A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Headlights cut through the fog; a lonesome trumpet cries in the night. Synthesizers fall like crystal rain on the parched, thirsty desert earth. “He won’t make it very far, I cut off his arms and legs.” “I want you to stop me.”
Welcome to another edition of Horrorscores, where we transform your waking thoughts into living nightmares. We’ve got a real gem this evening, a dusty treasure: Mark Isham‘s score for the 1986 film The Hitcher, starring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was directed by Robert Harmon.
The Hitcher tells the story of Jim Halsey, played by C. Thomas Howell, driving across America, from Chicago to San Diego. Along the way, he stops to pick up a hitchhiker in the desert, a skeletal man called Ryder, played by the villainous Rutger Hauer, who tells him he murdered and dismembered a car’s driver, and he intends to do the same to him. Halsey pushes Ryder out the door, and the game is afoot!
Composer Mark Isham has composed hundreds of soundtracks for film and documentaries, and in this case was asked to deliver something along the lines of John Williams‘ Jaws. Instead, he delivered a transmission of proto-industrial beats, ambient synth washes, and desert jazz, to evoke a sense of dust and fog and dread and wide-open expanses; equal parts dark ambient, Vangelis soundscape, and Sketches Of Spain.
I figured if we’re going to listen to so many revisionist horror soundtracks, we might as well return to the originals, to see how it’s done, to return to center. To orient ourselves. To find out where we’re going.
Its refreshing to hear a professional, masterful score: such phrasing! Such musicality! Its inspiring to listen to Mark Isham at work – he’s highly polished and trained. His background in jazz and trumpet playing gives him a musical ear; there’s melodies at work here. This musicality, when applied to eerie, electronic soundscapes, creates something truly exceptional.
This is truly an exceptional soundtrack, that will ring the bells of those who freak for Brad Fidel‘s score for the original Terminator, the clangorous soundtracks of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, synthy ’70s Tangerine Dream works, and Ry Cooder’s desertscapes, a la Paris, Texas, you probably didn’t even know this existed, did you?
The Hitcher OST seems firmly rooted in the ’80s, with plastic-sounding sequencers and arpeggiators creating false marimba minimalism. The sound quality of the early digital synths can be a downside, as they were kind of harsh by nature, and also threaten to date this work, perhaps why it hasn’t experienced a resurgence. I figure with so many people creating artificial ’80s works, these days, this is a good time to get past the limitations, and examine the quality of these songs.
To me, The Hitcher occupies an interesting crossroads: between ’70s electronic ambient works, like Eno‘s Apollo Soundtracks, to minimalism to ’80s art rock, and pointing the way forward, towards what would become dark ambient and doom jazz.
It’s. Just. Cool.
With so many people having access to good music production equipment, i figured it would be useful to examine some classic works of the genre. Most of the equipment in our bedrooms is probably superior to what Mark Isham was working with, but Isham had a fully-fledged musical education and upbringing to bring to the table, working with these electronic instruments, which is something most of us can’t say. That’s why i mentioned musicality; the blending of hardcore chops, applied to dark ambient territory is a potent beast. There’s some synthy, soundscape material here, but there’s a lot of classic themes, which makes this seem like a classic Bernard Hermann or Morricone score.
His classic background also ensures that his synths are expertly selected and mixed: these are some of the finest choral pads you’ll hear on this planet. When blended with flashings of furious percussion: it brings chills.
The prevalence of falling arpeggio themes gives this that pulsing, minimalist feel, which also places The Hitcher at an intersection of Steve Reich’s minimalism and proto-techno, and reminds us how hypnotic listening to loops can be. It’s like a plastic gamelan.
Curious crate diggers may notice that there are numerous sections of thunderous industrial machine beats, along the lines of the Terminator score, that would probably fit in nicely with a heavy hip-hop beat.
With so many people interested and making this kind of music lately (myself included), you’d be advised to go back and revisit some classics; to evaluate objectively what works and what doesn’t, to train yr ears to pick the best synths and learn some new rhythm and sequencer patterns, as well as how to mix and master records.
Its worth noting that i’ve never actually seen The Hitcher, but my mind was already reaching for images of the desert, before reading a description. That’s because Isham was engaged about the task of setting music to images, of telling a story, by any means necessary. It’s interesting how his high, lonesome trumpet signifies the American southwest, in its burnished brass. It’s an interesting insight in how sampling and referencing can evoke an atmosphere.
You can be damn sure, now that i’ve fallen in love with this soundtrack, that i will see this film.
Apart from the somewhat grating quality of some of the digital instruments, i would afford this score the classic status, and highly recommend it to any fans of thriller soundtracks or electronic music in general. I say, for the Pye Corner Audio-revisionists out there, put this in yr textbook.
And for the slicer/dicers, there is a goldmine of digging to do, in this record. Put it on yr mixtape.
Hard copies are somewhat hard to come by, so dig around if you want one (or somebody re-issue this), but you can listen, in its entirety, on youtube.