Ronald Stein was, alongside fellow genre composer Les Baxter, one of the few men involved in B-movies who actually had music his released on several commercial LPs. Baxter had a pre-existing history as an easy listening/lounge maestro, plus a series of non-film albums attached to his name, but Stein (not to be confused with Herman Stein, another contemporary) pretty much stayed close to the exploitation movies that were standard fodder at drive-in theatres, and became favourites when the movies did regular rotation on local TV stations.
Just when Stein may have fallen into obscurity, along came home video, which exploited the horror, science-fiction, and suspense films he largely scored for Roger Corman and many other American International Pictures (AIP) films. Stein did get a few high-profile scores - Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969), and a pair of Richard Rush films - Of Love and Desire (1963), and and Getting Straight (1970) - but the bulk of his output dealt with giant, buxom women, making styrofoam crabs believable, and embellishing Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
It was through Corman, and the primitive sci-fi flicks Not of This Earth (1957), and Attack of the Crab Monster (1957), that Stein began his AIP-Corman liaison; and through Corman's production of Dementia 13 (1963) - also noted as Coppola's directorial debut - Stein later scored Rain People.
Before Percepto Records began releasing complete versions of Stein's massive chest of commercially unavailable soundtracks, Bruce Kimmel's association with Varese Sarabande yielded this 1995 compilation album, Not of This Earth, which features selected cues from seven of Stein's horror and sci-fi scores - music that's still, as of this writing, unavailable in complete form.
Kimmel's intro notes bubble with fervent nostalgia for the films and sounds of the AIP films, and the album is nicely sequenced to show off the composer's amazing gift for writing and delivering music that, like the posters for these films, delivered the tease, chills, and thrills the filmmakers couldn't manage under the tight Corman-AIP budgets, or never cared to achieve in the first place (since the famous posters got the kids and teens to buy tickets, and that seemed like enough).
Three of the seven scores are in vivid stereo, with the first - Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) taken from clean sources. Stein's main theme uses brass, marimba, and strings to play a kind of marshalling cry, and evokes a kind of celluloid news brief with an ongoing, steady stream of facts. Two jazz-rock source cues separate the remaining score samples, such as "Nancy and the Donkey," which flagrantly quotes Dimitri Tiomkin's ascending two-note theme for The Thing (from Another World) - making it the perfect in-joke for a film that dealt with a vengeful babe with the biggest pair of assets on planet Earth.
Stein treats the events with total sincerity: shock cues like "Giant Footprint" (erroneously listed as the CD's 5th track, when it's #4) could easily work in a big-budget monster movie, while the suite of "looped" cues - short cues that were edited in a perpetual loop to underscore an unrefined scene - also stand as fine, grand-sounding orchestral writing. Even the score's final cue, "Nancy Got Her Man/Big Finish" manages to convey a bit of sorrow when the saga of the buxom babe has come to an end.
Music from The Devil's Partner (1959) is also in stereo (but from less dynamic sources), and it has a rhythmic theme, bristling with Stein's wry, almost sardonic brass fanfares; and a pulsating rhythm that echoes the swinging theme song for the 1964 film, Spider Baby (also showcased on the CD in crisp stereo). "Nick's Redemption/End Title" also mirrors the empathy Stein can extract from viewers through his sharp writing of bittersweet passages - here performed by high register strings, organ, and a closing convergence from the full orchestra.
Stein's title theme for Spider Baby (aka Cannibal Orgy) is a twisted arrangement of foot-tapping, repeated rhythmic phrases performed by tightly joined piano and bass clarinet, and a mordant melodic line by trumpet, with brief flourishes from a harp. (The album closes with a raw take of Lon Chaney reading the song's lyrics, and the final mono-mix version, with juvenile lyrics recalling the narrative nonsense in Dick Jacobs' classic monster/sci-fi album from 1959, Themes from Horror Movies.)
Perhaps the album's biggest surprise is the music for Roger Corman's ultimate el cheapo film, The Terror (1963) - a cinematic shaggy dog story, made with leftover sets, befuddled actors, and multiple directors, during a weekend film shoot.
Stein's gorgeous music does something the filmmakers couldn't: it establishes an eerie, ethereal mood, and most importantly, instills in viewers, with ingeniously deceptive elegance, a sense of portentous, shocking doom. A melting cadaver notwithstanding , The Terror runs out of plot, sets, and inspiration, and unlike Stein's music, the film devolves into a meaningless cheat. Corman must have sensed the film's final shape was utterly hollow, and the notorious penny-pincher must have grinned when he heard the miracle that Stein achieved with his score.
The "Main Title" is a lyrical love theme comprised of intermeshing, sustained strings, and high register cascades that set up the film as some kind of mystical romance between a lost Napoleonic solider, and an alluring presence who can only yield total downfall (or something like that). The delicate "Meet Helaine" is just as engaging, and Stein's violin solo gives a sense of drowning, as the short, thematic solo disappears among a gently swirling, descending notes from the harp, and a short, shimmering cymbal.
The bodycount nature of Dementia 13 is depicted by Stein in a dissonant title theme which layers a harpsichord phrase over bars of sustained tonal clashes, and orchestral surges that abruptly sever the development of a fragment theme. (The harpsichord ultimately became one of the most popular instruments composers used to convey evil decadence, crumbling nobility, or the skittish and disintegrating mind of a murderous spinster - dubbed Grand Dame Guigol by actor/writer Charles Busch).
The source recordings for the album's titular score, Not of This Earth, is more archival, but also reveals Stein's ingenuity and ability to write compelling music for the ridiculous. Earth gets a sparse, almost impressionist set of cues, and the score samples (all too brief) show off Stein's marvelous ability to create so many moods with what must have been a meager collection of instruments for a low-budget production. Even the energetic (and bass-friendly) material for Attack of the Crab Monsters goes beyond the film's schlocky nature, and evokes excitement the cheap crab puppets and their puppeteers couldn't.
Much like the original Twilight Zone scores, there's a rich sampling of colours and timbres - through vibrato-heavy strings, muted brass, rippling percussion - and potent moods in Stein's early work, and it's surprising how his use of organ, marimba, or xylophone lack the cliched sensibilities that rendered these instruments as sound effects additives in generic genre scores by workmanlike, and hack composers.
Kimmel's album is an excellent primer for Stein's work, and each track and film gets a concise breakdown from Eric Hoffman and Ted Newsom. What's needed now are full score releases of these titles (not to mention the aforementioned, unreleased, Corman gems), but with mini-marvels like as Dinosaurus! debuting on CD, the impossible is finally happening.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan