The FEARnet music crew would be terribly remiss in our duties if we let Halloween slip by without a shout out to Midnight Syndicate – the creative duo from Ohio whose atmospheric music has become a perennial favorite, accompanying the creepy goings-on in spook-houses large and small for over a decade thanks to a steady stream of CD releases that feature prominently in Halloween specialty stores. They've also been a regular fixture in big-budget horror attractions – including Universal's Halloween Horror Nights – and numerous movie and game soundtracks including the first officially licensed music for Dungeons and Dragons games.
Described by founder Edward Douglas as “soundtracks to movies that do not exist,” their musical style is Gothic in the purest sense, invoking mist-shrouded estates, candlelit corridors and bolted attic doors concealing unspeakable horrors from beyond. Often with haunting piano and organ themes at the center, Douglas and creative partner Gavin Goszka build delicate layers of sampled orchestra sections and warm synth pads, then jolt the entire mixture with realistic sound effects, voice actors and surreal electronic textures. The end result won't hook you with a catchy, hummable melody, but instead immerses you in a sonic environment, freeing your mind to venture into a land of shadows.
“The idea behind Midnight Syndicate has always been to make CDs that spark listeners' imaginations and transport them to worlds and movies of their own creation,” Douglas explains. “We want to give enough 'information' to set the scene and then let you fill in the details.”
But early next year, those imaginary movies – one of them, at least – will finally become reality with the release of the first Midnight Syndicate feature film, The Dead Matter. With makeup FX wizard-turned-director Robert Kurtzman (Wishmaster) at the helm, and genre icons Tom Savini and Andrew Divoff heading the cast, the film could prove to be the next step in the group's evolution as creators of horror entertainment.
But that doesn't mean they've ended their tradition of releasing a new Halloween CD almost every year. Although an official soundtrack to the film is coming soon, The Dead Matter: Cemetery Gates is out now. Composed primarily of additional material that builds on the themes of the film itself, Cemetery Gates is more than just a warmup for the movie, but works well as a standalone Halloween album on its own.
Douglas took time out during his busy Halloween schedule to tell FEARnet the chilling true story behind The Dead Matter...
FEARnet: The Dead Matter is a remake of a low-budget film you made in 1996. What's the story behind the old and new versions?
EDWARD D: The original The Dead Matter came about when myself and fellow John Carroll graduates Mark Rakocy and Jeff Kasunic decided to create Entity Productions, an entertainment company that would produce feature films and multimedia productions in the Northeastern Ohio region. I was heavily influenced by the Tales from the Crypt comics, Stephen King, horror films, Dungeons & Dragons, and ghost stories. Virtually all of the films I had directed and scored to that point were horror and suspense-themed, so it was from all that that the original production concept for The Dead Matter came about.
The story which blends vampires, zombies, and occult relics was co-written by myself and Tony Demci (as was the remake). I also directed and scored the film. Mark was co-producer, DP, and practical FX, Jeff Kasunic acted and did CG.
We shot on Super-VHS cameras on a budget of about $2000, had a skeleton crew of zero, one, or two people, and had to call in every favor we could just to get it done. From family, friends, a cooperative cast, and the JCU Communications Department, to the local Jaycees. I remember running hundreds of feet of extension cords from my parents house to the woods in their backyard where we were shooting and the cast huddling around the two halogen lamps we were using for lighting to try and keep warm during one of the coldest Octobers in memory.
We knew that this  version of the movie would be limited because of the technical specs... so our goal was always to use it to gain experience and put ourselves in a position to remake it with a budget. In the ten years that followed I formed Midnight Syndicate, Jeff went on to animation at DreamWorks, and Mark went on to animation and titles at Hammer Filmworks in LA. In 2005, Robert Kurtzman moved back to Ohio and formed Precinct 13 in Mansfield a few miles south of us, we teamed up with him and Gary Jones on another project, and that lead to the remake. I directed and co-produced the new The Dead Matter, Mark was an Associate Producer and did computer graphics and titles. Christopher Robichaud (who was in the original as well as a voiceover artist for several Midnight Syndicate CDs) reprised his role. Between Mark, Tony, Chris, and myself on set together there was a certain surreal quality there and a lot of reminiscing about how it started all those years ago.
FN: Which was your first ambition – to make movies or music? Or did they go hand-in-hand?
ED: Hand-in-hand. I feel very fortunate to have been able to combine both in a variety of ways over the years. Music has always been a part of my life, from school and rock bands I was in through Midnight Syndicate... it‘s always been a constant in my life. Likewise, Spielberg and Lucas had me dreaming of filmmaking and picking up the video camera as a kid. Composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer introduced me to the world of movie scoring and director/composer John Carpenter served as a true inspiration to me as someone who showed that you could do both jobs well.
My first original music was a demo tape for Midnight Syndicate in 1991... after that it was scores to short horror films I directed in college. That lead to my score to the original The Dead Matter from which I would take ideas and use them in my contributions to the first three Midnight Syndicate CDs. In 1998, Mark, Jeff, and Chris helped me produce a Midnight Syndicate live show where we blended music from the self-titled CD with a mix of original films, a score played by a live band, and theatrics. It was fun in that it blended my love for music, theatre, and film simultaneously.
FN: There are a lot of genre greats attached to this movie, including Tom Savini, Robert Kurtzman and Andrew Divoff. How did you come to work with them?
ED: Bob contacted me in 2006 to score his film The Rage. It was through that collaboration that I met Gary Jones and some of the other artists at Precinct 13. After a visit to the set of The Rage, and seeing how Gary and Bob ran their shows, I knew they were the perfect match for The Dead Matter remake. I pitched Bob the project after The Rage wrapped production, he liked it, and the rest is history.
Tom and I met many years ago at a horror convention. I was a fan asking for an autograph on my Dawn of the Dead poster and introduced him to Midnight Syndicate’s music, which he really liked. A friendship developed from there. He’s been a great supporter of Midnight Syndicate‘s work. When it was time for the first “Midnight Syndicate movie,” there was never any doubt in my mind that Tom had to be a part of it.
The Dead Matter is a good, story-based horror film that’s different from a lot of what is coming out nowadays (very classic, 60’s/70’s horror only with some modern twists). I think that appealed to a lot of the other veterans we got involved with the project. I really enjoyed Wishmaster and Andrew’s work on Lost, but it was his performance on The Rage that told me he’d be perfect for the role of our lead villain, Vellich. He brought a great intensity to the set, that the actors fed off of. Likewise, I was familiar with Jason Carter from Babylon 5 and Angel, but it was his work in other films like Dead End Road that made me reach out him initially. He was awesome - a truly talented and incredibly versatile actor.
Another highlight was working with horror host legends Count Gore DeVol and “Big Chuck” Schodowski, both long-time supporters of Midnight Syndicate. As Cleveland’s horror host for over 50 years, Big Chuck was responsible for my early education in horror films. Like all the veterans we worked with on the project, they delivered and were fun to work with.
FN: Most of the music on The Dead Matter: Cemetery Gates is not taken from the soundtrack, but instead expands on the movie's themes. What inspired you to write a whole album of additional music based on the movie?
ED: Gavin and I wanted to do a new Midnight Syndicate CD for 2008. It had been three years since The 13th Hour and we were anxious to get back to doing an all-original Syndicate release that wasn’t a movie soundtrack. When we were tossing around ideas for the theme for the new disc we thought, “why not the The Dead Matter movie?” Here we had a movie about vampires, zombies, mysticism, and an Egyptian occult relic … perfect material for a Midnight Syndicate disc. We liked it because, although it gave us familiar ground to work from, it also allowed us to explore new territory and bring back a splash of some fantasy elements reminiscent of our Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack. The bonus track “Lost” was actually written for the movie and will appear in it.
FN: Your music has been an integral part of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights. Have you ever discussed the prospect of working on a film with Universal?
ED: Not yet, but we are in discussions about another project tied to the Halloween Horror Nights 20th Anniversary in 2010. We hope to be announcing those plans sometime next year.
FN: We heard you're a fan of '70s & '80s metal. Who are some of your favorite metal bands?
ED: King Diamond and Black Sabbath are not only favorites but also big musical influences for Midnight Syndicate. Metallica, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Dio, Def Leppard, Kiss, Twisted Sister, Alice Cooper… there‘s so many from that era that it’s difficult to pick. I’m a little more particular as far as newer metal artists go, but Rob Zombie, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Rammstein, Van Helsing’s Curse, and Nightwish are right up there for me.
I had the good fortune of hosting a “vintage metal” radio show on a college station for twelve years. The music coming out in the '70s and '80s (especially metal in the '80s) was exciting, and programming that show exposed me to even more in that genre then I would have otherwise.
FN: Have you planned or considered collaborating with any metal artists?
ED: We’d definitely like to do that. One of the highlights of my career was going to a King Diamond show with Gavin and hearing our entire Born of the Night CD play as an intro before he took the stage. At first we couldn’t believe it since we had no idea that he was even familiar with our work (we were just excited to be seeing him in concert!). We later found out that our music was being used as their intro for the entire tour. To have a band who has been a big musical influence to you acknowledge that they enjoy your work is an awesome feeling.
FN: Although you have worked in many multimedia shows, it's been a while since Midnight Syndicate performed live. Have you considered going onstage again?
ED: Yes, we discuss it every year. What held us back in the past has been our production schedule. If we do a live show, we want it to be a very visual show complete with theatrics and original film. We need to have the time to dedicate to it in order to do it right. It is something we are considering though.
Lastly, since FEAR is part of our name, we like to ask artists who deal in horror what scares them most. What's your fear?
ED: A few years ago, my answer would be children, Village of the Damned-style, or ghosts that just “appear” like ones in Sixth Sense. Now that I have two children of my own (two daughters) my fears revolve around their safety and well-being. I don‘t even like thinking about it.
Midnight Syndicate is all about escapism. There are a lot of bad things happening in the world today. My hope is that our work will allow people to escape that if even just for an hour or so. That’s why I love Halloween so much. It’s the time of the year where everyone feels free to explore the darker corners of their imaginations and have fun doing it.