From Killer Crocs to Road Kill: The Horror Music of Rafael May
By Randall Larson • November 24, 2010
Australian composer Rafael May has made down-under horror cinema his own, with a trio of very powerful, very persuasive, and very scary Australian horror movie scores. He made a significant splash with his second feature film score, 2007’s BLACK WATER, an intensively suspenseful and powerfully directed film about a rogue saltwater crocodile, threatening three vacationers in the Australian outback after overturning their boat. May’s score is marvelously textured and claustrophobically atmospheric, giving the literate and well-performed film much of its tension. He did the same for 2010’s ROAD KILL (recently released on DVD in the Fangoria Fright Fest series), about a rogue truck terrorizing the South Australian highways, and has just begun work on THE REEF, about a rogue shark munching on trapped divers on the Great Barrier Reef. His music is modern and compelling, building a provocatively scary attitude over which these films play their stories.
May’s background included the normal piano interest as a youth segueing into a classical education, which gave him the background for the variety of music he would be accomplishing today. In his late teens he began to get commissions to write electronic music for a small theatre company, and found himself setting music to drama. “A lot of this was fairly intense music for plays like Equus and Caucasion Chalk Circle,” said May. “I then built a business as a music producer and composer for commercials. The first chance for a feature score was a nightclub/youth film called SAMPLE PEOPLE. The next and better chance was when commercial turned feature producer, Michael Robertson approached me to do the score for BLACK WATER. Our previous work together had won the London International Advertising Award for best music.”
In BLACK WATER, a trio of young folk – a married couple and their younger sister – set off on a backwater sightseeing expedition, which turns very bad when their boat is overturned by the crocodile, which eats their guide. The trio takes refuge up a mangrove tree in the swamp, but with the croc hanging around, have no where no go. The thrust of the story is how each of them musters the fortitude to work together – or alone – to survive and escape. May’s score opens with the breezy atmosphere of cello and dobro, which sets the group off in a benign mood. It doesn’t last long. When the croc strikes, the score overturns along with the boat. May creates an severe amount of suspense and panic with clamorous, rapid fire drumming, sudden, sliding strokes of strings, howls of abrasive, rushing synth, reflective squeaking noises, steel gongs, a rising wake of increasing sound mass, and other threatening noises evoking a propulsive, queasy tension that makes the scene quite real and threatening.
“The two directors’ vision was originally that there should not be a music score in any recognizable way,” said May. “Their ideas were based on the documentary feel in which they shot BLACK WATER. Once we had a cut, I argued successfully that we needed a stronger music thread; also that the music nature had to have an organic element and not overpower the scale of the images and story. I wanted an electronic background with a solid identifiable core. We agreed that cello fitted the emotional bill – though never any violins or viola.”
Once composer and directors had agreed on the necessity of a cello core, May spent some time creating the rest of his pallet of sounds with which to construct the score. “I didn’t want to be playing standard synth patches,” May said. “I took samples of electric guitar feedback and plucks and experimented with playing them down two or three octaves. There is a repeating element of unsettling weird bells every time the characters descend into the water which is those electric guitar plucks played beyond recognition. There are a set of moaning sounds which are similarly displaced Indian flutes. The cello provided the lyrical content with dobro and acoustic guitars which were played as keyboard parts and then replaced by real instruments just before the final mixing. I scored the cello as mostly three part close and sliding harmonies that were extremely hard to play but gratifying and claustrophobic.”
May’s ominous, underplayed sonic tonalities generate an increasingly potent amount of visceral suspense, maintaining a persistent awareness of the growing danger of the crocodile when it’s off screen with a continually sustained tonality of menace, dappled with occasional shimmers, tones, and audible glimmers, with escalating wails and extruding synth tones. His recurring cello motif, very organic and emotive, evokes the human anguish felt by the surviving sisters.
“The music is critical to the emotional response,” said May. “Most of the effective parts of the score are so embedded into the picture that people feel the fear or horror and don’t hear that the music is there and guiding the way. The sense of scale was always at the heart of BLACK WATER. You had to believe you were stuck there in a small and ever-more dangerous environment with a creeping sense of dread. I found that any overplaying of the score broke the sense of belief and that most elements of the music had a sense of brittle delicacy and humanity. On the other hand when the crocodile attacks were imminent, the music could be extremely on edge and loud, and still be accepted as part of a natural sonic environment.”
For ROAD KILL (originally titled ROAD TRAIN), May contrasted the vast, dry country of South Australia with the harsher, industrial menace of the supernatural vehicle as it roared, DUEL-like, across the highways and menaced a group of vacationing teens. Like DUEL, there’s a sense of the supernatural evoked in the presence and behavior of the three-trailered truck, which eventually captures the teens and trapped them in its careening, driverless cab. “I wanted a strong music character for the ROAD KILL, a sort of possessed and possessive giant truck,” said May. “It needed discordant metallic resonance. There is a continual grinding metallic unease from the moment the ROAD KILL starts taunting and attacking the characters on their backpacking holiday in the middle of nowhere. There is a strong dirty pop element as a language in the film featuring bleeding distortions and vocal manipulations.”
May crafted an intricate instrumental texture to enhance ROAD KILL’s propulsive suspense and terror. “I grabbed a bunch of metal industrial oil drums and dragged them into my studio to be hit by metal pipes,” he said. “At one point I unbolted the front gate of the house to be used as additional percussion. Most of these sounds were recorded and distorted. There were keyboard sounds also fed into a raft of different and ever-changing distortions to become the character of the ROAD KILL. The director had strong views on bringing out the sub text of the narrative requiring a love theme of sorts: a lyrical, distressed piano which feels more and more pain as the film progresses.” Added to the mix are some showpiece tracks meant to come out of the truck’s cab: one of them is “an abrasive trucker’s ode played on very cheap, detuned guitars, recorded into a cheap amp with reoccurring manipulations of screaming and distorted maniacal laughing.”
May was just starting to score THE REEF when I spoke to him. Directed by BLACK WATER’s Andrew Traucki, the film is about an overturned sailboat whose occupants are gradually picked off by a hungry shark, â la OPEN WATER with a reef landscape. “So far (and it is a little early), it looks like there will be a lot of strings in the score with a slew of gentler elements that start taking a sinister turn,” said May. “The film starts at a point of beauty that turns sour, through to terror with an emotional thread.” Aware of the standard set by JAWS and concentrating on avoiding any similarities, May is focusing his score not on the predatory fish but on the tense, personal situation surrounding the characters as they are attacked. “The precedent is a tricky one. I don’t think that the shark will have a musical motif: more the situation surrounding the characters as they are attacked and get taken one by one.”
May has found each of these scores challenging but feels he has been able to come up with an approach that offers the genre something new, musically, while giving these films the right kind of music necessary to enrich their emotional impact. “The first track you produce does so much to frame the film,” May said. “Everything that you can do is propelled from that. In BLACK WATER it was find an emotional language that you wouldn’t question belonged to the world you were in. For ROAD KILL it was more about creating a new sonic world of dread.” While both scores challenged him, when completed they provided him with a sense of satisfaction. “The rewards are about creating the seamless connection between score and visual story,” said May. “The satisfaction is closing a chapter in what’s possible for each new project. “
May’s film music output has so far found itself concentrating on horror subjects; time will tell if this will remain the case of if opportunities will expand to further cinematic horizons. “I’ve really enjoyed these films so far,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the range of musical possibilities are huge for horror. The music is rarely benign and often foreground. I think that these films and their scores speak to the depth of the human condition and human fears. Having said that, my journey as a composer won’t be complete without working on a wider pallet of films to see what other senses I can evoke.”