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James Horner and the Sound of Horror

For most of his life, composer James Horner was on top of the world. His sweeping music was in constant demand from directors like Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick, and he scored two of the biggest movies ever—1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar. But while Horner was a bonafide blockbuster composer, he learned his trade in the trenches, cementing his style from very early on. 

You can trace a path from films like Troy all the way back to the pure genre work he did as a young composer, with horror and science fiction pictures that are a world away from the films that made Horner a household name. Interestingly enough, Aliens—his breakout film—combined both of those genres; while he got an Academy Award nomination for his trouble, it was the catalyst for Horner to move on to projects with bigger budgets and wider audiences. This may have established his reputation for delivering “epic” films scores, but the real work started almost a decade earlier.

Horner’s first scoring assignments were for films produced by the American Film Institute, of which very little information is known. His music would reach cinema screens in the summer of 1979 attached to a pair of exploitation films: sea monster movie Up from the Depths and crime thriller The Lady in Red. Horner wrote mainly underwater scenes for the former, but his fondness for the horn section shows through during the rousing finale cue. For The Lady in Red, he wrote several jazz pieces reflecting the 1930s setting, yet most telling is a brief-but-beautiful love theme of sorts, selling his innate talent in writing emotionally stirring film music.

Subsequently, the composer worked a two-film stint with Roger Corman on another aquatic horror and a science fiction remake of The Magnificent Seven. Humanoids from the Deep is an interesting if unrefined score, and through the orchestration you can hear echoes of the future, as well as nods to Jerry Goldsmith‘s Alien and John WilliamsJaws. The appearance of existing works in Horner’s music was a controversy that dogged him for most of his career, although in this stage it was probably more attributable to the temporary music track than anything else.

It’s unsurprising that music from Alien and Jaws would appear on a horror movie temp track in the same way that Williams’ Star Wars and Goldsmith’s Star Trek – The Motion Picture were undoubtedly used for Battle Beyond the Stars, although the inclusion of Charles Ives and Sergei Prokofiev is perhaps less likely. Battle Beyond the Stars was an attempt by Horner and Corman to match the popular symphonic brilliance reinvigorated by Williams and George Lucas, featuring a memorably bold title theme and soaring love theme. However, while the score included several pieces that would be further developed and honed, it was still an excellent work, especially by such an inexperienced composer.

Horner’s next three assignments were also all horror pictures. The first was The Hand—the second of Oliver Stone‘s directorial efforts—about a murderous hand lopped off in an accident. Horner’s work certainly shows hallmarks of his emerging style but is much more experimental with only small examples of traditional melody. However, he would next combine both approaches and produce possibly his greatest horror score.

Wolfen was a werewolf tale with a difference; there was no signature transformation, just hints that the “wolfen” of the title came from a spiritual metamorphosis of Native Americans. Horner was not the first composer hired and replaced; Craig Safan (The Last Starfighter) was let go earlier after original director Michael Wadleigh was fired. The resulting replacement score emphasised not only the power and aggression of the title creatures but also their plight as nomads, constantly forced from their homes by man and his need to build. It begins with a forceful title cue that presents the main ideas in the score; a threatening low-register growling motif, and a more ethereal setting on high horns that suggests something more metaphysical.

These two motifs are employed to provide the presence of the wolfen and are the thematic backbone of the score, uniting in the final act to powerful effect. Also heard is a variation on the high motif, which takes the form of four notes—the first three ascending and descending before the fourth is left unresolved, giving an unsettling feeling to the listener. This is what would eventually be dubbed the “danger motif,” and is a crucial signature of nearly all of Horner’s scores (even up to Avatar).

For his third horror score of ’81—Wes Craven‘s Deadly BlessingHorner combined satanic chanting with a lovely, hopeful melody. It’s not a particularly great score, but it features interesting insectoid strings that would be used later for the xenomorphs in Aliens. It would also be the last pure horror score Horner composed, followed immediately by his work on the caper picture The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper. Straddling the comedy-drama line, Horner provided country music chase cues alongside cuts from the likes of Waylon Jennings, throwing back to his period jazz for The Lady in Red. His next project, however, would take him to space and beyond.

Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is cited as one of his best, where he pulls all his previous styles together for a thrilling action score with heart, typified by the huge main theme encompassing the romance of spacefaring. He also composed a second, emotional theme which worked in tandem to create a satisfying musical framework for the film. But for the title villain of Khan, he brought in his danger motif, now in full swing as it would appear throughout his pictures, as well a theme for Spock built on the ethereal material from Wolfen.

Star Trek II pushed Horner further towards the composer A-list as did his other picture of 1982, Walter Hill‘s action hit 48 Hrs. Like all of Hill’s films, 48 Hrs was a pseudo-western, so Horner used guitar textures along with the orchestra, steel drums, and synthesisers. It was a bold choice, but it worked brilliantly and provided another palette for Horner to add to his range.

He would need it for an increasingly frenzied schedule that included seven films in 1983, with high points including weird fantasy Krull, holocaust drama Testament, and the science fiction thriller Brainstorm. All of these are unmistakably James Horner and you can again see the lineage, with it being the same with his music for the next two years that saw Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Arnold Schwarzeneggar actioner Commando, and the sweet-natured Cocoon, all of which led up to his masterful score for James Cameron‘s Aliens.

Up to his untimely passing in 2015, James Horner was a mainstay on the upper tier of film composers and a certified legend in the field. History will most notably remember him for Titanic, Sneakers (1992), and Apollo 13 (1995), but it’s important to recognise where all of these famous scores originated—what a fascinating experiment to listen to them in succession, pointing out every danger motif appearance like a drinking game. How better to remind us that it’s not just where you’re going that counts, but where you came from and how your story began.

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