‘Hereditary’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Composer on Using Music to Scare the S— Out of Someone

Wayne Bell’s score for Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is in a word unsettling. Bell and Hooper worked together to conjure up aural elements that mix creepy sound effects with a synth-heavy staccato married with a keyboard that brings the chainsaw to life.

For Leatherface’s 2022 reboot, Colin Stetson came on board to craft an equally unnerving environment as the slasher returns. Of Hooper’s and Bell’s original work almost 50 years ago, Stetson says, admiringly, “That score was genre-exclusionary and abstract. It was trying to divorce itself from the shackles of the score and sound design to enter a new space.”

That separation of genre, Stetson says, opened up doors for him when it came to scoring the new film, out on Netflix Feb. 18. “I knew it would be an opportunity to go as far as I wanted in searching for the musical score.” Director David Blue Garcia gave Stetson permission to run with his ideas and create a no-holds-barred palette that would scare the crap out of audiences.

This time around, Melody (Sarah Yarkin), her teenage sister Lila (Elsie Fisher) and their friends Dante (Jacob Latimore) and Ruth (Nell Hudson) head to the remote town of Harlow, Texas to start an idealistic new business venture. But their dream soon turns into a waking nightmare when they accidentally disrupt the home of Leatherface, the deranged serial killer whose blood-soaked legacy continues to haunt the area’s residents — including Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré), the sole survivor of his infamous 1973 massacre, who’s hell-bent on seeking revenge.

The first approach Stetson took was to not employ the same materials as the original ’74 film, which made use of metals, double bass and cymbal effects mixed with power tools.

He says, “I took my bass saxophone and an old Tibetan singing bowl and I taped it over it over the top of the saxophone to create a seal. What you get is scraping and high growl scream that still feels like music.” That was his way into the score and would serve as its foundation. “It would come back around and around; that makes its way through all permutations in the cues.”

“Every Last One” is a track off the film’s soundtrack, a new riff that Stetson says “sounds like fluffy bass guitars. But it’s coming from pristine woodwind instruments.”

The Tibetan singing bowls came in handy when Stetson wanted to create a creepier, quiet, silent stalking element to the film. The key to creating jump scares, Stetson says, is to “maneuver musically and remember the meaning of the word suspense.” That meant not letting the music point to a specific place and time. With audiences being so attuned to horror films, Stetson played to that, knowing audiences would recognize when scares were coming through, and he wanted to avoid that. “There’s certain pacing and it’s going to pay off at some point. My approach is to point to the direction, but you never point at the moment. That meant musically trying to set you for the surprise. I knew, but you wouldn’t know.”

The sound was the most important aspect that also would help create tension. Says Stetson, “I always try to employ what I call a ‘foot in the door’ technique which is using certain sounds that hint at convention or familiarity; you grab their attention with that familiarity and then you put them off.”

For Leatherface’s motif, Stetson recalled the comic books – the coming back of this iconic character. “I wanted it to feel like a massive machine was being fired back up again, someone had put diesel in him and you feel the dust coming off,” he says. The motif was big and heavy, and this might be his swan song. Stetson used a combination of the strong saxophone and a combination of hog grunt recordings. “I stretched those out to meld with low bass instruments to give them an animalistic quality.” Additionally, he found a turkey call used for hunting, which he manipulated as an instrument he could stretch and enhance.

With Elsie Fisher’s character Lila, the composer needed to find something that was in the same universe of the twisted and tortured soundscape that could be her flashback or memory. “It was satisfying finding my way into it. It was back to the Tibetan bowls, with a fair amount of woodwinds and the manipulating of the pianos.”

Stetson is no stranger to composing heart-stopping scores. He also composed the score for “Hereditary.” But despite the score there leaving audiences on the edge of their seats, he says each film is different and has its own set of parameters when using score to create jump scares. “I wanted to do something that really could be felt and heard, but there was this element of the other character in the corner that you’re not aware of.”

He compares it to a magic trick, and the eventual unveiling of the fact that there was a trick, to begin with. “Hereditary” director and Ari Aster and Stetson compared notes about having hooks in the score to build in terrifying anthemic fanfares that he says would be presented in this approach. Says Stetson, “By the end of it, we have the reveal of the last piece of music. You’ll find all of those things that we were playing throughout it. Is not presented in its ultimate form and comes to fruition.”

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