Graded on a Curve: OSTs from Waxwork Records: Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Creepshow

For soundtrack fans with a keen interest in the horror genre, Waxwork Records has been steadily delivering the goods; made to look marvy as they’re pulled off the shelf, the attention to audio hasn’t been lost in the shuffle. Three of the company’s recent releases, Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby, Pino Donaggio’s for Don’t Look Now, and John Harrison’s for Creepshow, form an engaging, at times masterful trifecta of expanded compositional possibilities documenting a film genre in transition. Featuring 180gm thematically colored vinyl, all three are out now.

That such a large percentage of the upsurge in vinyl soundtracks is devoted to horror flicks is no surprise. Not only has horror persisted in inspiring intense fandom long after the heyday of the cult movie has waned, but more so than most other film genres, horror was and remains reliant on original, often composed scores in the advancement of its goals.

Some of the greatest moments in horror are intrinsically linked to their music; the shower scene in Psycho is perhaps the primary example. Although nothing from the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut has clung to the public consciousness the way Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s masterpiece has, Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby is still right up there amongst the greats, with its initial seconds instilling an immediate sense of queasiness that’s quickly overtaken by the wordless singing of actress Mia Farrow.

Serene yet eerie at the start, when the theme returns at film’s end, it burns like the ache from being punched in the stomach, which is essentially what the movie’s conclusion delivers, specifically by what it doesn’t deliver: there’s no return to normalcy, and sure as shit no happy ending, and for years afterward Rosemary’s Baby remained controversial. Until a long line of slashers and blatant bloodletting overtook it, Polanski’s film was frequently derided as having gone too far.

Komeda’s contribution is integral to why; blending traditional film-composing techniques and effects, a healthy dose of jazz (Astigmatic, a 1965 album from Komeda’s quintet, is a masterpiece of ’60s Polish jazz), and excursions that owe more than a little to the abstract modes of modernist classical. Along the way, the soundtrack’s distinctiveness and its refusal to fall into the typical norms of compositional enhancement cultivate the nagging unease; the feeling also arises when listening to the score in isolation.

Alongside Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and MASH, Rosemary Baby is a key film in the shift from the studio system to the New Hollywood, and it might just be the best movie of the bunch. Had Komeda not died of a brain hematoma in 1969, it’s a stone cinch his talents would’ve been further utilized by the industry, which is exactly what happened to Pino Donaggio after he debuted via Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

Some will designate the movie not as a horror film but as a supernatural thriller, though that’s splitting some fine hairs. The main point of contention would seem to be the atypical direction, specifically Roeg’s fractured editing style; while a British-Italian co-production, the movie fits in quite snuggly with the general ’70s derailment of cinematic convention, a wave that crashed upon more shores than just the west coast of the USA.

Don’t Look Now was Pino Donaggio’s first score (prior, he was known as a songwriter and pop vocalist), and listening to it with no knowledge of the images it accompanied, one might easily not grasp its relationship to such a limits-pushing film. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby, it doesn’t even extensively fall into the suspense-thriller-horror zone until near its conclusion.

Those requiring familiar horror soundtrack maneuvers might be disappointed, but Donaggio’s work sparks interest through a wide instrumental palette, including orchestral passages, harp, gothic organ, and most notably a recurring solo piano theme played by the composer in an intriguing tentative style. The also flute, again played by Donaggio but in a considerably more skilled manner (he was conservatory trained).

Although “Christine is Dead” and “Strange Happenings” offer elements of foreboding and suspense, much of what surrounds them is accurately assessed as relaxing, with the lushness of “John’s Theme (Laura Leaves Venice)” appropriate for a soap opera. All this tonal variation is a nice setup for the edgy “Laura Comes Back,” its rattlesnake flutter of flute a sweet touch, while the stylistic schizophrenia of “Dead End” leads to a gripping crescendo of flute and harp.

The concluding “Laura’s Theme (The Last Farewell)” feels like a summation of all that’s came before, and it closes a smartly constructed soundtrack to a formally challenging film, one that sits in sharp contrast to Creepshow, the George Romero-directed and Stephen King-written homage to the once disreputable EC Comics horror anthologies of their youth.

By 1982, Hollywood had undergone another drastic change. In 1980, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate put the final nail in the coffin of the New Hollywood, and the industry was getting back to the business of pure entertainment as the era of the multiplex dawned. Of course, it’s not as cut and dried as this; Creepshow may scale back the ambition of Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now in favor of blunt B-movie-descended shocks and black humor, but it’s still a personal creation, and it’s made with attention to detail.

This extends to John Harrison’s score, which fittingly employs just synthesizer, grand piano, and bass, all played by the composer, with the effect harkening back to the eerie, chiller-thriller atmosphere cranked out on the studio lots of the Old Hollywood. Dually, Creepshow’s soundtrack fits into the rise of synth-based accompaniment from across the ‘80s, but Harrison distinguishes himself by not wholesale-biting the moves of John Carpenter, or for that matter, Goblin.

What Harrison shares with Komeda and Donaggio is a resistance to overplayed tropes, and the cumulative weight of this long score with many short sections, a few entirely devoted to synths, could easily be of interest to electronic music fans. It stands up tall apart from Romero’s film, with homage registering far less as the expressiveness remains.

Rosemary’s Baby OST
A+

Don’t Look Now OST
A-

Creepshow OST
A-

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