The too-scary-for-Hollywood tale of Coil’s Hellraiser soundtrack

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A horror movie is only as good as its soundtrack. From the truly terrifying use of dissonant pieces by Lygeti and Penderecki in The Shining to The Haxan Cloak’s eerie themes for the horrific summer-festival grotesqueries in Midsommar, a horror film just isn’t complete without the sonic element to make the terror really come alive. Even Philip Glass’ score for the first iteration of Candyman—a film that the composer admitted to not even really liking all that much—gives it a thoroughly eerie atmosphere. There are exceptions—like the generally playful musical accompaniment to the original Wicker Man, which is a horror film only insomuch as the final scene is one that makes its impact in shock and surprise. But the scarier the soundtrack, the scarier the film.

It’s precisely for this reason that Hollywood has increasingly looked toward avant garde music makers to help sell the creeping dread and menace of slasher flicks and exercises in sonic horror. The Haxan Cloak, as mentioned above, has been a more active composer in film, as is Australian noise artist Ben Frost and minimalist composer/saxophonist Colin Stetson. Likewise, Pharmakon scored 2016’s The Transfiguration and consulted on last year’s Sound of Metal (not a horror movie, but you get the idea).

Noise, industrial and dark ambient artists are natural choices for conjuring skin-crawling vibes—it’s pretty much what that music is supposed to do, so why not pair it with some scary visuals to boot? But it’s not a new idea by any means. Well before contemporary noise-makers were getting in on the film-score scene, industrial pioneers Coil had composed their own score for the studio adaptation of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser—a soundtrack whose storied history became the stuff of urban legend.

Before I go any further, though, I might as well go ahead and address this very crucial fact: The soundtrack you hear on the actual 1987 film (which spawned nine sequels!) is not the one Coil wrote and recorded, but in fact one composed by Christopher Young. Early on in the process of development of the film, Clive Barker—director of the film and author of the novella it’s based on, The Hellbound Heart—had become friends with the members of Coil, and had initially wanted the UK industrial pioneers to be the ones to score his film. Obviously that would have been amazing, but that’s not what happened. Instead the studio opted for Young to take on the project and rejected Coil’s score. There are plenty of perfectly plausible reasons why that might be the case, but there’s one particular theory that’s endured over the years: It’s too scary.

It’s not necessarily that hard to believe. Coil’s output up to that point was pretty unsettling, even without the added element of Cenobites. “Blood from the Air” off their 1986 masterpiece, released shortly before they recorded their initial sketches for Hellraiser, is one of the most blood-curdling industrial tracks I’ve certainly heard, and choice moments from 1984’s Scatology aren’t much less nightmare-inducing in their oozing abrasion. Barker himself even said Coil is “the only group I’ve heard on disc, whose records I’ve taken off because they made my bowels churn,” a quote that adorned their eventual commercial release of The Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser.

So sure, Coil absolutely could have made a score that was too scary for the film’s producers, and what they did record is indeed unsettling, if mostly in subtle ways. The score is inspired in part by those of Carrie and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a combination meant to evoke romantic accessibility as much as sheer terror. “Box Theme” is one of the most chilling moments here, built around a music box motif that proves how fucked-up innocent, childlike themes end up sounding when you put them in a macabre context. The sharp stabs of bass in “No New World” evoke something grimly ominous without much in the way of escalation. And “Attack of the Sennapods” is basically video-game noise villainy, somehow both terrifying and super fun all at once. For what it’s worth, the “Main Title” music would have translated wonderfully into a proper song had the band wanted to go into that direction, but considering their next project was 1991’s Love’s Secret Domain, what they did instead was much weirder.

Coil’s unfinished score for Hellraiser, a set of tracks that members of the group have said weren’t much more than a demo, are indeed scary. But that’s not why it was rejected—nothing here is really on par with a piece like “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” (very little is) and that was prominently featured in a big-budget studio production. No, the real answer is more predictable and mundane. Despite Clive Barker’s wish to have Coil score the film, New Line Cinema simply wanted to choose their own composer.

In an interview with The Quietus, Coil’s Stephen Thrower explained what happened: “The production company had their own composer waiting in the wings and when Clive got into difficulties with Hellraiser because there wasn’t enough money to shoot the effects that he wanted to achieve he turned to the producers and showed them a rough cut of the effects scenes. As far as I understand the conversation went something like ‘Oh we didn’t think this was going to be as commercial as it is. Re-shoot those effects scenes and here’s some more money. One stipulation, we want our man to do the score.'”

Disappointing? Certainly. Who wouldn’t want the bragging rights of saying they made music too scary for one of horror’s most celebrated films? That’s a badge of badassery that nobody can take from you. But then again, Coil’s entire career was a challenge to what the mainstream wanted or accepted. So maybe we can go ahead and call it half-true.

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