A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Welcome to another edition of Horrorscores, where we transform yr waking dreams into living nightmares.
Today, we will transform this beautiful sunny summer day into a cobweb riddled crypt, via Les Baxter’s score for The House Of Usher, directed by Roger Corman in 1960.
Les Baxter is best known for creating tropical drink sipping, easy swinging hammock exotica for the discerning armchair tourist, most famously in the case of the oft-covered “Quiet Village”. Baxter made about every style of music under the heavens during his long career, which featured over 100 soundtracks.
Three of those soundtracks were for Roger Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories: The Raven, The Pit And The Pendulum, and The House Of Usher. The House Of Usher was first.
The House Of Usher, also known as The Fall Of The House Of Usher, starring Vincent Price and Myrna Fahey, tells the story of Philip Winthrop (played by Mark Damon), who goes to the gothic House Of Usher, a desolate mansion surrounded by a murky swamp, to meet his fiancée Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). The union is opposed by Madeline’s brother Roderick (Vincent Price), who believes their bloodline is afflicted by a cursed bloodline which has driven all their ancestors to madness.
During a heated argument with her brother, Madeline suddenly dies and is laid to rest in the family crypt beneath the house. As Philip is preparing to leave following the entombment, the butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, a condition which can make its sufferers appear dead.
Winthrop tears open the coffin to find it empty, as Madeline wanders the corridors of the family crypt, now quite mad. She evades him and takes her revenge on Roderick, who knowingly buried her alive. Both die, as a fire breaks out, “”…and the deep and dank tarn closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher'”.
The House Of Usher plays upon such classic terrors as madness, decadent aristocracy, and being buried alive, and are here chilling orchestrated by Baxter’s orchestral score. The feeling of romance is summoned with swooning violin leads, which is underscored with tension and insanity, courtesy of tense pizzicato strings (a la Bernard Hermann), and spectral choirs, which gives an eerie, otherworldly psychotropic quality to the soundtrack.
The adventure and romance are achieved with lovely, melodic, emotive strings, which are quite classic and memorable, while the feeling of unsettlement are evoked with an atonal orchestral foundation, that bring to mind the avant-garde modernism of Morton Feldman. Flourishes of percussion punctuate the goings-on, with xylophones sneaking through mildewed corridors, and tympani rumble like cursed blood. This mixture of the classic and the avant-garde is a nice summation of the realm inhabited by Edgar Allan Poe.
Most of The House Of Usher was scored, so there is a theme for every occasion. Roderick and Madeline both get one, as do the family crypt, and the premature internment. Perfect fodder for yr next Buried Alive mixtape, or Gothic haunted house.
While Baxter may have composed soundtracks for over 100 films, only a handful have survived. Archival was just not a priority at the time. Baxter frequently worked with small orchestras, 30 or less, and had less than two weeks to complete a score, with the actual recording typically done in 4 – 6 hours. Feeling was valued over technical perfection, creating a perfect atmosphere of tense dread than could teach sterile modern perfectionists a thing or two. Intrada has performed a great public service, making these grooves available to the public again.
You can hear echoes of Baxter’s score, and this kind of classic orchestral horror, in Broadcast‘s soundtrack for Berberian Sound Studio, particularly the ghostly choirs, my particular favorite aspect of this record.
I personally haven’t seen any of Corman’s Poe adaptations yet, which i now plan on rectifying immediately, but Baxter’s score makes for a superb soundtrack for reading Poe, or other Gothic, imaginative fiction, or as a soundtrack for an evening drinking wine or absinthe (or blood), with yr hand on a skull.
Yet another indication of horror’s continuing emergence, rising from the underground, from the fertile mud of the id, as people continue to pay attention and pick over the archives, giving more legitimacy to classic works. More Please!
Get a copy: House of Usher (Reissue)
You can hear most of The House Of Usher OST on Spotify: