Archive for March, 2014


THE NOTES FROM HELL

“A house is not a home without music, mood music. When lights are low and all is still. The songs from the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN settle over you. It makes you a real cut up.”

The above quote is part of the original narration introduction as performed by Bob MacFadden from the album THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES by Dick Jacobs and his orchestra. The album this came from was one of the first to feature music from the horror genre. The record is also one of those signposts for us “Monster Kids” as it was the first time this style of music could be held in our skeletal hands.

Before that, there was the “Monster Mash” by Boris Pickett and the Crypt Keepers. You could get TV horror host John Zacheley’s records of “spooky rock and roll,” all released between 1960 to 1963 -the beginning of the monster boom on television. ‘Serious records’ followed; mostly sound effects records such as CHILLING THRILLING SOUNDS FROM A HAUNTED HOUSE which is still available in some shape today. The Forry Ackerman penned AN EVENING WITH BORIS KARLOFF AND HIS FRIENDS was also available. These were all pretty cool selections but THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES was the “real thing” : real music taken seriously to scare ourselves silly and it worked.

What of today’s music in horror pictures? Looking at some of the surveys of horror film music there is a propensity to mention only the main theme. The way that music is used throughout the film is a neglected form. Today, we have replaced memorable melodies with specifically recorded rock and roll (usually metal) tunes sprinkled about the film in order to boost soundtrack sales for the show or the band. The soundtrack for the Steven King picture MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE featured past AC/DC songs plus one specifically penned for the film, WHO MADE WHO.

I would like to go back in time to the early days of horror film music. Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney survives today in its many versions with many different film scores. The original music score and cues are lost except what is known is that most films used straight classical music pieces, and the Phantom used excerpts from the opera Faust. The surviving notes do say the premiere of the picture features music cues from D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION. Today the film has been re scored many times influenced by the Broadway musical not all the time in a dignified manner

Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) featured the theme from Sleeping Beauty Ballet over opening titles which is odd for a style in that the rest of the picture featured no music except for the Opera sequence. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN with the exception of its rousing opening theme was non-event with most of the film devoid of music except for village wedding reception. Sound pictures were in their infancy for capturing dialogue, and the microphones and consoles were sluggish and uneven until technology got better with use and development. Film music was window dressing for many except in the musicals.

WHITE ZOMBIE 1932 (Discussed in fully another post) featured a rather lively yet again classical inspired musical score for such a dark themed story. One could argue that the score was used to lighten the tone of the film as perhaps Lugosi and the story of control of the dead was deemed too frightening for the audience.

The first great score in the horror genre was BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). The score by Franz Waxman set the gold standard for film scores at that time in this style. The music aided the story with the ominous five note monster theme signalling Karloff’s appearance to the church organ used in the hermit sequence to create the pious atmosphere. The highlight of the score is the creation of the Bride herself with the heart beat tones and pastoral tones complete with chimes as a parody of the wedding bells as the Bride is presented to the world. Waxman follows with the frantic building of horns and violins – stroking almost Bernard Hermann style – as the tower’s destruction unfolds. This score is much studied by film music people and is considered a classic.

Throughout the monster cycle UNIVERSAL STUDIOS found it necessary to recycle key musical parts as a cost cutting measure yet produce many fine film scores. T like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) by Frank Skinner which was reused in some serials that the studio also produced.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN 1943 features a full song called FARO-LA FARO LI performed by villagers in which Larry Talbot reacts strongly to its sentiment of eternal life. The use of that song does not seem out of place as musicals were flourishing and everyone had a voice, even if it wasn’t your own. The songs again lift the mood of the film while furthering the plot.

Glossing over things slightly, the science fiction genre at Universal with CREATURE FORM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE ISLAND EARTH, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE MOLE PEOPLE, all featured some (no pun intended) haunting melodies. Studios such as 20th Century Fox gave us the iconic score by Bernard Herrmann for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). Louis and Bebe Barron created a score of electronic tonalities for the classic FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), which inspired one of my favourites, the theme from FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), and later the big budget BLADE RUNNER(1982) by Vangelis.

The 1950s films brought out the idea that the teenager was the market for much of film style you find so derivative yet exciting scores sprinkled in with rock and roll which was on the rise.

The subject of the music of HAMMER FILMS from the fifties to the seventies is the subject of greater article study. These pictures from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, X THE UNKNOWN, THE GORGON (With its haunting soprano vocals in the opening theme), and THE DRACULA SERIES all raised the bar for instilling fear. It should be noted that soundtracks of the scores of these films be it simply the themes or the full scores were great sellers on the cd market. I have often wondered when attending Halloween concerts why this music is not played again with full orchestra instead of the umpteenth version of the Bach Toccata fugue. The music of HAMMER FILMS is brilliant, engaging, and challenge to play yet simply perhaps not as well known on this side of the ocean.

This whirl wind look brings me back to the modern age of the horror film. There is a whole other section of music linked to horror in the spawn of horror pop, psychobilly, death metal, black metal and horror punk some of which finds its way into film.

