What makes a perfect horror film score? While there may not be a right and wrong answer, someone who has become an aficionado on the topic is former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser.
Clouser has scored all ten Saw films (including the newly released Saw X), The Stepfather, Resident Evil: Extinction, The Collection, and Dead Silence.
When discussing the topic, Clouser says, “Besides the obvious jump-scare and shocking bits, I think it’s important for the score in a horror film to enhance that sense of dread that the characters must be feeling. At first, it’s dread, which usually progresses to desperation, and finally total panic, so those extreme emotions have got to be reinforced by the score and musical sound design whenever possible. That’s why we hear lots of atonal, dissonant, and chaotic elements in the horror genre, even in more traditional orchestral scores. Those elements help to make it feel like the characters are at the end of their rope, like everything’s coming apart at the seams.”
Clouser talks about everything from the evolution of the famous "Hello Zepp" theme to what he thinks about Saw 11 in the below interview.
SAW X (2023) Official Trailer – Tobin Bellwww.youtube.com
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: You scored the first Saw film in 2004. Did you ever think you would still be working on this franchise nine films later?
Charlie Clouser: It really is wild that this little indie horror flick has really found and grown its audience and morphed into a global juggernaut of a franchise, that’s for sure. We all thought it was a great film, and we’d done some of our best work, but you never know if something you do is going to find its audience or sink beneath the waves and leave no trace. There’s a million reasons why things can go sideways on that journey, and I’m really pleased that seems to have struck a chord with horror fans.
I do remember that as we were finishing, James Wan promised that if this thing went straight-to-video, then he would rent out a proper movie theater so we could all see our names on the big screen once before we all had to go and get day jobs. It’s funny looking back on that moment for sure!
Charlie Clouser Credit: Zoe Wiseman
NFS: A lot of the Saw films have different directors. When you begin working with a new director on one of these films, how do those initial conversations go? Because you are a Saw veteran at this point and might know more about the franchise than the director.
Clouser: I guess I am kind of the veteran in the family at this point, and I do have a ton of sounds and musical motifs that are the exclusive territory of the Saw franchise, and all of the directors that have rotated in and out of the franchise have wanted me to use those elements to lend a bit of continuity across all of the films. I have to say they’ve all been very careful not to flip too many tables and deviate too far from what made the first film so cool, but I always want to have my music reflect their visual style as much as possible.
For instance, Darren Lynn Bousman constructed some sequences that had an almost gothic style in the angles and lighting, so I’d respond to that by using more epic and thematic elements like choirs and ascending progressions. I don’t want the music to be bulldozing and feel at odds with the visual style and pacing, and I also try to have my score feel like it’s happening in the same place, the same setting, as the scenes in the films. That affects what sounds I use, so it’s unlikely that I’ll use delicate woodwinds or even thunderous epic “movie drums”, which often sound like we’re outdoors on a vast field of battle, waiting for a thousand warriors to come over the hill on horseback. So the choice of using claustrophobic sounds that sound like they’re coming from some underground dungeon is very much intentional and I hope it helps to give that continuity across films from so many different talented directors.
NFS: What is key to creating a fresh sound for each of these Saw films? Using different instruments?
Clouser: There’s always new elements being introduced into the story lines and settings, and I definitely use those moments as opportunities to use new musical motifs and widen the sonic palette if I can. There are a few sounds that are consistent across all of the films, like some low orchestral sounds, a few bowed metal instruments, and some of the weird samples that sound almost like a string section, so those are always going to be there. But since the trap scenes are always unique, those are the spots where I can really dig deep for even more insane sounds than last time around.
I love that aspect of scoring these films because it’s where I can get really crazy and nobody will say I’ve gone too far! However, in Saw X the whole first act is about John Kramer’s search for a cure, with elements of hope and relief, so that was an opportunity to take a more delicate and sentimental approach, using sounds like solo female vocals and gentle cello melodies which wouldn’t really feel appropriate in most of the other films. I always want to follow and enhance the story if I can, so it’s great that this latest film gave me those opportunities to stretch my legs a little.
'Saw X'Credit: Lionsgate
NFS: Your “Hello Zepp” theme has been a staple for the franchise. Has there ever been a time during the 10 films when there has been a discussion to leave it out and create a new “Hello Zepp” theme?
Clouser: Sacrilege! Blasphemy! But, no, it would feel weird to leave it out completely. There have been a bunch of different interpretations of “Hello Zepp” over the years, some short and compact, some ridiculously long and complex, but it always winds up stating the original theme quite strongly and simply when it’s most important. It’s become sort of a signal to the audience that the big reveal, the big twist ending, is about to occur, so it’s time to pay attention.
For me it’s become sort of like the sound of Darth Vader’s breathing, or the sound of the light sabers… you can’t change those! That’s why I still use the exact sounds that I used in the very first iteration of that piece of music. The jangling little dulcimer sound at the start, the glitching digital percussion noises, and that close and strident string quartet have become sort of sonic trademarks of the whole franchise, so I always make sure to bring those out for the big ending, and I never use those sounds elsewhere in the scores.
The underlying music elements, like the intervals in the string section parts, are also found elsewhere in the scores, although they’re heavily camouflaged. But having some of the spacey and ambient bits sharing some musical content with the main theme helps to give a coherent texture underneath all the mayhem… I hope.
Charlie Clouser Credit: Zoe Wiseman
NFS: In your opinion, what film in the franchise sounds the most different than the other films? Why did you choose to do something different?
Clouser: I reckon that SPIRAL is the one that sound the most different to the rest, which makes sense since it was sort of a side-street off the main “Saw Boulevard”. There were elements of action films and detective drama type stuff tucked in there, and out of all the films it had the most scenes that took place outdoors, or in police headquarters, and in daylight, instead of in some dark underground lair, so that affected the energy level and the types of sounds I used a lot.
The trap scenes were still firmly in Saw territory, but for many of the other scenes I used sounds that were brighter and more pointy, with a bit of nervous energy and a quicker pace, and that seemed to fit better with the pace of the film and the actors’ delivery. I loved seeing Chris Rock playing somewhat against type, and Samuel L. Jackson is always a huge presence on screen, so I was quite pleased that we took a detour for that film.
NFS: You have scored a lot of films in the horror genre, such as Resident Evil: Extinction, The Stepfather and Dead Silence. When creating a horror film score, what do you think is key?
Clouser: Besides the obvious jump-scare and shocking bits, I think it’s important for the score in a horror film to enhance that sense of dread that the characters must be feeling. At first it’s dread, which usually progresses to desperation, and finally total panic, so those extreme emotions have got to be reinforced by the score and musical sound design whenever possible. That’s why we hear lots of atonal, dissonant, and chaotic elements in the horror genre, even in more traditional orchestral scores. Those elements help to make it feel like the characters are at the end of their rope, like everything’s coming apart at the seams.
A great example is the music in Kubrick’s The Shining, a lot of which was pre-existing music by Penderecki, Bartok, and Ligeti, but all of it had an unhinged aspect, like the instruments were being beaten mercilessly, and it really helped it feel like the audience was going insane right alongside Jack Nicholson’s character. Other great examples are the scores by Mark Korven (The Lighthouse, The Black Phone) and the team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (The Gift, The Outsider, Fear The Walking Dead')
'Saw X'Credit: Lionsgate
NFS: There has been a lot of praise online about Saw X with some saying it’s the strongest sequel to date. How does that make you feel hearing that?
Clouser: I’m loving the fact that this film seems to be reaching beyond the hardcore fans, and maybe getting the attention of a more mainstream audience. The first film wasn’t strictly a horror film; it had elements of the thriller and suspense genres as well, and I think that helped its success, and this latest installment also stretches a bit beyond pure horror.
The franchise definitely turned more towards straight horror in the middle of the series, but I’m glad that this film has somewhat broader aspirations. The character of John Kramer has a lot of depth, and Tobin Bell’s performance is always riveting, so I’m happy that the writers have found a way to uncover more layers to his story.
NFS: What is next for you? Saw 11?
Clouser: Oh man, I hope so! I love scoring these films and I’ll do as many as they can make. They’ll have to pry this franchise from my cold, dead hands!
Saw X is in theaters now.
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