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Goblin creeps back into the spotlight

Eugenio Crippa/file 2011

Our memories of horror film scores often boil down to the most traumatizing moments — the dissonant stabs of the shower scene in “Psycho” or the foreboding, lurching strings of “Jaws.” In the mid-’70s, though, a little-known prog-rock band from Italy named Goblin helped lay the bad seeds of a different breed of audience-spooking movie music. It staked out a terrible corner of the world full of kitchen knives, evil headmistresses, zombie-infested shopping malls, and lipstick-red pools of blood in underground classics like “Profondo Rosso” (Deep Red), “Suspiria,” “Tenebre,” and “Dawn of the Dead.” The music would work methodically and incessantly throughout the films — the trauma never stopped.

Goblin focused on synth themes, pulsing timpani, whispered vocals, and rock drumming to create the backbones of films by directors including Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and George Romero. A generation of American filmmakers such as John Carpenter took cues from their work. Films like “Nightmare On Elm Street” aped their chilling nursery rhyme themes. But as its influence continued to grow, the band slowly unraveled, shedding members until it was too difficult to maintain by the mid-’80s. Goblin essentially went silent for decades.

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Legions of fans rejoiced, then, when the band reunited a few years ago for concerts in Europe, Japan, and Australia. Finally, this fall, the group will mount its first-ever tour of the United States, performing its best-known film music as well as work from rock albums like 1976’s “Roller,” with a stop in Cambridge at the Sinclair set for Wednesday night (it’s sold out, but the band returns in December). Goblin is arriving to a fan base that’s bigger, younger, and more fervent than anything seen in the old days.

“For us, in a way, it’s a new world,” says Goblin’s Maurizio Guarini, who 14 years ago moved to Toronto, which has served as base camp for the tour’s rehearsals (the rest of the lineup, which includes original members Claudio Simonetti and Massimo Morante, still lives in Rome). “It’s returning to our own music through a different generation.”

Goblin established itself with its work for Argento, whose surreal and starkly violent films were a perfect foil for the band members’ willingness to follow their whims down dark musical alleys. Their masterpiece is widely considered to be “Suspiria” (1977), their second score for Argento. Guarini says that the director simply let them write the music first.

“It was certainly a different approach in that we met with him early on and we wrote the score before they filmed anything,” he says.

In the US, the films remained a bit underground, and though Goblin’s work was respected, its music lacked the exposure of Hollywood scores. It was destined for an eventual spot on the cult shelf at the video store.

Mark Anastasio, who works at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline programming film series including “@fter Midnite” as well as the annual Horror Movie Marathon, came across the band as a high school student browsing horror flicks at the video store. “On all the best-looking movies I would see that ‘Music by the Goblins’ line,” he says, noting the misattribution that plagued the band. “I bought ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ on the same day based on the name of the band alone!”

He wasn’t the only one. As the network of fans grew, the band became legendary. “The horror community is fantastic,” says Anastasio. “Their appreciation for all aspects of horror filmmaking is overwhelming at times. I’m sure that film screenings, VHS collections, horror conventions, and the Internet all contributed to the rise in Goblin's popularity here.” The trend continues — the Coolidge is showing “Dawn of the Dead” this year on Halloween night, and “Suspiria” headlined the horror marathon two years ago.

For Guarini, it all funnels back to what seemed like a period of unprecedented artistic freedom. It was the mid-’70s and the term “prog-rock” had yet to really catch on, so the group of music school weirdos who dabbled in jazz-funk and synthesizers (along with touches of proto-metal) found no style of music out of bounds. Rather than focus on rewriting the rules (which their Italian predecessor Ennio Morricone had done in previous years), Guarini and company simply experimented.

“Everything was done instinctually,” says Guarini. “There was nothing planned, really. It’s just a process of matching ideas that go together, and it can create magic sometimes.”

In current mainstream horror, Goblin’s quirks are in pretty short supply (these are the days of post-Nine Inch Nails glitches, grim ambient tracks, and haunted house heavy metal riffage). Guarini admits it’s not his scene, but cautions against mimicking Goblin’s approach just for the sake of it. “If you’re trying to remake something from the past, you have to take into account all the aspects,” he says. “The way people were taking in film in general was different. They weren’t bombarded by the Internet, they weren’t listening to as much music, and they weren’t as used to some sounds. Things that may have seemed extremely weird back then might seem ridiculous or very simple now.

“You have to keep exploring and experimenting to create your own sound,” he says, “just like we did in the past.”

Matt Parish can be reached at mattparish@gmail.com.
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