Dinosaurus! is the latest soundtrack by Ronald Stein released by Percepto Records, a small label who, in the past few years, has released a number of neglected scores by several lesser-known composers in danger of slipping into oblivion.
A specialist in scoring B-movies with straight-faced professionalism, Stein's music often belied the ultra-cheap budgets he had to enhance, or in the case of this Jack H. Harris-produced cheapie (CinemaScope photography notwithstanding), actually make the el cheapo effects look believable to a toddler.
Stein's role in B-flicks could also be classified as unofficial savior when the intent of the filmmakers fumbled early in the screenwriting stage, and the final cinematic achievement was anything but dramatic, exciting, or frightening.
In examining the "Main Title" of Dinosaurus! you have music set to an underwater montage of a diver exploring the half murky, half translucent tropical waters off a U.S. Virgin Island - basically filler photography to get the opening credits out of the way before frozen dinosaurs - a T-Rex and brontosaurus - are exposed due to reckless dynamiting (itself a leftover allusion to the atomic kaboomery & ensuing mutant monstrosities from prior, better fifties sci-fi flicks) and shocking discovery by a perky blonde named Betty Piper.
Stein's title music sets up the score's two primary themes, but presents them in a manor befitting a class-A special effects extravaganza. The brassy exclamations may mimic the prehistoric protagonists, but the overall tone evokes a dark, subterranean presence, slowly awakening, and very hungry for the other white meat (Betty).
Backed by steady chords from an organ, the first half basically presents the dino theme: lumbering percussion; sharp, low brass, hammering out Stein's seven-note phrase; and shrilling strings and woodwinds rising to a near-hysterical dissonance in the best B-movie tradition. Shrieking trumpets and trombones mimic the awakening monsters, and as the wave of orchestral tension crests, Stein pulls back to lay in the organ, and his secondary theme - noble, tragic, and arguably a grand finger-waving at Man for using the power of the dyno-stick to disrupt the perfection of Nature (or something like that).
The secondary's tragic potentialities allow Stein to drift from his basic phrase and emphasize wilting strings for danger (as in "The Lifeboat," where Betty is initially in danger of becoming shark chum); or alternate between a basic percussion outlay and trumpet fanfares that proclaim the theme's high and low notes (as in "The Caveman," where an evil colonial usurper drags the frozen body of a Neanderthal into the bushes for future carnival pickling).
The character of the enlivened caveman presented Stein with a serious tonal problem: the film stops dead to show the primal creature poking around a house, trying on dresses, and running scared from the home when he discovers the modern potty makes a weird, rushing sound. Stein's job was to emphasize the creature's fish-out-of-water status, and the written cues - assembled in "Caveman Visit" and "Exploring the House" - have an airy touch - accomplished via woodwinds, French horn, and chamber-like string accompaniment. So while the film is adversely affected (regardless of Stein's music) by the scripts dopey comedic interlude, on the album the cues are quite modest, and benefit from hushed percussion that remind listeners of the primal danger still lurking within the caveman's thawing libido, and the giant lizards threatening the island inhabitants.
The dino theme is just as versatile, allowing Stein to reduce it to a subdued, percussive skeleton ("Monster Fishing"), or a threadbare variation with muted brass, and a slow stream of ascending notes. A clipped organ and theme variation from softened brass emphasize the bronto's omnipresent danger in "Julio and the Brontosaurus," wherein the film's squealing native boy (a grating evocation of Albert Zugsmith's Dondi monstrosity) tries to warn the munching vegan that T-Rex is looking for a fresh brontoburger.
Most of Stein's cues are more subdued than the "Main Title" - a problem that forced the filmmakers to repeatedly track the same music and other variations ad nauseum throughout the picture. "Sleeping Dinosaurs" also gets a nasty retread before "The Evacuation/Bart Kills the Tyrannosaurus" offers some fresh, dramatic action music.
Stein's job was to score mounting dread and the final Bart vs. T-Rex tussle - a lengthy sequence of slow approaches and repeated physical assaults before our hero forces the giant lizard back from whence it came - and the cue's final bars do recap some of the dark mood from the opening titles, but it's a fleeting appearance when more drama was needed prior to the finale.
Percepto's elegant album presents the complete soundtrack in clean mono, with just a smidge of hot brass in spots. While the design of Stein's score may have been limited by the film's juvenilia, at least he was given the opportunity to write one of the top sci-fi movie themes of the period, and deliver a decent-sized score - something producers didn't always grant the composer. (A case in point is The Last Woman on Earth - a great tragic jazz theme that was beaten to death by producer/director Roger Corman, because it seems about ten minutes of score was commissioned for the el cheapo production.)
Other entries in Percepto's Ronald Stein retrospective include Invasion of the Saucer Men/It Conquered the World, and The Haunted Palace/The Premature Burial. Fans should also check out Bruce Kimmel's tribute, Not of This Earth! which compiles more goodies from the Roger Corman archives.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan