By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived in 1984, the slasher sub-genre was already in full swing as it tore through the latter years of the golden age of the genre. Psycho was the granddaddy of them all, while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween set the formula. In 1980 Friday the 13th helped to cement the future popularity of the genre as it kicked off the longest running slasher series. While all of them left their marks on my impressionable mind, I think it is the Nightmare series that I hold the most affection for. One of the reasons for this affection would have to be Charles Bernstein's score. It is an eerie, creepy, skin crawling work that will get under your skin and make it crawl.
Part of what makes horror films work so well is the music. It has to. The music helps to sell the terror that is playing out onscreen, you can't rightly have some rock or classical playing, those genres don't do much to set a terrifying mood.
Beyond setting the mood, not all horror music is all that catchy or memorable. It may work fine for the moment, but will forever fail to capture the ongoing imagination. The big three (Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) each bring something to the table in terms of music. Halloween was composed by John Carpenter and stands as one of the creepiest scores of all time with that relentlessly simplistic theme that makes you neck hair stand on end. Friday the 13th's score, by Harry Manfredini, has that signature "ch-ch-ch-ch.. ha-ha-ha-ha" line. Looks a little weird to read, but I am sure you know it. Finally, there is Charles Bernstein's synthesizer filled score for Nightmare, a true giant among synthesized horror sounds.
The film's theme, ten simple notes introduced during the opening "Prologue" track, sets the tone for the rest of the album. These ten notes will return throughout the score, as well as being prominent throughout the seven sequels. It combines an eerie sense of dread with a sleepy lullaby tempo.
Listening to the theme play through the "Main Title" is enough to send shivers up my spine. The first time you hear it, you may hear it as just a weird little line used to open the film. However, for those of you who have grown up with the gloved killer you know that when you hear that, something bad is about to happen.
The score is comprised primarily of synthesizer, although there are moments of well-placed guitar, such as in "Laying the Traps." Bernstein weaves the simplistic nature of Halloween's influence with the pop-rock sensibilities of the then popular wave of music. The result is a score that may sound a bit dated, but still retains an edginess that cannot be dulled.
There are a few tracks that deliver an amazing amount of suspense and dread. Pay close attention to "Rod Hanged/Night Stalking," "Jail Cell," and the slow burn of "Final Search." Also of note is the insistent video-game quality of the all too brief "Terror in the Tub," and parts of "No Escape."
A Nightmare on Elm Street would prove to be Bernstein's only offering to the franchise, although his theme will forever be linked with the burned face and finger knives of Freddy Krueger.
Bottomline. This is one of the great horror film scores. It was an early experimentation in synth-scoring, and it still holds up today as seriously creepy music. Sure, there are a few moments that sound dated and perhaps a touch thin without that full orchestral sound, but those are minor complaints when what is presented works so well. If you are a fan of horror films, or good scores, this disk is definitely worth it despite the brief 33 minute runtime.