Two of my favourite film scores 1960’s films scores come from controversial Roman Polanski for THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967) with its unnervingly haunting use of vocals in the theme plus its entire score is a direct homage to HAMMER FILMS which was still going strong. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) also directed by Polanski for again its Lullaby theme which has a note of dread as sung one of the film stars Mia Farrow plus the use of discordant notes through out the film created the sense that these events are off kilter. This use of discordant material was not seen till it was revived in THE EXORCIST with its slashing string instruments and actual religious chant in the prologue.

Today we have lost the emphasis for the horror film score. The sellable theme or rock and roll tune inserted into action is the new normal. If you can’t sell the actual sound track, why not boost it with a popular tune? Sometimes, you will also find band members actually part of the film or the television series. I remember the massive selling album TUBULAR BELLS from composer Mike Oldfield which was used in the genre shaking, THE EXORCIST (1973). The actual piece used was very short yet an entire album was built around it including some demonic growls mixed with some aggressive guitars.

The film scoring of the horror genre has been neglected with a few exceptions, such as ALIEN (1982) by Jerry Goldsmith. I may have missed some examples, yet I feel music needs to be revived. Many people don’t go to these films today for the music. Somewhere out there, there are notes waiting to be woven together into a chilling film score. These are the ‘musical notes from Hell’ we wait for.

I have just had the opportunity to view the picture MR SKEFFINGTON (1944), directed by the black listed Vincent Sherman. What can you write about actor Claude Rains that would be different? This was a very private man, who, while apparently being held in high regard by many people, never spoke of his numerous marriages.  I could not help but think of some of the actors we have lost recently to illness, or reckless living. Perhaps it was just their time.

I speak about Peter O’ Toole, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple and now Harold Ramis. No doubt others we have not realised were in dire straits of health or life that we will be made acquainted with when one of my favourite segments of the Academy awards airs called, “In Memoriam.”  I always pause at that moment to see the people that are no longer with us; surprised at the fact that someone you knew as a face in pictures would be forever silenced.

   TCM’s presentation simply called, “TCM Remembers,” does remembrance best. It thoughtfully presents those who may not be in other remembrance events.  When that moment occurs it is a time for quiet recollection in the broadcast. Perhaps it is one of the only times that the live audience at the Academy awards are united in common purpose. This is especially for the film buff as we enjoy this style of acknowledgement.  It is not an “elitist” moment to go, “I know that person,” or, “I didn’t know they were still alive,” but a something people universally can care about even for a moment.     

   One does not have to be a film star to have a moment of recollection anyone may have lost loved ones and friends during the year or are even having a tough time themselves.  The people we see on the screen for years are not supposed to leave us except on the credit fade out – yet they do. These people are not supposed to age – yet, of course they do.  All we have to do to see them is replay their motion picture moments and all is well. 

I think also that people remember moments of their own lives when we view, “In Memoriam,” or “TCM Remembers.”  Why would you not think back to when you were younger and saw a certain film with a family member or future husband, wife or significant other?  Some of us have memories of going to our first movies with our parents. My first memory of film in a theatre was seeing BILLY BUDD (1962), BEN HUR (1959), BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957), LORD JIM (1965), and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962) with my father.  He related how when he was younger he constructed a small film studio out of cardboard boxes as a toy which ended when the war began.  He said that going to silent film was not silent as many people couldn’t read so you had to have someone older read the titles out loud to you.  Today that is replaced by people texting in theatres, getting up and streaming out during closing credits and muttering as if they were in their own living room.

I recently received comment on a post I had written regarding film aspect ratios of the past for my classic horror blog NITRATE FROM THE GRAVE.

http://horrorofitall.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/the-horror-of-it-all/

A person claimed that I was wrong to mention this and that these films should be seen at all costs. They also claimed that they appreciated silent as well as sound films equally.  My reply was that it wonderful you can appreciate this, however, there are people that are concerned about frame size, projection speeds (especially in silent film,) as aspect ratios have changed. Unless it is properly mastered, you can end up with elongated faces and stretched frames on large television screens.  That is a fundamental difference between an average film person and one who perhaps has a strong interest in motion pictures.   Many audiophiles still want vinyl records for the close to original sound.   The feeling of respect you have for an art is a wonderful thing if not carried to excessive nature. That respect also translates into people pausing when those actors, technicians, writers, and directors are remembered. For every one of those people that ‘made it’ to the honour of remembrance, we should remember those not thought of as being important enough to be included.

Viewing MR SKEFFINGTON (1944) triggered this for me because it shows the passage of time between two radically different characters: Fanny Trellis played by Bette Davis, and Job Skeffington played by Claude Rains.  As the years go by, Fanny is distracted by her many suitors and unable or unwilling to return the love of her husband Job.  It is only at the end of the picture in a masterful bit of acting by both Davis and Rains do things change.  It can best be described as ‘unspoken appreciation’ of each other that takes place.  That same appreciation of watching film manifests itself when we feel shock or sadness when we see who has passed on IN MEMORIAM and TCM REMEMBERS.

  Feeling lament for the past is not against the future but a moment to pause reflect and ask, “Who is here now?” It is a time to embrace the new performers, technicians, directors, writers and the forms of film that you are interested in today.  Discover something new that perhaps others will be looking on with affection in years to come in the same way you look upon Classic Hollywood.