Friday, 31 October 2014

Screaming Scores

Considering today is Hallowe’en there’s a noticeable absence of decent horror films on British television tonight. And I’m not referring to modern slasher/zombie films. I mean proper horror films like those made by Hammer. Hammer’s first horror film “The Curse of Frankenstein”, was shown on Monday. Next time you see it take more time to listen to the music. It was composed by one of the most prolific horror film composers, James Bernard (1925-2001).

An Oscar winner and a wartime code-breaker James Bernard’s fame rests on his long association with the Hammer films, and the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Dracula/Frankenstein films in particular.

Before going into detail about his Hammer work I’ll take a few minutes to look at his musical background. Born in the Himalayas into a British military family James was sent to England to live with his aristocratic grandparents. It was a typical “Downton Abbey” childhood, with a piano in the nursery on which he began to play when he was about 6 years old.

Through his mother James claimed he was descended from Thomas Arne, composer of “Rule Britannia”. I haven’t had time to check this, but it’ll make a good “Out of Their Trees” article in the future.

At school he met Benjamin Britten who was visiting a schoolmaster, and who encouraged James to compose. They stayed in touch when James left school and served in the army during World War II. During the war James met his first life partner Paul Dehn, a major in MI6 who went on to write the screenplay for “Goldfinger” (among many other famous and popular films). After the war James enrolled at the Royal College of Music. On graduating he was asked by Britten to copy out his new opera “Billy Budd” for his publishers. James attended the opera’s premier with E. M. Forster.

James’s wartime work on the Enigma machine with Alan Turing, and his Oscar-winning screenplay, are best left for another time. Let’s return to his Hammer horror film music.

James had been composing for stage and radio productions for several years before he was approached by the chief music director of Hammer films. He was impressed by James’s score for the BBC radio production of “The Duchess of Malfi” and asked him to compose the music for Hammer’s “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955) – one of my favourite films.

Readers may be familiar with the music from the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The use of violins to produce a harsh, discordant, almost screeching sound which the “Psycho” shower scene best illustrates was actually pioneered by James Bernard in his two Quatermass films. Violins were generally used to provide a romantic or soothing emotion and James used the discordant technique throughout his films. Horror films have copied this musical technique ever since.

Hammer moved into the serious horror genre with the afore-mentioned “The Curse of Frankenstein”. James had been a life-long fan of horror and suspense, so he had the right credentials to write for horror films. You can often feel his enthusiasm fro writing a horror score in a lot of his work.

In 1958 Hammer made its first Dracula film, and in total James wrote the music for 9 Frankenstein and Dracula films for Hammer. He also wrote for other Hammer horror classics such as “The Gorgon” and “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” (his last Hammer score).

James was fortunate enough to compose the music for the film versions of three of his favourite boyhood books – “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “She” and “The Devil Rides Out”. “She” was my introduction to Hammer films. It was shown on tv when I was a young teenager and I’ve never forgotten the impact it made on me (I had nightmares about that lava pit!). It was also the music which stuck in my mind. The main theme sounded very eerie and atmospheric. None of the subsequent Hammer films that I’ve seen have ever given me the same feeling, so I suppose the music for “She” must be my favourite James Bernard score.

James wasn’t even 50 years old when he “retired” and went to live in the Caribbean. He continued to compose for documentaries and to horror programmes, including two episodes of “Hammer House of Horror”.

For a few years Hammer horror films lost their popularity following the rise of American slasher and monster films like “Hallowe’en” and “An American Werewolf in London”. But the cult status of Hammer revived at the end of the 20th century and James found himself a popular contributor to documentaries and conventions.

I’ll end at the beginning – the beginning of horror films. In 1997 James was asked to compose a score for the classic early silent horror film “Nosferatu” (1922).

I wasn’t sure which of James’s scores I wanted to let you hear. In the end I’ve chosen the main theme from “Dracula” (1958), where you can almost sing along to the music with the blood-thirsty count’s name.

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