One characteristic vintage monster movie scores like Tarantula (1955) possess is the combination of harsh discords that erupt and elongate their sense of unease to sometimes absurd extremes, before a soothing, homespun love theme gently cuddles an audience back to a state of calm.
Tarantula's "Main Title" is a perfect example of this pattern: militaristic fanfare and percussion announcing an upcoming battle of epic proportions; the orchestra's strings reaching beyond their melodic limits; sustained, piercing notes that are a few hops and skips away from nails on a blackboard; and a full orchestral realignment as the warped melodic transgression becomes a more unified denouement that not only signals the end of the opening credit sequence - always brief, and to the point - but creates a false sense of security for audiences through the use of a slowed down, fragmentary, melodic line.
The title music, like many of the cues in the Tarantula suite (18:42), were often adapted from prior Universal films and refashioned into wholly new cues (plus some new material) that were more than functional in the finished film. The meticulous liner notes by album producer David Schecter break down the originals of short phrases - some transitional bits running just a few seconds - and he makes a point many listeners won't even notice because of the score's superb construction: that in spite of so much recycled material, the score works extremely well - and in theory, it shouldn't.
But it does in part because the composers knew the functional purpose of their own music and possessed the skill to fashion new cues with narrative and thematic cohesion. Whether the final score consisted of two or three actual themes, or just a series of phrases and motifs, the adapted cues were always letter-perfect in their construction and functionality - a far cry from the amateurish use of temp track material in the final mixes of modern studio films. Both Monstrous Movie Muisc's (MMM) re-recorded scores - performed in spectacular digital stereo by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cracow - are technically on par with (if not better than) some of the temp cues reused or re-recorded for contemporary films, but unlike the vintage Tarantula score, for example, the re-use of material in films such as Scream 2, Halloween H20, The Hunt for Red October, Alien, and Legend, in most cases sticks out like a sore thumb, and is at odds with the musical tone and stylistic design of their respective original scores.
MMM's suite thereby reveals the enormous skill of Tarantula co-composer Herman Stein, and the (:38) original score contribution by whippersnapper Henry Mancini. Schecter's notes once again point out the re-use of prior Mancini and Stein music in each cue , and breaks some of the enduring myths regarding the score's construction, Mancini's contributions, and differences between the original Stein-Mancini versions, and the arrangements in the 1959 Dick Jacobs album, Music from Horror Movies.
The remaining films represented on the album trace, as Schecter points, the first and iconic last notable 'giant monster running amok' in the civilized world. Ray Harryhausen's Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was re-scored by David Buttolph when Warner Bros. bought the low-budget film and felt Michel Michelet's score lacked the right boom-boom.
Buttolph, another Hollywood pro with barely a handful of scores commercially released on LP - T he Horse Soldiers, and Long John Silver's Return to Treasure Island being the best-known - gets a fine suite (18:46) that shows off his superb skill in writing suspenseful cues with some truly original effects. The film's four-note theme is overused both in the movie and in the score - apparently due to the tight composing schedule, which also necessitated the re-use of some prior Buttolph themes - but there's some marvelous instrumentation in "Lost Scientist" (sustained strings, intermeshing brass, and a sliding electric bass!), the somewhat atonal structure of "Diving Bell,", and the modern style of "Bell and Octopus" that expands on the subtleties of the prior cue with woodwind patterns, short brassy pokes, and an electric bass line.
Irving Gertz' title music (1:03) for The Monolith Monsters (1957) follows the Beast suite, and functions as a short transition between the Beast and Gorgo (1961) suites. Gertz' score - which Schecter promises will get more exposure in future releases - is another brassy, percussive cue designed to evoke Terror! And Thrills! when the monsters in Monolith were great big slabs of deadly space rocks. (Sounds all quite ridiculous, but the picture really is a little gem, with some genuinely memorable visuals.)
The Gorgo title music is among the rare themes in MMM's first two CDs that's overtly melodic: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's score begins with a big orchestral fanfare, but recedes for a delicate, humanistic theme performed by a small collection of strings and accordion. It's a peculiar level of intimacy for a movie about a big pointy-eared lizard, and Lavagnino's subsequent cues - the dreamy "Restless Sea/Underwater/Tidal Wave" triple-threat - and lofty "On the Island" also balance mercurial emotions with some fine, subtle instrumentation. The accordion solo in "On the Island" is also buoyed by a rippling vibraphone, while more overt action cues such as "Big Ben Demolished" and "London Demolished" again favour brass and timpani.
Lavagnino's warm melodic theme closes the suite (19:43), as the story of a fractured, single parent invertebrate family - Gorgo 's real story - ends on a happy note. Schecter points out how much of the film was rewritten & recut, and chunks of the score was either hacked to pieces or buried under sound effects, so MMM's suite marks the first time Lavagnino's fine music is given its due in such scope.
The restoration of this sequel to MMM's debut album is first-rate, and the fat booklet closes with an example of Kathleen Mayne's work in reconstructing the orchestra parts for a section from Tarantula.
Subsequent entries in this CD series - available directly from MMM or via the main mail order distributors - include Creature from the Black Lagoon (and other jungle pictures), Mighty Joe Young (and other Ray Harryhausen animation classics), and This Island Earth (and other alien invasion films).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan