‘Killer Body Count’ Composer Spencer Creaghan on Church Organs And Punk Rock

killer body count

Between her contemporary reimagining of Slumber Party Massacre for Syfy and the rebranding of The Banana Splits characters as horror icons, director Danishka Esterhazy has proven herself as a force to be reckoned with in the horror world. She is cementing this status with her latest Tubi original film Killer Body Count, which is available to stream on the free app now.

The film’s synopsis reads:

“Mistaken for a sex addict by her devout father, Cami is sent to an isolated rehab center. But when a killer begins to hunt the teens, Cami realizes that her survival and her independence are intertwined in ways she could never imagine.” 

Giving Esterhazy a musical voice for Killer Body Count was composer Spencer Creaghan, who used everything from church music to Riot Grrrl punk for the film’s score. Telling a story through the music was very important to Spencer, so he picked instruments and sounds that would have authentically represented the characters. Specifically for Cammie (Cassiel Eatock-Winnik) and the “Whores of Babylon”, he was inspired by the anti-establishment music from the 90s, so a lot of their music uses belting female vocals that start in pain and anguish evolving into a battle cry. Spencer talks about this and much more in the below interview. 

Dread Central: What are some of the first things you do when beginning work on a new film?

Spencer Creaghan: Every project is different, but I tend to always have a long list of notes on my phone detailing the philosophical and narrative ideas in the film that the music should probably connect with. This long list of notes is partly to help make sure I fully understand the story my director is telling and my interpretation of that story that can help inspire my musical direction. I also jot down how many themes I may need for the score and what each might represent.

I’ll bring these notes with me to the spotting sessions and any other meetings as we discuss the story, where music should go, what it should be doing, and what it should not be doing! For Killer Body Count, for example, my notes detailed Cassie and the other residents’ character journey from prisoners of oppression, to rebels of a sexual awakening. 

DC: We heard you incorporated some church organ sounds into the film, which might surprise people, since this is a slasher. Can you talk about this?

SC: I did yeah! We liked to call Killer Body Count a religious horror. One of the first things Danishka requested was an organ to help bring out the energy of faith, church, and religion. We also realized that there is often an organ, of a different kind, found in a lot of rock and R&B music. So we thought wouldn’t it be interesting to juxtapose a church organ with this rock/pop organ sound? The former will represent shame, the latter sexuality/sensuality. I wrote a little organ motif that shows up in almost every cue.

This motif first represents betrayal and shame. However, as the film progresses, the motif starts being used for sequences of sexual awakening and self-confidence as each of the residents takes back their agency. I love using specific instruments alongside their melodies for themes. I find it helps characterize the themes with a specific auditory color to help the audience recognize its repetition throughout a score. Its timbre can bring out a subtextual quality that the melody may need.

DC: Did you use any other unique instruments or found objects for the Killer Body Count score?

SC: Absolutely! For the main villain, The Father, along with the organ and orchestra, I used a Gregorian chant and male whispers as if chanting a ritual sacrifice. Similar to the organ’s connected attribute to shame and the prison of oppressive religious regimes, these whispers and chants really helped bring to life the horror of the Father’s motives.

For Cammie and the Whores of Babylon, I was inspired by the anti-establishment music from the 90s, such as Riot Grrrl punk and Black Metal. So a lot of their music uses belting female vocals that start in pain and anguish evolving into a battle cry, along with highly distorted tremolo guitars, and loud noisy bass guitar and drums. There’s also a lot of synths and electronic music featured in the score that brings to mind the music of Marvin Gaye, you know, that just “perfectly sexual synth” style music to help amplify the sensuality of the film.

Because there are all these styles bouncing around the film, it was a real challenge getting them all to feel cohesive. This is where recurring themes are a big help, so these instruments can be mixed and matched as the story needs and the themes and composition tie it all together!

DC: You have scored a lot of horror films. How would you say the score for Killer Body Count is different from some of the others?

SC: I never want to make the same score twice, especially for horror! Being a fantasy/sci-fi nerd, I love “world building” through the music, so if the scores of two films are the same, then so too becomes their worlds, which doesn’t sit right with me if they’re not taking place in the same universe.

During our conversations, Danishka and I agreed that Killer Body Count is all about balancing shame and sensuality. How can the score both capture the oppressive horrific shame of The Father, along with the rebellious anger and sensuality of the Whores of Babylon. The Father’s music comes closer to a traditional horror score with risers and stings and big orchestral chaos. But even within it the inclusion of the organs and Gregorian chant help separate it from other scores in the horror landscape. I have an eclectic music taste, so as I was writing the theme for the Whores of Babylon I was listening to Black Metal, Riot Grrrl punk, and Industrial Gothic music like Chelsea Wolfe, so a lot of those influences made it into their theme, which is unlike anything I’ve ever done before— or will do again! 

DC: Did you watch any other horror films to get inspiration for Killer Body Count?

SC: Interestingly, when I’m working on horror, I tend to watch sitcoms and romcoms. So I can’t say there are many horror film inspirations for the Killer Body Count score. But I was watching 30 Rock and Arrested Development with my wife during the time of the score, so perhaps there are some unconscious influences from those shows in there, who knows!

DC: Would you say the score adapts/progresses with the characters in the film?

SC: There are three major themes in the film, the Father’s Gregorian whispers (which act as a quasi-Jaws leitmotif whenever the Father or his presence is near), a variation of the traditional hymn “Let Thy Blood In Mercy Poured,” and the Whores of Babylon theme which is broken up into three ideas: A descending bass-line and organ motif which represent shame and betrayal; a synth/voice melody for Cammie herself representing her grief evolving into confidence; and the belting female choir which represents the battle call of the “whores”. 

The Father’s theme evolves more in that it opens up and gets more evil and personal as it progresses. For the hymn theme, we first hear it near the beginning of the film as Cammie is brought around the camp. It’s joyous and very much as you’d expect a church hymn to sound, then as the film continues this theme becomes more mysterious and darker hinting at a plotting secret beneath it all.

The Cammie/Whore’s theme begins as one of betrayal, shame, pain, and anguish, as we follow Cammie’s journey. It shows up in a big way four times which I feel best showcases its musical development. First when Cammie is arriving at the camp, where it captures the above feelings. Then we hear it in full again when Cammie and Wyatt sneak around the camp, showing that their rebellious nature is beginning to take hold as they complement each other with confidence and power.

We hear it again when Cammie discovers the secret of the camp and decides to take matters into her own hands to save her friends, showcasing this evolution of a theme of pain and shame to one of power, anger, and confidence. At the final moment of the film, the theme appears once more in its Riot Grrrl punk form, having evolved into a battle cry for the oppressed, fighting back against their oppressors. 

I love film scoring for moments like this, taking a theme that we think means one thing and evolving it into something entirely different! I was always taught less is more, and while I tend to be a maximalist composer in terms of production and instrumentation, with themes I try to see what I can do with less to help tell the story. 

DC: Killer Body Count director Danishka Esterhazy got a lot of attention with her remake of Slumber Party Massacre. Did you watch that film to get a sense of her directing style?

SC: Danishka is the kind of director I love, not just as a collaborator, but as an audience member. The lively use of the camera and the practical effects are as much another character in the film as its actors. Her use of prosthetics brings me back to filmmaking as I want it to be again, the way she films action in such a kinetic way to convey chaos without confusing the audience. I ADORE her use of lighting to empathize with the emotional subtext.

I connect strongly to color when scoring, so whether it be the reds, oranges, and blacks of SurrealEstate or the purples, greens, and blues of Killer Body Count, there’s always something that will help inspire the music. Even beyond the films we work on, I’ve noticed she does these tricks in all her work. It makes her films come to life in the way that film should. She is a capital F Filmmaker.

She’s deeply considerate of the process and how every department will influence each other. She often encourages the departments to communicate to help this communal collaboration that makes film so special—especially in post where we’re often in our own little spaces. I went into a career in film thanks to the Lord of the Rings ‘making of’ documentaries, and whether it’s Danishka’s social media posts, or working with her on a project, her filmmaking style and directing style remind me of that documentary and why I got into this business is the first place. She’s incredible and I can’t wait to see her tackle a studio film one day!!

DC: In your opinion, which instrument is the most important and effective at making music sound “scary”?

SC: Haha great question! I’m not sure there’s any one “Ssary” instrument. However, there’s something very existentially horrific about voices singing in close harmony sliding around notes never quite on one pitch. Perhaps the most familiar use of this trick is [György] Ligeti’s “Requiem”, which just about every horror composer has ripped off. But hey it works and “if it ain’t broke,” right?

DC: You are also the composer of the supernatural Syfy series, SurrelEstate, which is premiering Season 3 next year. These days it’s hard for a new series to last three seasons. Why do you think this show has connected with audiences?

SC: Every day I pinch myself that we’re back for season three! It’s such a blessing to return to this world and we’re all so thankful to the fans, to the network, and our production company for letting us get to 3 seasons as, as you said, it’s unfortunately rare these days. Personally, I think a big part of SurrealEstate’s success is its characters. Luke, Susan, Phil, August, Zoey, Lomax, Megan, and even the side characters like Rita, Anthony, Rochelle, and Luke’s parents are perfectly realized.

I’m a millennial kid, I grew up with network TV in its prime, with great procedural shows like Supernatural, Bones, Agents of Shield, Buffy, Veronica Mars, and the like. Each of these shows worked because the characters felt like real people regardless of the story. You just wanted to spend an hour of your night with them, seeing what they were going to get up to next.

SurrealEstate’s magic is that it captures this quality for audiences again. Regardless of what the gang is up to that week, we just want to hang out with them, see how they grow, see what they’re up to, laugh and cry with them, be scared for them, and welcome them into our lives. George Olson, the whole writing staff, the cast, crew, and everyone, cares so deeply about these people and their stories and I like to think that’s what’s helped it get to 3 seasons. Who knows where it’ll go from here, I’m very grateful we’ve been given the time with these characters that we have!

DC: What’s your favorite scary movie?

SC: I’ve got two! I absolutely adore The VVitch. It’s what helped me fall in love with horror, I can’t name one thing about it specifically just all of it is perfect. It’s a folk story coming to life. The second would be Cabin In The Woods. I know it’s more horror comedy, but it’s a yearly play around our house, just horror comedy gold.

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