Harry Manfredini is a haunted composer. Like good old Erich from H.P.
Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann," he is an artist possessed by
his art, endlessly making music to keep the demons at bay. But
Manfredini's demons-most infamously Jason Voorhees-aren't real; they're on the
While his pioneering atonal gore score for
Friday the 13th in 1980 remains his most notorious work to date, Manfredini has
diligently spent this last decade accumulating a reputation as one of the
foremost creators of film music for the horror/fantasy market, with genre
credits including all seven F-13 flicks, House and House II: The Second Story,
Swamp Thing, The Children, The Kirlian Witness, Deepstar Six, Cameron's closet
and Horror Show. His diverse, economic and ultimately effective work proves that
B-grade movies can indeed be graced by first-class scores. Manfredini's aural
ambitions were fired up at an early point in his development. "For some
strange reason I don't know, ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to write
film music," he recalls. "That may seem silly, but it's the truth. My
mother used to let me stay up at night and watch movies, and I was late for
school just about every time. I did get to watch a lot of the late movies on
television, though, so I guess they just built up. Psycho, Spartus, all those
things-you can't help but be impressed by the music."
Sidetracked for 20 years working
as a jazz saxophonist in his native Chicago (and obtaining two degrees in music
along the way), the friendly bearded Manfredini was not to realize his fantasy
until he made a few crucial contacts in New York while studying at Columbia
University. Beginning with children's films which he still happily scores to
this day, Manfredini moved on to features such as Here Come the Tigers,
subsequent to his fateful meeting with producer Scan Cunningham. The partnership
proved fruitful, and the Cunningham/Manfredini tag team has persisted throughout
much of Manfredini's genre work, evidence of a mutual admiration society in
progress. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for Sean," Manfredini swears.
"If he wanted me to do a picture for free, I would!"
Friday the 13th, produced and directed by
Cunningham, remains a perfect example of a tightly made low-budget horror movie
that barnstormed the box office to heights undreamed of by all concerned. While
we can thank this epic for foisting a seemingly endless amount of turgid sequels
upon the world (not to mention that ugly rash of even cheesier imitations), and
despite its lacking the depth of its cinematic role models like Halloween or
Psycho, the film has its redeeming qualities, the most striking is Harry
His approach, like the movie itself,
succeeded through simplicity. "As I do with most single-minded pictures
that have one basic direction, I tried to come up with just a very few harmonic
colors and an orchestral palette, in many ways similar to what Bernard Herrmann
did in Psycho, where he stayed with strings," Manfredini states.
"There were no woodwinds in Friday and no trumpets till the fourth or fifth
one. Just strings, trombones and French horns. A lot of people ask me about the
woodwinds, but in reality it was an Irish tin whistle."
Above all, there was one other element in
his score that really managed to raise the roof and the hackles on every
viewer's neck. Chances are that even if you remember little else from that
original Friday the 13th, the echoing sound effect Manfredini created to
accompany the savage slayings ("Ki, ki, ki. ..ma, ma, ma... ) is firmly
embedded in your memory banks. "Everybody wants to know how I came up with
that," Manfredini gleefully grins. "It's gotta be question number
one." Here is his detailed explanation: "With budgetary problems,
necessity is the mother of invention. Needless to say, Friday the
13th was one of the most successful low-budget pictures ever made. Sean
Cunningham said, 'Can you use a chorus or something in this picture?' I said,
'Sean, we don't even have enough money for players, much less a chorus, but it
would be a great idea,' and that sort of stuck with me. One day I was listening
to a Khrystoff Penderecki piece where he was using a large chorus, and all
they were doing was speaking syllables. And of course, there's Gyorgi Ligeti,
who did 'Luc Saturna' in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I started to think of those
things, and thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could get voices in this
"Then it came to me: Mrs. Voorhees was
a person who heard voices," Manfredini continues. "There was one scene
where there was a close-up of just her mouth going 'Kill her, mommy,' and
then all at once it switched to little Jason's voice saying, 'Kill her,
mommy." That's the thing that gave me the idea. Most people think I'm going
'Chh, chh, chh,' but I'm saying the letter k and the letter m-'ki' for 'kill,'
and 'ma' for 'mommy,' see? Then I used some various voice processing.
That's actually me making that sound into a microphone."
The universal fame of this humble but
unforgettable string of gasping letters is not lost on Manfredini. In fact, says
he, "I've gone to Europe and people have come up to me going. 'Hello! Ki,
ki, ki, ma, ma, ma!' It just cracks me up."
In relating the reasoning behind his
successful choice, Manfredini draws an obvious parallel with John Williams'
"Jaws lick." "I was looking for a sound," he remembers,
"a signature for a killer who does not appear in the movie until reel eight
or something like that. It's a long time before you see that killer, so it was
essential to establish something for him, something that brought him into
the movie from the beginning without ever showing him. The audience has to be
aware of what's going on, and the music was the thing that said, 'Uh-oh,
he's there.' You didn't see the shark in Jaws, but when you heard that motif, it
was the shark! It's the same thing with old Jason or in this case, actually,
The FANGORIA reader might pose an obvious
question: With seven Friday fright fests under his belt, how did Manfredini
manage to not repeat himself? The answer is more obvious than you think. "I
only scored the last reel on Friday the 13th 3," he reveals, "Friday 3
is actually the music from 1 and 2. On the fourth one, I only did the first and
last reels, and the rest of it was the music from the first three films."
Mirroring the first two in the series, Manfredini found the time to create
full original scores for the fifth and sixth entries.
The latest Jason jaunt to hit the theaters,
1988's Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood, saw Manfredini share his
compositional credit with Fred Mollin. "The Friday the 13th pictures
are shot and done under a really tight schedule, and it just didn't permit me to
do that one, so they were going to use old music and I would score other parts
that were needed," Manfredini shrugs. "It turned out I was on another
project, so I guess Fred did the rest of the job." Whether another
brandspanking-new, full-blown Manfredinian Voorhees score will appear on Part
VIII is about as certain as any of Jason's "deaths," but Friday
fanciers need not worry about it just yet. As Manfredini reassuringly notes,
"Right now, there's so much Friday music that they could score
the rest of the series off the tracks from the old scores."
Examining Manfredini's technique more
closely, his skillful musical manipulation of the viewer's expectations comes
sharply into focus. As he describes it, "In a Friday kind of movie, you're
manipulating the audience constantly. The extent to which you manipulate them is
the extent to which the picture works. The reason why a lot of scares are
scarier is because they relate to what's gone on before them."
This leads to a particular specialty of
his, so to speak. "You have a lot of what they call 'red herrings,' "
discloses Manfredini, "where 'Oh my God, it's gonna be Jason,' and they
open the door and it's Aunt Emma or the cat from next door. In other words, it's
not a scare. One of my things, if we can call it a Friday technique, is when
it's a red herring, I work harder musically to make that scarier. When it's a
real scare, you'll lead to a certain amount of tension and then release it. Then
the person about to get it feels safe all at once, and the music will comment.
'I'm OK, I made it.' Then the music stops. The sting almost always comes
out of a silence. You're scaring the heck out of them and nothing happens, and
then you get them to relax and of course it does happen. The more relaxed they
are, the higher the Scare becomes. That's what made Jason coming out of the
water so good. It's been done a million times and it will be done again.
It's the Carrie scare you've seen in so many movies, but what I did musically,
when she went to sleep in the boat, I started what sounds like end titles. At
that point, you were ready for the credit roll to start coming up from the
bottom of the screen. People were getting up and putting their coats on, and
Jason comes flying out of the lake that really worked."
Manfredini is deeply in tune to where a
picture is taking us. His Scores are an integral element in their films, a sort
of sonic storytelling. "Essentially, that's one of the things that I
try to do," the composer affirms. "My music tends to be narrative. I
want to tell the story with the music. Not that I want to put 'ki, ki, ki' in
every picture I do, but I try to find either an Instrumental color or a
particular melodic motif that is very short. Rather than laying a big long
stretch of a theme, sometimes lust two notes-if you can use them
properly-can say everything you need to say, and connect the storytelling.
That venerated composer's strong
inspiration on him (and everyone else in his field) is one that Manfredini
upholds. "Anybody doing music for films that tells you they're not
aware of what Bernard Herrmann did, or how he wrote, or what he sounds like, is
lying off the top of their head," proclaims Manfredini."Of course I
know what Herrmann sounds like, so believe me, I know when I'm in a
Herrmannesque mode. You can't help it sometimes, but one of the reasons is
because, damn it, he was right! There are probably a lot of composers who didn't
imitate Bernard Herrmann, and they're not writing anymore. They're selling
insurance in Tacoma."
In terms of Manfredini's stylistic
development, splatter scholars might be advised to dig up a 1980 movie called
The Children. "It was one of the first horror pictures I'd done,"
Manfredini states, "actually before Friday the 13th. It's not a very good
movie, and it's not a very good score, but I learned a lot on that picture. If
you listen to it, there is a great deal of Friday in it, because I was starting
to figure stuff out. One of the reasons Friday worked so well was that I
had the chance to do The Children before."
The popular House and its follow up House
II: The Second Story, proved to be turning points in unshackling Manfredini's
creativity. It's obvious when he says, "I love these pictures,"
that the experience was important to his growth as a composer. "You
can see immediately," he asserts, "that there was more of a dimension
to House. That's the thin that opens up all kinds of musical
opportunities. It's a treat to score a fantasy picture like that, because
I've gotta write comedy, horror and electronics. It was the same with
House II, only that case it had a Western flavor."
The comic book monsterama Swamp Thing was a
good earlier demonstration of diversity in a different way. "Since
that's really kind of a classic story and they tried to make something beautiful
about the way it came off, I tried to capture that sort of classical orchestral
style and not get too electronic," Manfredini notes. "Swamp
Thing was more single-centered and had more unity to the score. It wasn't all
over the place like the House things are."
A glance at his career stats, which find
Manfredini equally at home with all manner of horrorthons as well as
hormone-tweaking teen trash like Spring Break and award-winning kiddie films
like A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, would then seem to negate his being tagged as a
"splatter composer." Despite these accomplishments, the Manfredini
name is still mainly associated with Friday the 13th, much to his chagrin.
"It is one of the biggest albatrosses you'll ever see on the face of the
earth," he frowns candidly. "The music was very important and worked
very well, and Friday the 13th is rarely knocked for having bad sound,
camerawork or directing. The biggest problem is that you're locked into a format
where every seven minutes somebody dies, whether you like it or not. That's the
problem with the picture, but the actual production values were never
questioned. And all of us, to a person-Tom Savini, Steve Miner, the sound
effects guys and cameramen-have to live with that around our necks.
The thing that bothers me more than anything is when someone asks me, "What
movies have you done that I know?' and I say, 'Well, Friday the 13th.'
They say, 'Oh, you did that?' like I'm some sort of unclean person or sleaze
ball, as if it didn't take any amount of ability or creativity. There was care
that went into making the movie. It wasn't just something that was shot over the
weekend. To make a short story longer, it also bothers me that people tie me to
that and won't let me have a shot at something else. Sometimes, unfortunately, I
get a project because of what I've done, and I might be told directly, 'This is
like a Friday film.' if I try to do anything else, I'll be off the picture
faster than you can say 'Jason Voorhees.' But Deepstar Six is going to help
Manfredini has decided to steer clear of
stalk 'n' slash movies, for a simple reason: "Because they're boring."
He is far from being anti-horror, though. "I like horror pictures. Don't
get me wrong! I have no objections to doing horror films," he declares.
"Deepstar Six is about a monster at the bottom of the ocean. But stalk 'n'
slash is just a subgenre of horror films, and from a musical point of
view, I find it too confining. Unless there's something about it that really
makes me interested, that's one kind of picture I just don't want to do. When
you get down to it, Friday the 13th had only three cues in it: a tension, a
chase and a kill cue. How many times can you write that, over and over again?
I've gotten tired of it. You can see that even Jason is getting tired. They've
painted themselves into a corner as far as what they can do."
Harry Manfredini, on the other hand, has
plenty to do, perhaps even too much for him to comfortably handle. As he
explains, "'When you really get into it, it comes to the point where
you're sleeping, eating, showering and doing everything with a picture,
constantly thinking about what kinds of sounds to use. It takes up all your
time." The films have been literally flying in and out of his hands; in the
first half of 1989 alone, it appears that he'll notch up three or more
intriguing fright fests.
First up was Tri-Star's underwater monster
movie Deepstar Six, brought to you by Sean Cunningham and graced by perhaps
Manfredini's finest score yet. "My favorite right now is Deepstar Six,
because it's the one I just finished!" he smiles. But it is one of my
favorites. As far as the pictures I've done go, Deepstar Six is probably
one of the best. if you like '50s monster movies, you'll just eat this one right
up. The score is orchestral, very big-sounding. It's the largest
orchestra I've had, and I've had a lot more time and money to spend, which
Finally, there's Horror Show, another
Cunningham production that stars Lance Henriksen as a policeman tormented by a
nightmarishly supernatural mass murderer, his lines of reality and unreality
blurring beyond recognition. "Horror Show is a very strange movie,"
Manfredini says, at a loss to easily explain it. "Musically, I'm trying
to approach the fantasy part of it by going very electronic, and even electrical
sounding in the sense that I may use some distorted guitar sounds. At the same
time, I'm gonna try and bring in another aspect of the
picture-what's real and what isn't-by musically trying to set up colors that
As he looks ahead to his rosy (perhaps
blood red?) future, Harry Manfredini, quick to laugn frequently and heartily,
can't resist a little jab of humor. "I'll be 90 years old and I'll
never escape Friday the 13th. They'll be on Friday LXV or something like that.
Old Jason will be in a wheelchair. And on my gravestone, it'll say, 'He's the
guy who thought up ki, ki, ki.'"
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