Sound design in film is often overlooked. In part, this is because good sound design doesn’t announce itself the way a flashy visual sequence might–in fact, when it’s done right, we barely notice the sound at all. It can quietly manipulate while we attribute all the heavy-lifting to the visuals: “I saw a great film last night.”
Yet it’s the careful combination of sight and sound that makes for the cinematic experience (or at least a more potent one). Choices regarding sound effects, score and mix are deliberate and well thought out; these aural elements serve to give information not only about the exterior world of the characters on screen but also their inner psychological states, in turn triggering emotional responses in the audience.
As sound designer Randy Thom writes: “Sound may be the most powerful tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal in terms of its ability to seduce.”
And nowhere is this act of seduction more triumphant than in scary movies. So in honour of Halloween, here are some of my favourite moments in film (in no particular order) where the sound works to intensify audience experience.
*the term ‘scary’ is used loosely here as most of these would probably fall within the psychological thriller genre
1. Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
This was a natural choice. Although applauded for his visual compositions, Hitchcock also put great thought into the sound of his films and was notorious for giving detailed notes to his sound editors. He also worked closely with composer Bernard Herrmann, who created some of the most memorable soundtracks in film history. So renowned is his violin screech from Psycho that it has now become somewhat of a trope–an almost charming signifier of the scary movie genre.
But equally interesting in this scene is what happens after the music comes out, when we’re left with only the diegetic sound of the water going down the drain. The perspective slowly shifts out of the bathroom, and a stunned silence sets in.
2. Twelve Years a Slave, Steve McQueen
Not really in the scary film genre per se, but one could argue that being sold into slavery is one of the most terrifying things that could happen to a human being. This film’s brilliance owes a lot to a tempered yet gutsy sound design by Leslie Shatz. There are a lot of beautiful sound choices in this film I could talk about (for example, the placement of Colin Stetson’s harsh saxophone sounds in the soundtrack) but the scene that has most stayed with me is when Solomon Northop, the main character in the film, is hanged from a tree–just low enough that he can reach the ground with the tips of his toes to save from suffocating. We hear Solomon’s feet grazing the ground and the natural sounds of the plantation: the cicadas, the breeze, children playing. As the scene goes on and Solomon still hangs, the sounds start to feel complicit in what is happening to him, if only because they are going on with their existence as though everything is normal–just as the people on the plantation do.
The scene is torturously long and uncomfortable and is meant to be so–a perfect example of how realism through sound can have a huge emotional impact. (My guess is that a lesser director would have insisted on cutting the scene down to half its length and slapped a melodramatic score overtop.)
3. Funny Games, Michael Haneke
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s thriller about two psychotic young men who take a family hostage at their country house is not an enjoyable watch but there’s no denying the craft at play here. Following a disturbing series of violent games, the two kidnappers seem to have fled from the house for good, leaving behind George, the father of the household, injured but still alive. He listens for signs of them. The silence he is then met with is a good thing here, an aural sign that his life has been spared perhaps. But then we hear the unmistakable sound of a golf ball drop, and in that dreadful sound, we know, and George knows, that the kidnappers are back.
This shows sound being used to advance plot–Haneke no doubt made this choice at the script-writing stage, having had to set up the golf sequence at the beginning of the film in order for the sound of the ball to be make sense later on.
I wasn’t able to find a clip from the original 1997 German version but the scene from Haneke’s English 2007 remake seems to be exactly the same (except for the actors):
4. The Proposition, John Hillcoat
The Proposition is a ferocious Western set in the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, with direction by John Hillcoat and a stellar screenplay by Nick Cave. The soundtrack alone is perfection: composed by Nick Cave with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, it brings to mind Jonny Greenwood’s There Will be Blood soundtrack with its evocative sense of an especially dark time and place.
The most notable bit of sound design comes during a particularly brutal scene in the film when one of the outlaws starts singing a simple folk song by the campfire, “Peggy Gordon” (which is actually Canadian in origin). Slowly, the sound of his angelic singing is juxtaposed with the images of a public whipping–the sounds of the victim’s screams come in and out, and the camera closes in on the various characters’ faces, all trapped in their own version of hell. Towards the end of the sequence, the scoring music and sound effects creep back in, resulting in an extremely powerful mix. It’s a potent use of counterpoint in film; by combining a song that is so hauntingly beautiful with images of sheer brutality, the scene is able to very poetically communicate the agony of the characters and setting.
5. “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch
Master of the unsettling and surreal, David Lynch himself states that his films are 50% about sound. There are many notable sound moments to talk about when it comes to Lynch’s work–the menacing low rumble of Lost Highway, the Badalamenti soundtracks, the virtuosic shifts in point of view in the opening sequence of Blue Velvet alone–but I went with this scene from his TV show “Twin Peaks” in honour of the recent announcement of the series’ continuation–and because the sound here is just so much darn fun! Great example of how Lynch relies on sound to create a trademark universe that is equal parts disturbing and comical.
6. No Country for Old Men, Coen Brothers
From as early on as Blood Simple, sound in the Coens’ films has never served only to reinforce the visuals but rather to act as a living part of the plot, helping to drive story. In order for this to work so successfully, the Coens start to work with longtime sound editor Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell very early on at the pre-production stage.
No Country For Old Men is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and therefore not an original Coen brothers script, but it is nonetheless a fascinating example of how minimal but considered use of sound can serve to play up suspense; the film relies on a musical score for only 16 minutes of the entire film (including end credits) and many of its scenes are ‘quiet’–highly out of the ordinary for what is essentially a Western.
There are so many interesting concepts at play in this film and I could never do them justice so I’d like to point to this article in which Burwell and Lievsay talk about experimenting with silence and something called “edge of perception”. In it Burwell also talks about how he altered his music to match the 60Hz fridge hum in the background of this particularly memorable scene at a gas station. (you may have to listen with headphones to even notice the swell–a great example of how sound can induce tension on a physical, gut level while being barely perceptible to our ears).
7. Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick
Director Stanley Kubrick was infamous for controlling every aspect of his films so it should come as no surprise that he put great care in choosing the music. And so great were his instincts that a lot of his films’ soundtracks are forever inseparable from his images (just think of Strauss in 2001).
But Eyes Wide Shut is interesting to me not only because of a particular track but because of the way a piece of music was mixed. Those who have seen the film will no doubt recall the very simple solo piano piece that follows around Dr. Bill Harford, the main character played by Tom Cruise. Harford is dealing with the psychological torment of his wife’s near infidelity and is drawn into an underworld of sexual exploration. The piano piece echoes this–it feels threatening not only because of the ominous progression of notes but also because of the way it was recorded: the almost violent hammering of the individual piano keys sits abnormally loud in the mix and seems to come from somewhere in Harlan’s actual world–it never really feels like ‘scoring music’ in the traditional sense. It is uncomfortable and jarring, putting us off-balance, just like Harlan.
8. Antichrist, Lars Von Trier
Lars Von Trier’s notoriously provocative Antichrist is a macabre tale about a couple trying to come to terms with the death of their child. They retreat to their cabin in the woods, an otherworldly place named “Eden” where Charlotte Gainsbourg’s nameless character unravels. Shenanigans ensue (to put it mildly.) There are a lot of visually stunning and complex scenes in this film, but a sound element that caught my ear’s attention is fairly simple in its design: acorns pelting the roof. It’s a pretty benign sound in itself (and might even seem soothing in other circumstances), but because of the main character’s torment, the falling acorns start to become a source of great threat, tapping into deeply rooted anxieties.
(no clip found–perhaps fortunately!)
9. Repulsion, Roman Polanski
This is the first film of Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. In it, Catherine Deneuve plays Carol Ledoux, a sexually repressed and bizarre beautician who goes a little nutty when her sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. We are given clues to Carol’s tortured psychological state through her hallucinations as well as the amplification of the everyday sounds of their apartment: water dripping, the elevator, footsteps, buzzing of flies; all these things spook Carol and take on a menacing character.
Although it is never made explicit, we are led to believe that Carol’s unravelling is due to an earlier sexual trauma, insinuated through ‘imagined’ rape scenes. In these dreamlike scenes the sound never matches the visuals–we watch Carol scream as she is attacked but her cries are muted out, overlayed instead with the insistent sound of a ticking clock. The disconnect between sound and image here is strong–by limiting and replacing what we are supposed to hear with something that doesn’t quite make sense, we are better able to tap into Carol’s anxieties.
10. The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola’s The Conversation is often referred to as the audio version of Antonioni’s Blow Up and is a cult hit among sound nerds and film fans alike. In it Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert who records a conversation between a young couple that may involve them in a murder. He becomes obsessed and paranoid that because of what he has heard (or thinks he has heard) he might be next on the hit list.
Walter Murch worked on the sound in this film–he is considered by most to be the godfather of sound design and has won Oscars for both picture and sound editing. It goes without saying that Murch is intimately familiar with audio-visual relationships in film–experimented with for maximum effect in The Conversation.
In this scene Hackman’s character tries to finesse the recording of a conversation until the words become audibly clear but ambiguous in meaning. The David Shire score in this film serves to elevate tension nicely as well.
Cristal Duhaime is the audio editor for carte blanche and a producer for CBC Radio’s “WireTap”. She also freelances as a sound designer and editor for Antenna International and The Walrus podcast. She lives in Montreal.