12-Note Lizzie, the Horror Queen: Elisabeth Lutyens’ British Horror Legacy

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Elisabeth Lutyens featured image

12-Note Lizzie, the Horror Queen:

Elisabeth Lutyens’ British Horror Legacy

words by Steve Kilpatrick

If you have seen Amicus’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965) and The Psychopath (1966), Hammer’s Paranoiac (1963) or Pennea’s Theatre of Death (1967), you can’t help but have noticed the wonderful, yet disturbing music.

It was composed by Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983), an avant-garde pioneer who was, until recently, unfairly forgotten, despite scoring a number of cult classics. She also created soundtracks for great – and not-so-great – British science fiction, like The Earth Dies Screaming, Spaceflight IC-1 and the oddball Charles Hawtrey alien abduction vehicle The Terrornauts.

In recent years, Lutyens, and the role she played in pioneering the avant-garde in the United Kingdom, has undergone something of a reappraisal. She was an early adopter of Serial Music, a technique developed in the 1920s that involved using all twelve notes of the western chromatic scale to produce new tonalities and textures. It was this technique which earned her one of her famous nicknames “Twelve-Note Lizzie”, and yet also made her concert music a little unpalatable for the stodgily conservative British audiences of the time. However, although Elisabeth Lutyens’ concert music is now beginning to receive the acclamation it deserves, her film music still seems to be largely ignored.

Elisabeth Lutyens headshot

Although Lutyens’s avant-garde techniques may have pushed the boundaries of decency for many an English concert goer, it was the very nature of this language that allowed her to pull the rug out from beneath the cinema audience and plunge them into an unsettled sea of disquiet. This made her the perfect choice to soundtrack the new horror films of the 1960s that were set in contemporary Britain, as opposed to the period films with exotic locations of the earlier generation of Hammer films. Indeed, it appears that Lutyens was perfectly happy to lean into her other nickname of “Horror Queen”.

A characteristic we see in a number of Lutyens scored movies is that music tends to be used quite sparsely and is reserved only for the most dramatic or disturbing scenes. The more emotionally positive or stable scenes are frequently left only with sound effects or diegetic music (music that exists within the world of the film).

In Amicus’ The Skull, music is completely absent from the first six minutes of the film, only entering with the death of the titular skull’s first victim. However, the final act summons the full force of Elisabeth Lutyens’ expressive power, with an orchestra of brass, woodwind and strings, augmented by organ and an assortment of exotic percussion instruments. She whips the players into a frenzy of overwhelmingly psychedelic and disorientating terror, perfectly complementing some of Freddie Francis’s most nightmarish cinematography.

Besides Lutyens’ obvious mastery of creating disorientating or creepy musical textures, she also demonstrates great skill in incorporating the operatic technique of “tone painting”, that is, the method of describing words or physical gestures in musical form. In less subtle hands, this technique can easily become the old fashioned “Mickey Mousing” (so named due to its extensive use in children’s cartoons) of early sound cinema that we hear in Max Steiner’s scores for The Informer (1935) and King Kong (1933). Instead, in Elisabeth Luytens’ hand, we hear wonderfully arrhythmical descending lines matching Janette Scott’s slightly staggering dash downstairs in Paranoiac and lush ascending lines as the debonair Peter Cushing sweeps up several flights of steps with his characteristic elegance in The Skull.

The organ, in particular, gets some lovely examples of tone painting in The Skull. One noteworthy use is the organ adding breathy flares for the ignition of candles, or a wheezing, groaning rushing as a huge gust of wind blows open the windows of Cushing’s study.

masked killer with a hook in Paranoiac

The organ plays a special role in Hammer’s Paranoiac and is associated with the lead character Simon, marvellously played by Oliver Reed at his most dangerous and volatile. In one early scene, we meet Simon as he is playing the organ in a memorial ceremony for his deceased older brother. As his sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) has a “vision” of her long-dead brother returning, the diegetic organ music segues into a dissonant orchestral cacophony, anticipating her imminent mental and physical collapse. Simon wraps this scene up with a sardonic plagal, or “Amen”, cadence on the organ, before flouncing out of the church to speed off recklessly in his sexy E-Type Jag.

Music plays a very important role in the narrative of Paranoiac. Throughout the film, non-diegetic music (music that is not part of the world of the film and is only heard by the viewer) is reserved for states of mental anguish, disturbance or anxiety; the only moment of consonant or harmonious, non-diegetic music in the entire film is when Eleanor optimistically dashes down for dinner after learning of the return of her brother. However, although we are initially led to believe Eleanor is on the verge of insanity, implied by the scene at the memorial, the dissonant, disturbing music gradually dislodges itself from her and begins to attach itself to the real danger, personified, unsurprisingly, by Reed.

This ability to transform the sacred into the profane, or the innocent into the perverse, is one of the most enjoyable and skilful aspects of many of Elisabeth Lutyens’ soundtracks. A similar device is deployed in The Skull. Whenever the organ takes on a pseudo-religious tone, it is gradually disrupted by the jarring timbre of the cimbalom (a kind of hammered string instrument, most effectively put to use in John Barry’s soundtrack to the anti-Bond The Ipcress File (1965)).

Likewise, in the credit sequence of The Psychopath, we see a floating image of a child’s doll accompanied by what sounds like a music box, playing a nursery rhyme-like melody. As the image of the doll’s face pulsates and grows, the innocent atmosphere is subverted by a throbbing, crescendoing heartbeat that raises the viewer’s pulse rate in sympathy and ratchets up the tension. The music box theme returns throughout the film, but at each reappearance, it is accompanied, and later obscured, by increasingly contrapuntal (multiple melodies played together) and discordant textures in the low woodwinds, symbolising the disturbed mind at work behind the Doll Killer. This reflects elements of Freddy Francis’ direction, for example, when we hear the croaking voice of a disturbed elderly woman coming from the drawing-room, where she is visually obscured by the hundreds of dolls that fill her mansion.

A scene aboard the train in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

A similar technique is employed in the “Vampire” segment of Dr. Terror’s House of Horror when Donald Sutherland introduces his beautiful, young wife from Europe. She is initially personified by an innocent bird-like melody on the flute, which is accompanied by a darker, lower counter-melody on the clarinet and oboe, indicating she may not be the dream wife she appears to be.

Although not technically a horror film score, despite describing rather horrific subject matter, Elisabeth Lutyens’ soundtrack to the 1971 Public Information Film Never Go With Strangers is actually quite representative of her compositional style in British horror films. Music plays a central role in this ‘70s kiddie frightener and is essential to the storytelling. The soundtrack flips seamlessly from pastoral moments of innocence into dissonant horror as the perversions of the adult world are revealed. This, combined with some unintentionally humorous special effects portraying visually banal actors, including one Steve Merchant lookalike, as monstrous perverts and killers, ratchets up the horror of this film enough to put kids off ever talking to another adult again.

Through most of Elisabeth Luytens’ film soundtracks, there is perhaps a sense that she is reining in her avant-garde tendencies a little and tempering them slightly with the more traditional style of Hammer veterans James Bernard or Don Banks. However, it is in the score to her final film, the Dutch horror/thriller My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga and Julie (1975) that we hear a slightly more unchained version of Lutyens. Perhaps it was the permissive nature of the subject matter, or the higher tolerance of the Dutch for “modern” music, that allowed for this freedom. Whatever the reason, musically, it is a fitting place to end with Elisabeth Lutyens’ film work and leaves one wishing there could have been many more horror scores for us to enjoy.

Steve Kilpatrick

Steve Kilpatrick

Steve Kilpatrick is a composer, sound designer, music producer and horror fan best known for his compositions for the Resident Evil 6 and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City trailers, the award-winning BBC drama Amazing Grace, the folk horror feature Coven of Evil and his opera Flight Paths, commissioned as part of the 2012 London Olympic celebrations. Other notable collaborations include John Carpenter and Storm King Productions, Capcom, Channel Four, Red Productions, Savvy Productions, Macabre Pictures and many more.

You can find Steve via his website, Twitter and Facebook

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