Mayhem, Murder & Morricone: Part I
The first in a two part series examining some of Ennio Morricone's musical contributions in horror films.
Published on May 5, 2014 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

Anyone even remotely interested in cinema will no doubt have encountered, knowingly or otherwise, the work of Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The man is responsible for creating some of cinema’s most evocative, distinct and powerful scores, and is widely regarded as one of the most influential and significant film composers of all time. Known for his prolific output, particularly his scores for Sergio Leone-directed Spaghetti Westerns, such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone has created music for films of almost every conceivable genre; from sci-fi to comedy, action to romance, period drama to war movie. He is also no stranger to horror cinema and, though they are not as renowned as his some of his other scores, his soundtracks for horror films, bizarre psychological thrillers and Italian gialli are amongst some of the most dazzling, unusual and nerve shredding scores ever composed. His music for the Italian gialli of the early Seventies is particularly innovative, drawing on discordant jazz rhythms, atonal distortion, and various effects to create unnerving, paranoiac atmospheres brimming with shadowy menace and perverse eroticism. It would be nigh on impossible to cover every genre score Morricone composed, so for now, let us just look at a few examples…

Nightmare Castle

Nightmare Castle (1965)

One of Morricone’s earliest forays into the genre was this gloomy Gothic horror, directed by Mario Caiano and staring Barbara Steele. Produced around the same time he was composing his signature scores for Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollar Trilogy’, Morricone’s score for Nightmare Castle highlights the musician’s typically unorthodox and experimental approach. Aside from the haunting, romantically-charged piano numbers, this score boasts some very unusual pieces such as Spettri, with its haunting female vocals. The opening moments – disembodied female voices moaning and sighing in a disturbing marriage of ecstasy and agony – would not only be echoed in his later work for Argento (the title track from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and much of the score for The Stendhal Syndrome), but by prog-rock band Goblin, in their bombastic score for Argento’s Suspiria; particularly the opening moments of Sighs.

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969)

The combination of Dario Argento’s edgy visual style and Morricone’s nervous score ensured The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s trail-blazing success. It kick-started the giallo boom in Italy in the early Seventies, and while proto-examples of this type of film had existed before, everything that came after, bore the influence of Argento and Morricone. The opening scene, in which a distressed Rome-based writer, trapped between two sets of large glass doors, witnesses a vicious attack on a woman in an art gallery, serves as a microcosm for Argento’s main thematic concerns – startling violence, voyeurism, gender roles and the unnerving power of art. With its jittery jazz influences, Morricone’s hallucinatory score perfectly compliments the crackling cinematic style Argento utilises to tell this Hitchcockian tale. Edda dell’Orso provides alluring vocal work, which adds a highly sensual, though no less unnerving texture to proceedings. The gentle opening theme gives way to more abstract and sinister pieces used in darker scenes of tension and violence. As with his other giallo scores, Morricone peppers this one with an abundance of off-kilter jazz numbers that, whilst wonderfully kitsch and chic, are also highly effective.

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A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Carol has been having bizarre erotic dreams about her sexy neighbour Julia that always end in bloodshed. When Julia is found stabbed to death, Carol becomes a suspect. She tries to solve the mystery whilst evading attempts on her own life by a sinister stalker. Lucio Fulci’s absurdly stylish London-based giallo features scenes of lesbian love-making, graphic mutilation, vivisected dogs and eccentric British hippies. It also features a nightmarish, discordant, but sometimes heart-wrenchingly beautiful score by Ennio Morricone, which perfectly enhances the sexually charged proceedings. Equal parts ominous and seductively alluring, this is one of Morricone’s most underrated and hypnotic scores, rich in lush atmosphere and disquieting arrangements.

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Cat O’Nine Tails

Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

A blind former detective teams up with a journalist to track down a killer who holds a morbid obsession with a genetic research facility. Argento’s second film, and his second collaboration with Morricone, has a gracefully sinister score that at times reaches shrill proportions, helping to create a taut atmosphere, full of menace and dread. Bizarrely constructed jazz improvisations and sudden bursts of percussion keep the viewer on their toes, and the music cues that accompany striking close-up shots of the killer’s eye are breathtakingly disarming. Typical of Morricone and the time in which he scored this film, the music has a chic and trendy sound that accompanies Argento’s gliding camera and perverse imagery. The cooing and melodic lullaby – featuring vocals by Edda dell’Orso – a common musical motif throughout Argento’s movie soundtracks, is sporadically interrupted by sudden clicks, clacks and clambering percussion.

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Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

With a rock musician protagonist dodging attempts on his life by an unhinged psycho-killer, it’s no surprise that Argento’s last instalment in his thematically connected Animal Trilogy, features a glaring score. Lively lounge-jazz pieces combine with prog-rock abstractions throughout, and there is a number of shuddering percussive numbers that enhance the protagonist’s sense of paranoia, with their freeform and contradictory time signatures. Dark and deeply haunting, the main theme (Come un madrigale) is a melancholy lullaby, resplendent with sultry, breathy female vocals, and quieter moments when a simple drum beat mimics a panicked heartbeat. This may not be one of Morricone’s most original themes (it bears all his usual trademarks) but as giallo themes go, it’s a vastly underrated orchestration. Due to a rift between Morricone and Argento – the latter believed this score wasn’t progressive enough – the two men wouldn’t collaborate again until The Stendhal Syndrome in 1996.

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Short Night of Glass Dolls

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Whilst lying on an autopsy table in a cataleptic state, an American journalist recalls how he was desperately searching for his missing girlfriend in Prague, when he fell foul of a mysterious cult. As he relays his story, he attempts to solve his own ‘murder’ before it is too late and the surgeons begin performing their autopsy on his still warm body. Aldo Lado’s atypical and deeply compelling thriller boasts lavish cinematography courtesy of Giuseppe Ruzzolini and is effectively enhanced by a dark, eerily sensual Morricone score. Sparse, spooky and utterly unnerving, the soundtrack incorporates breathy exclamations, piano-led pieces, frenzied strings, drums that mimic a pounding-heartbeat and a general air of unnerving, perverse tension.

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What Have You Done to Solange?

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)

A married professor at an all-girls school embarks on an affair with one of his underage students. He becomes the prime suspect when a series of brutal murders, including that of his lover, unveils a mystery surrounding the school and an enigmatic girl named Solange. Directed by Massimo Dallamano, the cinematographer on Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, Solange stars I Spit on Your Grave heroine Camille Keaton in the title role. Morricone’s score is one of his most melodic yet, and often sits at odds with the sheer brutality of the violence depicted in the film. It sways between moments of graceful fragility and dark, abstract and discordant fare during the scenes of violence and tension. The rose-tinted tenderness of the piano-led main theme echoes throughout the film, whilst elsewhere freestyle jazz compositions with quirky time signatures lend events an off-kilter tone.

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Stay tuned for Part II of our Morricone extravaganza, in which we continue our black leather glove-clad trek through the composer’s early Seventies giallo scores, his collaboration with John Carpenter, his return to Argento’s blood-dazzled oeuvre and more!

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey