This is one of those emotions that is almost singlehandedly carried by the music in a film. Try watching any tense moment on film with the sound turned off and it’s completely lost. I tried to watch the beginning of Monsters, Inc. with my 3 year old son recently. I had forgotten how scary the opening moments were – and my son has never seen anything scarier than Dora the Explorer or Maisy or Miffy. (Noggin is big in our house.) And as my son started to slink down into the couch, I reached for the volume to erase the scariness.
John Williams’ 2 note motif for the shark in Jaws still brings back terror to many. Flicking through the channels the other night, I stumbled on a film noir moment and the soundtrack was just chilling.
The Coen brothers’ first film Blood Simple, scored by Carter Burwell, is one of my personal favorites. In re-watching it this week, I noticed how cheesy the synth sounds used were. Most of the first scenes of tension used these synth patches which have been relegated to the discount bins now. The main theme of the film really holds up well with it’s minimalist piano and moodiness. Then again, they made the entire film for $1.5 million with funds invested mostly from small business people and nobodies far, far away from Hollywood.
I also noticed how some of the main tense moments utilized diagetic music (see my previous post on Diagetic vs Non-Diagetic) as the score and it worked quite well.
Take a look at this short clip. In this final moment of the film (don’t look if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll know too much)
Frances McDormand’s character is being hunted and is desperately trying to save herself. The music in the moments before this seem to be coming from her Portugese neighbor’s window echoing through the courtyard. The diagetic music then rushes up to the forefront building on the final moments. (M. Emmet Walsh is fabulous btw. Remember him in Blade Runner?)
Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival