You won’t find an IMDB listing for the retro-slasher film Spikes because, well, it only exists insofar as a photo spread and soundtrack album, as conceived by the multi-faceted Darren Callahan.
In terms of production design, the CD is totally convincing of the fake film’s existence, right down to the retro cover art reminiscent of graphic yet low budget campaign art for a film that, like many vintage slashers, failed to deliver the extreme shocks expected by paying audiences.
Callahan’s album, though, is an amazing little evocation of vintage, all-synth, shock scores, except it’s written with a lot more care and thematic development than what often ended up in a real slasher.
The composer does more than emulate the sounds of the era, from John Carpenter keyboard pulses, and Tangerine Dream swathes of morphing tones, and early electronic sound filters that bend, flange, reverberate and fuzz notes and rhythmic patterns.
The “Main Titles” offer an unsubtle salute to Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), based around a 4-note motif, and layering it with multiple keyboard renditions, a fat bass chord, and brief pauses with high register beats before the short theme’s reprise.
“Walking to School” (later revisited in the more ethereal “Plans with Steve”) is deeply rooted in late seventies slasher scoring, with soft cymbal hits, ambient tones, and a keyboard riff of the main theme - beautifully capturing the standard montage of some twenty-something actress pretending to be a doe-eyed high schooler, unaware she’s en route to a grisly demise. Her fate is immediately enacted in “Early Morning Killing,” with a grungy, semi-industrial bass drone, and repeated pulses – the kind of minimalism that made Jay Chattaway’s Maniac (1980) a love/hate experience for its precise sonic minimalism, and tormenting emphasis on shrill metallic effects. (Overt nods to Chattaway’s cult score are particularly present in the digitally abrasive “The Door! The Door!” and “Knots.”)
Unlike Maniac, Spikes is both longer and offers a deeper range of thematic material, and Callahan makes a point of emphasizing loss and vulnerable innocence in his brief character portraits, such as the semi-mournful “Amanda,” and the music box theme written for “Tracy.”
The suspense and kill tracks are equally memorable for going beyond vintage mimicry: “The Drive to the Sticks” is filled with increasing dread, and Callahan reconfigures his 4-note motif into something portentous of the upcoming kills. “Weapon Retrieval” delves into the circuitous, watery effects reminiscent of Italian shockers, minus the dated disco or Muzak design. (“The Metal Shop” recreates a bit of Goblin with its steady bass pulse, and jazz improv on layered keyboards.)
Running around 45 mins., Callahan’s concept album feels like the ‘unedited’ and ‘restored’ composer’s score for a long forgotten slasher that’s disappeared out of neglect and a legal rights quagmire. It’s like an artifact that, in addition to a handful of surviving stills, is the sole proof of a film’s existence after it disappeared from a financially disappointing drive-in run.
One can imagine the composer was a local musician who just landed in Los Angeles, and using a few contacts, scrambled together enough gear to write a debut score in less than a week on adrenaline and tequila; he never saw the finished film, and with indifference, locked up the master Ampex tapes in a locker, only to retrieve them 30 years later because his agent started forwarding letters from oddball fans wanting to track down the music they remember from the film’s brief drive-in run, and history as a cult rental title in middle America video stores.
Spikes is a surprisingly vivid, dead-on tribute to slasher scores, and while one never expects the music would’ve saved the fictional no-budget film, there’s a wish the composer had a few more forgotten scores buried in storage.
According to Callahan, this is the first venture of what the composer hopes will be a series of concept albums (see the Notes section at Callahan’s website for further info). It’s a debut first release, and is highly recommended to genre fans nostalgic for those warm, simple analogue scores that often showed more inventiveness than the physical movie.
In 2011, Callahan released his second effort, Alien Terrain.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan