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Film: Still 'orrible after all these years

James Bernard is a survivor of the house of horror films of the Fifties and Sixties; and now, as Steven Poole discovers, he's all set to make your flesh creep again with his new score to Murnau's classic silent vampire movie, `Nosferatu'.

The composer-in-residence at the house of horror is back in business. Writing music to make your flesh creep is his speciality, and he is rumblingly passionate about it: "If Dracula's approaching a victim, and there's a lovely nubile lady in bed, and she's restless, and the window's open, and she's got the maid to come and take all the garlic flowers out of the room - suddenly you cut from her to the window, and there is Christopher Lee as Count Dracula... You've got to have a great `Oh-Woaaah!' at that moment. If you try to be subtle, it simply doesn't work..."

Resplendent in a green jogging suit and wide-collared floral shirt, the dapper, silver-haired speaker leans back on his sofa, sips at a glass of blood-red wine, and gives a little low chuckle. This is James Bernard, an unsung giant among film composers, who wrote the supernatural soundtracks for countless cult-classic Hammer films in the 1950s and 1960s. Now he has written a beautifully lush and brooding new score for FW Murnau's silent masterpiece Nosferatu. First seen 75 years ago, it is about to be reborn this Monday at the Royal Festival Hall, when the City of Prague Philharmonic premieres Bernard's new score to accompany a "Channel Four Silents" screening of a new print. Lost shots, missing for decades, have been restored, as have the original tints and tones, while the dialogue titles have been newly translated into English and hand-lettered after the flowing, Gothic style of the German originals (drawn by the film's visionary designer, Albin Grau).

Thanks to legal action by Bram Stoker's widow, Nosferatu was almost buried at birth. Its obvious debts to Dracula, a novel to which Murnau had not acquired the rights, so impressed the court that it ordered all prints and negatives to be destroyed. Luckily, murdering the undead is not so easy: one print survived, and was circulated in bootleg versions. But Monday's screening will be the first time the film has been seen in Britain in its original form.

A film fan from the first time he ever went to a movie ("Tarzan, I think it was"), Bernard's musical precocity was clearly set on a collision course with the world of the silver screen. But when he left the Royal College of Music, where he had gone to study composition with Herbert Howells after spending his National Service in the RAF, translating intercepted Japanese war communications for the Allied code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, his future course of action was far from clear. "I was summoned before the registrar, who I think was rather a disappointed composer. `Now what are you going to do when you leave?' he asked; `I expect you'll be teaching.' I said, `No, I don't want to teach, I'm going to compose', and he laughed me to scorn! `You can't earn a living by composing! Only people like Vaughan Williams and Walton and Britten can do that.' So I kept quiet..."

It was Britten, in fact, who saved him from the graduate blues. He'd first met the composer in his final year at Wellington, when Britten came to visit the school's art teacher, who was designing the sets for the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes. Bernard had written a showy piece of music for piano and percussion, but it left one boy with nothing to bang - so Britten invented a new instrument especially for the occasion. "We went out for a walk, and he saw a discarded drainpipe. He picked it up, banged it with a stone and it made a very good resonant sound, so he said: `I think you should use that!' "

Now, on leaving the RCM, Bernard received a rescue call from his old mentor. After spending a year working as Britten's "dogsbody" in Aldeburgh during the writing of Billy Budd ("a wonderful baptism as a working composer - it really taught me the hard work involved in writing a huge score"), Bernard moved back to London and almost immediately managed to win himself his first (and only) Oscar with the "motion picture story" for an atomic suspense thriller, Seven Days to Noon, that he'd dreamt up with his friend, the film critic and screenwriter Paul Dehn. Meanwhile, he had drifted into writing music for radio. One of his radio scores, for a production of Webster's Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, was played to a Hammer producer who needed to replace a sick composer on a new sci- fi venture. And so Bernard was commissioned to score his first movie: Quatermass and the Pit.

Thus began a working relationship that spanned more than 20 films: music by James Bernard provides the aural thrills for such Hammer classics as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out. "I got to do some of my favourite boyhood books," he smiles, although his close relationship with a film house whose output was then seen to be shocking and lewd meant he was not asked to do much else, while the Hollywood Academy consistently overlooked his work.

For all his expertise in suggesting the welling forces of inhumanity, Bernard is always keen to latch on to notes of passion and romance. The score for Nosferatu shows this wonderfully.

Bernard has a decidedly Manichean perspective on the world - "I do believe most sincerely in God and transcendental powers of good and evil" - and this is illustrated powerfully at the film's climax, when the evil Nosferatu theme is subsumed by the forces of good, dragged into place as a concordant bass note in the final blissful major cadence.

Bernard admits that he found the work a challenge: he had not scored a film for 10 years, and since Nosferatu is a silent movie, there was no let-up; it had to be filled with music: "There's no horses' hooves or claps of thunder - so it's all up to you!"

As the man who single-handedly invented many of the musical mainstays of horror-movie scoring, Bernard is not shy about proclaiming the influence of his early works. "Several people have pointed out to me that I was way ahead of Bernard Herrmann in these early science-fiction films for Hammer."

So what does the future hold for James Bernard? Eyes glinting, he confides that there are a couple of potential new movie projects "in the wind", and he is reconsidering an alternative form of dramatic music. "People always say to me I should write an opera, and I say: `Well, it would take the rest of my life.' But then I'm aiming to live to 120, so maybe I'll write three operas! I'm getting younger each year now, it's my new scheme." Lesser men would need to drink the blood of virgins - but then, I never checked exactly what was in that wine glass.

`Nosferatu', Mon 17 November, RFH, 7.30pm (0171 960 4242). James Bernard's Hammer music is collected on two CDs on the Silva Screen Label: `The Devil Rides Out' and `Dracula: Music From Hammer Horror'