How to make the ultimate horror film soundtrack

Richard Band, composer of creepy '80s classics like 'Ghoulies', tells us some tricks (and treats) of the trade

Composer Richard Band is soon to release three of his soundtracks from the ‘80s golden age of the VHS horror – Ghoulies (1985), TerrorVision (1986) and Troll (1986) – on beautifully lurid coloured vinyl through WRWTFWW Records. For Band, they’re just the tip of the iceberg – he’s composed more than 140 horror and fantasy soundtracks in his long and spooky career, many of them for his brother, director Charles Band’s schlockhouse production company, Empire Pictures. We asked the maestro of the macabre for some of his trade secrets.

Tip one: work fast

“I worked in the days where concepts were sold before scripts were written. Ghoulies was just a two-page treatment with some good poster art – a green goblin in a toilet bowl. There was so little time and so little money for Ghoulies, we only had time to do like 20 odd minutes of original music.”

Tip two: set the mood for the movie

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“With Troll, there had to be a song written, which appears as ‘Cantos Profanae’, before shooting, because all the trolls and the characters were supposed to be singing this sort of incantation. That was one of the few circumstances where I was way ahead of the filming itself, so I had to set the mood. Reading the script, it was obviously set in the present day but it related back to mysticism and fantasy, so you put those two elements together. But, crucially important in that case: Troll was really not designed to be a horror movie. It was really designed to be more of a fantasy and very much to be a family kind of film – the whole design of it was to appeal to younger kids.”

Horror soundtrack
‘Ghoulies’ sees a young man and his girlfriend move into an old mansion, where he becomes possessed by a desire to control ancient demons. Credit: Alamy

Tip three: you have to get geeky

“I created a pseudo language for the lyrics of ‘Cantos Profanae’, based on Old English and Latin combined. The song is a prophecy about the oncoming war, meaning the war of the trolls and the humans and all of that. So that was a fun couple of days.”

Tip four: use ‘stingers’ sparingly

“It’s a loud sound, it’s usually short and it’s used to make you jump in your seat – it ‘stings’ you so it’s a ‘stinger’. I look to those kind of musical devices as something to use infrequently, because they can quickly become very redundant, but sometimes the producers or the director and the music editors have a different policy. They ask you to create, say, five or 10 stings as little two, three second cues and you have to say, ‘Yeah, knock yourself out, put them where you want’.”

Horror soundtrack
‘Troll’ is about a wicked troll king who goes in search of a mystical ring that will transform him to human form. Credit: Alamy

Tip five: establish a motif for the villain

“They’re a little divisive, but I always strive to create some hook or motif or theme so that the audience knows when a certain character or a situation or intent is coming. With [my own 1989 score for] Re-Animator, there’s that little device that lets you know what Herbert West is up to – very similar to what John Williams does in Jaws.”

Tip six: find a guinea pig to test the scares

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“You can’t scare yourself, so how do you check the music is scary enough? That’s what you have children for. The trick is to have a child around and when they’re very young bring them in and play something and if they’re scared, it works. In reality, I would often have to keep my daughter out of the studio because you don’t want your four-year-old walking into the studio when you’re scoring someone being stabbed to death.”

Tip seven: have a mental scary place to tap into

“I remember seeing the original Invaders From Mars or something like this when I was around five, and there was one scene that’s stuck with me, when the people are walking and they’re being sucked into the earth into those tunnels and dungeons. My brother and I grew up around horror and comics and it’s always been something fun for us, but that scene has stayed with me my entire life.”

TerrorVision
‘TerrorVision’ tells the story of a family whose satellite system starts receiving communication from other planets. Credit: Alamy

Tip eight: don’t compose by committee

“God forbid, you know, I’ve done some television shows where all of a sudden there’s 13 producers giving you their input and, I mean, it’s a disaster composing with everyone over your shoulder. So I always made it a practice of mine to do my best not to listen to most of those people that try to. Get down to the one or two people who are the powers that be.”

Tip nine: manage the expectations of the producers

“Back in the days of Ghoulies, Troll and TerrorVision, I would create my themes and ultimately the director and I would sit there by a piano and I’d try to explain what I was intending with the orchestra. Now, at least 70 percent of the time when they’re giving you the film they’re supplying a tracked version with an example of the type of track they would like to hear. Inevitably what happens is they want the sound of Star Wars with a hundred piece orchestra but they only have four dollars and fifty cents.”

WRWTFWW Records presents ‘Ghoulies OST’ on limited edition pink vinyl, ‘Troll OST’ on limited edition yellow vinyl, and ‘TerrorVision OST’ on limited edition blue vinyl in stores worldwide from November 20

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