Sampling and Replaying the 'Phantasm' Score

How a horror classic became a source of sampling and interpolation in R & B, death metal, video game scores, and rap.

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The late Fred Myrow was already somewhat of an accomplished musician with a classical background when he scored Gene Hackman and Al Pacino’s cult classic Scarecrow and the dystopian Charlton Heston vehicle Soylent Green in 1973. After lower profile contributions to two subsequent TV films and the ‘75 documentary Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience, Myrow started looking for new creative endeavours in the movie industry. Making music for the directorial debut of a young Don Coscarelli proved to be the perfect opportunity.

Once Myrow scored Coscarelli’s Jim the World’s Greatest in 1975, the two men joined forces again in 1976 for the dramedy Kenny & Company. Though not a commercial smash, the movie did mark the first time the composer and director teamed up with A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister—both key players in the Phantasm franchise as protagonist Mike Pearson and the loyal, ice cream truck-driving Reggie. Coscarelli and Myrow had also collaborated with Angus Scrimm (Phantasm’s villain The Tall Man) on Jim the World’s Greatest, further laying the foundation for all parties to work together on a suprise horror hit just a few years later.

The idea to direct Phantasm first struck Coscarelli during screenings of Kenny & Company. According to Reggie Bannister, he appreciated how audiences reacted to the film’s jump scares and wanted to elicit those same responses with a full-length horror movie. Financial considerations also played a role. After finding little monetary success with his first two efforts, the director was intrigued by a genre that had seen a considerable increase in popularity thanks to The Exorcist (1973), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and other horror hits of the 1970s.

Once shooting began in 1977, the Phantasm team set a rather grueling pace to complete their passion project. “Sometimes we'd work 20 hours straight, we'd have a rented camera that we had to get back, we had to scout our own locations, rig our own effects, and then shoot for two days on the weekends,” Coscarelli told Marc Savlov in a 2000 Austin Chronicle interview. “And then do it all over again the next week.”

Despite the limited resources and long hours, Coscarelli and company were able to capture a special hybrid of haunting sounds and visuals on a shoestring budget. Blessed with a bizarre/at times borderline nonsensical narrative, a truly scare villain, and all the charm of classic indie horror, the film pulled in $12,000,000 at the box office on a modest $300,000 budget.

Much like the John Carpenter’s Halloween score had done one year prior, the Phantasm music elevated the flim to a higher level of creepiness. Throughout the recording process Myrow captured a hair-raising collection of tracks while composing alongside new collaborative partner Malcolm Seagrave. When speaking of the duo’s compositions nearly two decades later, Coscarelli credited their deft ability to sync melody with action and several unique late-‘70s synthesizers as important elements in creating the eerie score.

After the initial success of Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s masterwork it took a few years to find its way onto new recordings. Once it did, the Phantasm OST took off as a source of sampling and interpolation—with the movie’s theme becoming a favorite for producers.

Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew were the first trendsetters to make use of the Phantasm theme, opting to replay elements of “Intro and Main Title on “Play This Only at Night” from their 1986 debut album Oh My God. With Dennis Bell, Ollie Cotton, Doug E. Fresh, and Get Fresh Crew co-DJs Barry Bee and Chill Will all earning a producer credit, they employed their own unique blend of synths to breathe new life into Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s masterwork.

Chill Will used a Yamaha DX7, Korg Poly-61, and Ensoniq Mirage on the track, while Dennis Bell and Bernard Wright played “guitar” solos from the DX7, Mirage, and Oberheim OB-8—Bell on the DX7/Mirage and Wright on the OB-8. The end result is a captivatingly dark cut that introduced the Phantasm score to a new generation of listeners eight years after its release.

Two years later the short-lived New Jersey rap group Live & Direct made their own contribution to the “Intro and Main Title”-sampling/interpolating canon on the energetic cut “Rock Bass Line.” With song co-producers David Schratz and Robert Hanna mixing up elements of Rush, The Brothers Johnson, and LL Cool J alongside eerie horror movie chords, the MCs in Live & Direct do a solid job rhyming over the hard-hitting instrumental. (According to a YouTube comment, the second rapper on the track is The Lyrical Lord Fly One, though the first MC is not named.)

Beatmakers and rappers weren’t the only folks drawing inspiration from the opening music of Phantasm. Two years after Live & Direct ripped the mic on one their lone 12” release, Swedish death metal pioneers Entombed replayed parts of “Intro and Main Title on the title track of their seminal 1990 LP Left Hand Path around the 3:50 mark. An enduring classic in the genre, the song has since been included in the soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned while Left Hand Path the album was ranked #82 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.”

From early rap records and death metal, it was only a matter of time before Phantasm’s “Intro and Main Titlefound into the world of computer and video game music. Prolific game, film, and television composer Keith Tinman replayed it in 1995 for his gorgeously dark scoring of the Addams Family Values on SEGA Mega Drive and Super Nintendo. Though tracks like “Dark Dungeons” almost steal the show with their layered sophistication, Tinman’s nod to Coscarelli’s horror classic on “House of the Dead” is equally impressive. The song and the soundtrack as a whole are perfect for the Halloween season—intricate compositions that seem darker than a family friendly affair like Addams Family Values would imply.

Regular Micro-Chop readers are probably asking themselves at this point, “Did any ‘90s Memphis rap tapes sample Phantasm?” Of course they did—several city legends and pioneers made good use of the movie’s theme song.

It seems like Tommy Wright III and DJ Paul/Juicy J were the first to do it in ‘94—Wright with “Don’t Start No Shit” from his underground classic Ashes 2 Ashes, Dust 2 Dust and Paul/Juicy J on their Volume 2 Da Exorcist selection “On Da Scene Wit Da 45 Glock.”

As is the case throughout the rich rap histories of Memphis and New Orleans, both cities shared a fondness for the same sample sources. Three years after the aforementioned releases of Tommy Wright III and DJ Paul/Juicy J, Beats by the Pound/The Medicine Men member Craig B tried his hand at replaying “Intro and Main Title on Master P’s weed smoking anthem “Pass Me Da Green.” Selected from P’s ‘97 record Ghetto D, this song serves as a perfect time capsule for an era where No Limit was an incredibly prolific, dominant force in and outside of New Orleans.

Interpolations and replays weren’t just limited to rap, death metal, and video game scores. The Phantasm theme also showed up in other surprising places—like former Jodeci lead singers K-Ci & JoJo’s multi-platinum 1997 duet debut Love Always. On the album cut “Baby Come Back” producers Andrew Braxton, Derrick Garrett, Fred Rosser, and Jeff Redd replay “Intro and Main Titleover a straight Jackson 5 sample, all while K-Ci & JoJo croon a plea of forgiveness to their former lovers. This may sound like an odd mish-mash of elements, but it’s surprisingly effective.

Sadly, Fred Myrow passed away 20 years after the release of Phantasm at age 59. Before his passing he and Coscarelli continued to work well with each other into the ‘80s and '90s, as the industry veteran also helped score Phantasm II and Phantasm III.

Unfortunately, despite his interesting, lengthy, and varied work as a composer, Myrow—like so many musicians—struggled to find adequate compensation throughout his career. Regardless of the headaches money caused, he loved his life’s work. "While finances were stressful for Fred, music was always pure joy," his daughter Rachael Myrow told Kevin L. Jones’ in a 2017 KQED feature article.

And, despite the sometimes terse dynamics between recording artists and producers who sample or replay their creations, Rachael Myrow is pretty sure that her father’s diverse musical tastes would make him a fan of the many reimaginings of his score.

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