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(Credit: Thom Yorke)

Music

The classic sci-fi film that inspired Thom Yorke's 'Susperia' score

@SamWKemp

The score for the original 1977 Italian horror film, Susperia, is truly something to behold. Crafted by one of the country’s finest prog-rock bands, Goblin, the soundtrack is so utterly terrifying that it continues to haunt the landscape of horror film scoring to this day. In fact, when Thom Yorke was asked to provide the music to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake, he vowed to go nowhere near Goblin’s harrowing creation, clearly petrified by the prospect of having to match a score that, so many decades later, is still emblematic of the gothic horror sound. I can’t blame him for being a little intimidated. Goblin’s opening song for that 1977 original has been reused in countless horror films and has been named one of the best songs released between 1977 and 1979. What’s more, it’s been sampled by the likes of Ghostface Killah and Army of the Pharaohs and was even used in the trailer for the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Yorke understood that, if he wanted to create something new, he would need to look elsewhere for inspiration. Cue, Vangelis.

Thom Yorke faced a unique challenge when he took on Susperia. His Radiohead bandmate, Jonny Greenwood, had already side-stepped into composing for the screen with films like There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and The Phantom Thread – all lush, technically astounding scores that reflect Greenwood’s innate talent for composing for orchestra. But, unlike Greenwood, Yorke cannot read or write music, so putting together a score for a 21-piece string section may well have been off the cards from the beginning: “It’s hard because I’m way out of my comfort zone, and I can’t read music so it’s not like I’m writing for orchestra,” he explained in a statement ahead of the film’s release. “I’m building it all myself.”

Yorke’s approach to the Susperia score came from an entirely different tradition to the one Greenwood works within. It’s the same approach that Goblin took in the original film and the same that Greek composer, Vangelis, had pioneered back in the 1980s. Instead of relying on an orchestra, composers like Vangelis utilised synthesisers and other electronic equipment to create otherworldly scores without any of the limitations imposed on orchestral composers. Using a range of synthesisers, Vangelis was able to manipulate the fundumental building blocks of music, editing waveforms to create textures that had never been heard before. Listen to any of his scores – from Chariots Of Fire to Blade Runner – you’ll struggle to find scores another score unique or as pioneering.

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Yorke was especially drawn to the latter of these two films. Vangelis’ densely layered slice of sci-fi scoring provided the perfect template for what Yorke wanted to achieve with Susperia: “Vangelis, it’s his hands that made that, which encouraged me, because I think that was the thing I was finding most daunting,” Yorke began. “Normally, for a horror movie, it involves orchestras and these specific things. But Luca [Guadagnino], the director, and Walter [Fasano], the editor, are very much, like, find your own path with it. They’re giving me as much freedom as they can…I just have to find a way into it. At the same time, I’m so far out of my comfort zone I don’t know what’s going on.”

For Blade Runner, Vangelis worked closely with the director, Ridley Scott, to capture the sound of the dystopian world envisioned in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric? The resulting score is a hybrid between the jazz-infused film-noir sound forged by composers like Bernard Herrmann and futuristic electronica. It is a union perfectly captured in Vangelis’ iconic ‘Love Theme’. While Yorke’s Susperia score is far more understated and a great deal less jazzy, it contains the same ambient textures that lie just beneath the surface of the film’s skin, always threatening to rise up out of the gloom. As well as Vangelis, Yorke incorporated influences from the avante-garde scenes that flourished throughout Berlin in the 1970s, and which birthed Krautrock bands like Can as well as electronic artists, Kraftwerk. “It was just a really cool way to totally immerse myself in an area I wouldn’t normally go with full permission,” Yorke said. He also cited musique concrète artists such as Pierre Henry as an important influence, whose experimental combination of sampling and orchestral writing can be felt very strongly throughout the Susperia score.

Vangelis’ Bladerunner score acted as an important gateway for Yorke, one through which he was able to access the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s film. As Yorke said, as soon as he found Vangelis, making music for the project became infinitely more joyful, almost like “casting spells.” He went on to add: “I know it sounds really stupid, but that’s how I was thinking about it. It was a sort of freedom I’ve not had before. I’ve not worked in the format of song arrangement. I’m just exploring.” It was that freedom to explore that allowed Yorke to create what is widely regarded as some of his best work. And, although the Susperia remake failed to capture the public’s imagination, Yorke’s score remains an impossibly rich and rewarding listen – a real testament to his dexterity, patience, and skill.