By CHRISTOPHER TREACY
True innovators don’t often realize they’re marking new territory until after the fact.
When composer/musician Harry Manfredini got the job to score Friday the 13th, which is celebrating its 40th-anniversary this year, he already had a few notches in his professional belt, but he was mainly just trying to keep working.
“It was about putting food on the table,” he said recently, over the phone from his home in Valencia, California. “I knew I was going to get paid, and, at the time, that was enough for me. Nobody involved had any idea what we were onto. It wasn’t until we actually screened it and saw the audience’s reaction that we realized we had lightning in a bottle.”
Manfredini went on to score most of the Friday film franchise alongside a lengthy list of other projects. However, there was a time in his life when film scoring was more of a fantasy than anything else. As a classically trained musician playing sax in jazz clubs and earning a doctorate in Music Theory at Columbia University, he wasn’t at all sure what direction his career would take. A fellow Columbia student that was producing records on the side helped point him in the right direction.
It began slowly with a shoe commercial and assisting with some demos. That led to working with Arlon Ober (Robotech, DeepStar Six) on the score for a controversial art-porn film released in 1976, Through the Looking Glass, directed by Joseph Middleton. Scoring music for porn might not seem like an auspicious break for a classically trained guy holding a doctorate, but Through the Looking Glass doesn’t sound anything much like the blaxploitation-toned soundtracks that characterize skin flicks from that era.
“Middleton told us he wanted a really classy, orchestral score,” he recalled. “It was wall-to-wall music forever – scored like a real film, very unusual. I’ve only seen the parts of it that I composed the music for, but it’s supposedly a well-regarded, experimental film for that genre.”
And as if to balance out Through the Looking Glass, Manfredini and Ober also scored two short films during that same time frame that went on to win Academy Awards, The End of the Game and Angel and Big Joe. Sometimes versatility is your best asset at the beginning of a career.
“One of the things you learn in the land of low budget and small films, especially back then in New York, is that with each one you work on, you’ll know some of the people on the next assignment,” he explained. “The small budget family is very small and very close, and we were all out there helping each other. “
When Ober left for California, Manfredini worried the phone might stop ringing, but the Academy Award wins opened some doors. It wasn’t long before someone introduced him to Sean S. Cunningham, producer and director of Friday the 13th.
“Given my background, I understand a lot of contemporary avant-garde music. But one of the things you learn about scoring films is how different the composition is from other modes of writing. You’re ninety percent dramatist ─ sometimes you write just one note, and it works. Your obligation is to the film, not to show off your chops or how complex your understanding of composition can be.”
Though he initially wondered who, if anyone, would go to see the film, Manfredini brought musical personality to the soundtrack of Friday the 13th by making his score come to life as a character. ‘Leitmotif’ is a compositional term mainly used in opera that denotes a recurrent passage of music associated with a specific person. In this case, he bent that musical tool to indicate the presence of someone we can’t see. It was an unusual twist for a slasher film.
“I told Sean that because we don’t see the killer until the ninth reel, we needed to somehow introduce them in reel one,” he said. “I suggested that we only have music when the camera is from the viewpoint of the killer, making it immediately indicative that we’re now seeing with their eyes. So, the score became a character, in that sense, and I think that’s a large part of what makes the music stand out so much.”
And stand out it certainly does, particularly with the chilling “Ki-ki-ki-ki…” and “Ma-ma-ma-ma…” chants (recordings of his own voice saying the words ‘killer’ and ‘mommy’ processed through some filters) and the orchestral swells that frame the boat scene toward the movie’s end.
“The chanting is scary because it’s a human sound,” he noted. “For the boat scene, it was my job to make the audience think the movie is over, and the editors stretched that damn thing out as far as they possibly could. I couldn’t imagine what the hell I was going to write to make that work.”
In the end, he chose to retool a country song he’d written for the diner scene from earlier on in the movie. The second version of the song bears little resemblance to its jaunty former self, presented as an orchestral piece with keyboards, light drumming, and a substantial ‘flange’ effect. It projects what one might call a ‘mournfully triumphant,’ tone, leading the viewer down a path of resolution and effectively indicating that the story is ending ─ but there’s just a hint of menacing undercurrent. Folks that are familiar with the film know why.
It would appear that, despite the unlucky associations with the calendar day itself, Friday the 13th is the gift that keeps on giving.
With a no-name cast (Kevin Bacon’s career was barely underway, leaving Betsy Palmer as the sole recognizable star) and a meager budget of $550,000, Friday the 13th still grossed nearly $60 million at the box office when it debuted in 1980. Now considered a classic, it’s been franchised, novelized, incorporated into comic books, and made into a video game. Manfredini, now 77, says producing music for the game was particularly challenging, given that the music continually shifts for each person playing (up to 8 simultaneous players) depending on the path they take.
About 15 years ago, Manfredini got clued into a fun world of fandom he previously didn’t know existed when he attended the movie’s 25th-anniversary screening in Los Angeles. Encouraged by Friday cast members ─ folks he’d never met before because the composer is usually the last person to work on a film ─ he discovered an audience, thriving at conventions throughout the country, that’s familiar with his work and wants his autograph. He’s since become a regular at these events.
He’s also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his scores through the vinyl revival. Horror-centric indie label Waxwork Records has pressed the original soundtrack twice, and it has completely sold out both times. In fact, all but three out of eight Manfredini releases the label has issued have sold out. He says he’s thrilled on multiple levels.
“It’s incredibly gratifying and monetarily tasty, too. What’s really cool is that we went to Paramount and got the original tracks specifically for the Friday stuff, and then they were remastered by James Nelson for the 6 CD box set that came out on La-La Land Records. I called him up and he asked me what I’d like to do, so I told him ‘more low end, more high end, and clean up the middle,’ because sometimes the mid-range can get plugged up. He added some reverb, and when I heard the results, it was like night and day! I’m very grateful to him for helping my work sound so good. For the vinyl releases, Kevin Bergeron at Waxworks remastered the tracks specifically for vinyl, which requires a different process, working off of the great sounding transfers that James Nelson had already done. They’re unbelievably good.”
Recently, at the request of an orchestra in Spain, he’s reworked the Friday the 13th score into an orchestral suite, which then got performed by a group at MIT (a YouTube video exists). To continue fostering the trend, he’s also remade DeepStar Six into an orchestral suite and is currently developing Suite from Swamp Thing. Additionally, Austin-based film composer Brian Satterwhite has interviewed him extensively for an upcoming book about the music of Friday the 13th.
According to IMDB, Manfredini also has many new scoring projects on the horizon, and, looking at the long list of contributions to his credit, he’s remained consistently busy. Curiously, he says he’s not a big fan of horror as a genre because much of it involves gratuitous killing and torture. He sees Friday the 13th as a murder mystery.
“Friday the 13th knew what it was, it knew what it was going to be, and it didn’t try to be anything else. The cast looked like a bunch of regular people, not models, and you briefly got to know each one of them. It knew exactly what it was, and for what it was, it was very good.”
[PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Harry Manfredini & Fred Mollin’s score to Friday the 13th Part VII: New Blood was recently released on CD through La-La Land Records. Copies of the CD signed by Manfredini are currently available for pre-order at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, CA, by clicking HERE. Please support small businesses during these difficult times.)