Watching from outside, a sinister voyeur waits as the frightened ballerina moves ever closer to the window. In a flash, the killer strikes, bursting through the window, and grabbing the woman’s head. A cacophony of shrieks and tribal drums erupt atop a bed of throbbing synthesizer. The music echoes both the victim’s escalating heartbeat and the killer’s fury…
The majority of those in attendance at the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games likely didn’t recognize the spooky song chosen by two women, costumed as dolls, representing the Russian synchronized swimming team. But when news of the performance went viral, horror aficionados were delighted to learn of the swimmers’ off-beat music selection: the theme to Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria, performed by Goblin. An idea that might have seemed incongruous on paper spun into Olympic gold, and, in turn, returned the spotlight to Goblin, a revered cult band that has immeasurably shaped the sound of horror cinema.
Oliver and the Minimoog
With the introduction of the Minimoog in 1970, keyboardists of the day could step out of the shadows and stake their claim as focal point of the band. The reduced size, complexity, and cost of the monophonic synth, compared to its monstrous forebear, spurred a revolution in instrumentation. Not only could the Minimoog better handle the rigors of touring; its most heralded innovation, the pitch wheel, allowed greater control. Keyboardists could stretch notes to oblivion and back, establishing the Minimoog as a flashy solo instrument. The era saw the rise of virtuosos Keith Emerson (The Nice; Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Rick Wakeman (Yes), and Tony Banks (Genesis) who could suddenly divert attention from the usual suspects – the singer and lead guitarist.
Like many of those making waves in progressive rock, Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti had been weaned from an early age on classical music. But upon hearing the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, and Genesis, Simonetti set out to make waves of his own, telling DJ History, “I was always a fan of electronic music. My first Moog, the Minimoog, I bought in 1972 so I was one of the first keyboard players in Italy playing synthesizer.”
Anticipating the synthesizer trend didn’t immediately win success for Simonetti and his progressive rock ensemble, named Oliver. After a disappointing spell in England, Oliver returned to Italy and signed a deal with Cinevox, a label known primarily for issuing soundtracks. The relationship afforded Goblin an education on scoring film, and would lead to a partnership that sharpened their sound and produced a legacy of haunting music.
Despite their musical gifts, fortune played a large hand in Goblin’s success. Without the right macabre director, the band might have never distinguished themselves from their progressive rock roots.
In 1975 director Dario Argento was poised to return to a genre that he helped define. The term giallo typically refers to an Italian-made murder mystery and thriller, containing elaborate set pieces and shocking, violent deaths. The plot of Profondo Rosso (a.k.a. Deep Red) hews closely to standard giallo fare: a composer (David Hemmings) witnesses the slaying of a renowned psychic, and is embroiled in a dangerous pursuit to discover the identitiy of the black gloved killer.
With Profondo Rosso, however, Argento wanted to move beyond the more conventional storytelling approach of his earlier work. In an interview recorded for the release of a DVD edition, he declared that Profondo Rosso “wasn’t the classical thriller. There was something in it that was very strong and new, and a new way of using the camera to present the facts.”
Shaking up norms also extended to the music. Argento had hired conductor Giorgio Gasolini, but was unsatisfied with the bulk of his modern classical score, feeling that it didn’t match the spirit of the film. Carlo Bixio, head of Cinevox Records, put Argento in touch with Oliver who were then recording a debut album, later to be released under the inexplicable name Cherry Five. Argento instantly liked what he heard from the young band.
Though short notice, Oliver created musical cues that would complement Argento’s visuals, a synergistic pairing that ratchets up both the film’s tension and intrigue. Early in the film, Argento offers abstract clues that will only make sense once the mystery is solved. Goblin’s circular melody moves in tandem with the camera.
When scoring music for horror movies, it’s easy to imagine the slashing violins and rumbling timpani drums that will sound once the protagonist makes a horrible discovery. The music in Profondo Rosso is decidedly non-traditional, a jarring maelstrom of synthesizer and percussion.
The soundtrack for Profondo Rosso would go on to sell over three million copies, introducing the newly christened Goblin to a worldwide audience. Simonetti would later reflect, “We invented our own genre and got imitated all around the world.” While undoubtedly true, it bears noting that Profondo Rosso steals mightily from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, an era-defining blockbuster that jump-started Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, and would forever be linked to another horror classic, The Exorcist. Goblin had found their sound if not their true identity. That would come with Suspiria.
With their follow-up, the non-soundtrack Roller (1976), Goblin tempered the chaotic prog of their Oliver/Cherry Five output in favor of gothic atmosphere and the kind of playful funk that would foreshadow Simonetti’s latter forays with disco. Roller could easily pair with typical gialli of the time. For the supernatural Suspiria, Goblin would need to reach beyond their usual bag of tricks.
Audiences expecting a story along the lines of the comparatively cut and dry Profondo Rosso might have been perplexed by Argento’s hazy tale of an American dancer (Jessica Harper) uncovering a coven of witches at a dance academy nestled in the Black Woods. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice called it, “a movie that makes sense only to the eye (and even then…)” Shot in vibrant Technicolor, Suspiria values tone over cohesion. With its odd performances, unclear motivations, and Grand Guignol set pieces, Suspiria is a sustained nightmare, a frightening, sensual feast with little inner logic.
Contributing to the menace is a remarkable score attributed not only to Goblin (or “The Goblins” as stated in the credits) but to Dario Argento, who helped shape the material. Work commenced long before principal photography with Argento presenting the screenplay to Goblin. Inspired by the historic lore of witchcraft, the band experimented with archaic and unorthodox instruments. As Simonetti told the Red Bull Music Academy, “Suspiria was very interesting because we worked for two months in the studio, using a lot of strange instruments like Greek bouzouki, Indian tabla and the mellotron a keyboard that uses pre-recorded tapes.”
The melding of new and old can be heard in the opening sequence of the film. When the airport terminal doors open, the music comes alive, an eerie though almost sweet sounding nursery rhyme punctuated with strummed bouzouki and thunderous drums.
Though traditional instruments are prominent, Suspiria also boasts the rumbling lows and shrill highs of the most expensive synthesizer of the time. The power of the Moog can be heard during the nasty first murder in Suspiria.
Simonetti explained to DJ History:
… for Suspiria we used the big Moog, Robert Moog’s 1500 Moog. We had to rent this Moog because it was so expensive… It cost maybe £20,000 at the time. So we rented it and a technician came and I told to him what to do and he programmed it for me. Even now I’m very happy with Suspiria; maybe it’s the Goblin masterpiece.
The original members of Goblin have since fragmented into different bands that occasionally tour. Soldiering on through personnel changes and shifting tastes, they now find themselves godfathers to a generation of electronic musicians. Umberto, the Pittsburgh prog-duo Zombi, and the French DJs known as Justice have all paid their respects with loving tributes. Though Argento would not again reach the artistic and commercial highs of Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, Goblin would continue to create soundtracks, including a stone cold classic for George Romero’s 1978 zombie satire, Dawn of the Dead.
Suspiria succeeds in spite of its narrative flaws—a visceral experience, rich in texture, enhanced through music. The sweet and childlike lull of much of the score signals that the audience has vacated the real world for a fantastic place where different rules apply. In turn, the graphic violence feels less gratuitous than most modern day horror. As Simonetti would later state, “In horror films, you can have very sweet music that can be scary, terrifying music.” With Argento’s guidance, Goblin understood that simplicity could summon primal fear.