the gibbet to focus on the silhouetted forms of Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne on the horizon, a drum roll introduces the titles. There is a propulsive, discordant squall of percussion, brass and strings which resembles the Stravinsky of Rite of Spring, as well as Bartok. This is the use of traditional modernist music which has become a familiar staple of horror films, with its ability to evoke feelings of disease and tension. Bernard Herrmann used driving Bartokian rhythmic strings in Psycho. Stanley Kubrick went one further in The Shining by actually using extracts from Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, to create a sense of dislocation as Jack looks down on the model of the maze only to see his wife and child running through its passages. The Exorcist also uses extracts of modern compositions by composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki, Hans Werner Henze and George Crumb. This opening salvo morphs into a more darkly romantic and traditional theme, however, which shifts the mood whilst not wholly removing the sense of unease. An opposition of sorts is set up, then. Stravinsky versus Vaughan Williams.

The romantic theme is first given a full airing in the scene in which Richard and Sara make love. The melody resembles the traditional tunes which were at the core of Vaughan Williams’ work (he’d gone out and collected them at the turn of the century). Its statement on the classical guitar also suggests a hint of the Western, particularly those of the spaghetti variety which featured the music of Ennio Morricone. As soon as we come across Hopkins and Stearne, the music regains its dissonant qualities. These are the opposing themes, then. When Richard comes across Hopkins and Stearne approaching the village which he is leaving, there is a musical impasse, both themes subsiding into a hushed, anticipatory stasis. Richard’s galloping races across the landscape bring the romantic themes most stridently to the fore, emphasising his heroically dashing efforts to try to save the day. Again, these evoke the grand, sweeping musical evocations of movement through landscape found in Westerns, whilst at the same time retaining their peculiarly English idiom. The romantic theme, with its echoes of Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, plays in its pure form once more over the end credits, and whilst I will of course give nothing away, it’s probably not being too indiscreet (this is a horror film, after all) to say that it has lost some of the innocence it possessed when we first heard it used to accompany Richard and Sara’s tender embraces.

The title music of Blood on Satan’s Claw immediately introduces its key element: the use of the Ondes Martenot, a venerable pre-war electronic instrument which had been much favoured by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. He’d used it in his magnum opus, the Turangalila Symphony, where it swooped and glided above the massed forces of the percussion-heavy orchestra. Here it enters on its own, producing persistent little jabs of sound, like a wasp battering itself against a window pane. Other instruments take up this call, adding their own insistent, squiggling motifs: the clarinet, oboe, cimbalom, bass strings and percussion. It all gives the impression of something worming its way up through the earth. The percussion sounds like it’s probably a xylophone, which has often been used as the musical signifier of bones and dancing skeletons. Camille Saint-Saens used it in as such in his Danse Macabre and in the Fossiles section of his Carnival of Animals, whilst Bernard Herrmann memorably employed it for the sequence involving the magically animated skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Here, it conveys the horrible suggestion that the thing which has wormed its way through to the topsoil, awaiting unearthing by the farmer’s plough, has long since been denuded of flesh and muscle. This opening section, which seems to have brought something terrible to the surface, is brought to an end by a trill of brass. Here the Ondes Martenot pitches in on a high note before tumbling in a chromatic fall of half and whole tones, joined in its descent by the other instruments (particularly the chirpy clarinet) with the cimbalom providing small rising chords in opposition. This then modulates into a romantic theme of aching beauty which is worthy of Vaughan Williams himself, but which is punctuated by those small, insistent little jabs of sound (which actually sound quite bird-like – another nod to Messiaen) which remind us of the worm in this arcadian setting. The descending figure also joins in counterpoint to this romantic melody, and all three themes are thus introduced and intertwined. These three elements are interwoven in recombinant form throughout the film, sometimes with the addition of further Ondes Martenot or percussion effects. This soundtrack has been released by Trunk records, with sleeve notes by Mr Trunk, the composer Marc Wilkinson and Michael Tyack of psych-folk cape-revivalists Circulus. It’s worth it for the ravishing title track alone.

A brief note for Doctor Who fans; Who past and present meets in Blood on Satan’s Claw as two familiar faces make an appearance. Anthony Ainley has yet to sport the Mephistophelean beard he wore in the role of The Master and appears here as a nervous and distinctly unauthoritative vicar (no Peter Cushing he) who does his best to resist the forceful attentions of Linda Hayden. Wendy Padbury, better known as the brighter half (not difficult, I know) of the Zoe and Jamie companionship, turns up as the innocent Cathy unaffected by the undercurrent of evil which manifests itself in the village. Poor Cathy. None of this would of got so badly out of hand had Patrick Troughton been around to sort it all out.

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