Monstrous Movie Music's [MMM] self-titled debut album follows in the elegant tradition of Charles Gerhardt, the late conductor of several now-classic RCA film music albums from the early seventies. With the Gerhardt series - a re-recorded album of Gone With the Wind, plus several theme & composer compilations - the emphasis was on engaging, dramatic presentations of classic film themes and suites, with a top-notch production standard: alongside Decca's London Phase 4 recordings, RCA's Gerhardt albums were exceptionally recorded & engineered, and have stayed in print for over thirty years.
MMM's album shares Gerhardt's philosophy of superior production standards, but the emphasis here is on presenting every cue as close to the original film version, and in the style of the original recording . The results are mini-time capsules that reveal a scale and dramatic power previously buried in the final mono mixes of the original movies themselves.
Stripped of dialogue and sound effects, MMM's cues show a level of craftsmanship that most fans never figured existed in the shock stabs and fugues that were functionally designed to emphasize the might of a giant bug that, even as a kid, you knew was just a big mechanical puppet.
In his hugely detailed liner notes in the album's 32-page booklet, producer David Schecter traces the working environment of the period, and exposes the often bizarre credit practices that made it tough to figure out who and how many composers worked on a singular cue, let alone a full score. By setting the record straight, the contributions of Herman Stein, Heinz Roemheld and Mischa Bakaleinikoff are furthered - all composers familiar to fifties B-movie fans and medium budget studio fodder - along with early efforts by Henry Mancini, and Bronislau Kaper (admittedly the album's most high-profile composer of the period). The lone newcomer is Irving Gertz, whose name appears on several more scores in MMM's ongoing series.
The work of Stein and Roemheld - the latter having won an Oscar in 1943 for Yankee Doodle Dandy (Best Music Scoring of a Musical Picture) - starts the album, with three short cues from The Mole People (1956), a score that was previously excerpted in a re-recorded track on Dick Jacobs' 1959 stereo-horror concept album, Themes from Horror Movies (credited to Hans J. Salter).
MMM's material moves from the Universal-International logo to a moody, low-volume "Prologue," before the "Main Title" really gets the album going - rippling bursts of brass, fluttering flutes, and thundering percussion (a tensile combination that oddly recalls Bernard Herrmann's rejected Torn Curtain title music) - with Roemheld's material (adapted by Stein). A delicious final third involves a sampled Novachord (precursor to synthesizers, from the inventor of the Hammond organ) that immediately positions the listener into the album's fifties time-period, where giant monsters existed totally due to the mismanagement of atomic power.
The album's leading suite - reconstructed cues from the classic giant ant movie, Them! - is for many film music fans the main reason to grab MMM, since it was Bronislau Kaper's lone foray into the sci-fi genre. Known for his gorgeous, melodic themes, Them! instead presages the harder tone Kaper explored in his superb dramatic scores for Butterfiled 8, and Mutiny on the Bounty.
MMM's suite also showcases Kaper's more subtle cues, like the eerie music for "Lost Girl," and "Ant Chamber" - both cues written for the discovery of horrible truths, or eerie unknown, mortal terrors. Kaper is less inclined to directly quote his minimalist bug theme in these cases, and the atmospherics of these 'small' suspense cues are heightened by some intriguing instrument combinations, notably marimba, xylophone, and woodwinds, for some eerie, somber percussion textures.
The completeness of MMM's suite also gives Kaper's music a needed cohesion, and the uninterrupted narrative flow of the album's tightly edited suite means the film's memorable shocks - the girl recalling the ants and screaming "Them!", the female entomologist (good 'ol Pat) declaiming "Burn it! Burn it all!" in the ant chamber - and the film's melodic End Credits - all maintain the visceral punch. Schecter's detailed liner notes describe Kaper's displeasure when the film's amazing array of sound effects often smothered the subtleties of his score, but the final film mix ultimately gave audiences a more terrifying movie experience.
Purists will be particularly delighted that Schecter and restorationist Kathleen Mayne have recorded a suite that contains Kaper's original, full length cues - some bearing material dropped in the final film, after scenes or shots were whittled down for their most potent impact. The most amusing cue, however, is one Kaper wrote for a sequence he knew wouldn't survive the final edit: "Ant Fugue." It's a whirling concert-piece meant to underscore the sequence where fussy entomologist Edmund Gwenn (Pat's pop) explains the behaviour of ants to military bigwigs via a 16mm film. Heavy reduced in the finished film, Kaper's cue - at (3:29) - is a busy, somewhat sardonic work that might have given the film a too-bizarre effect - hence the cue's deletion, the scene's trimming, and Schecter's decision to position the cue at the end of the score proper.
Mischa Bakaleinikoff's score for It Came from Beneath the Sea is also imbued with a classical polish, but it's far more fun for the deliberate winks at audiences. For the film's "Main Title" Bakaleinikoff has the brass push the final beats of their sustained fanfares close to their maximum volume and clarity, grotesquely exaggerating the implied bulk and might of the underwater creature who's destined to wreak hell on foolish Man (and Woman).
"Love by the Sea" is a lush ode that similarly steps a half-foot forward into saccharine terrain, and holds just long enough for a semi-tragic bridge before the next cue, "Mister Monster," erupts into a furious orchestral burst.
Schecter and Mayne's sense of completeness also ensures cues tracked into a finished film - often vital to the movie's drama and narrative flow - are also included, so "Suckers in the Streets!" - which was written by Bakaleinikoff for Jail Bait (1955), with Ida Lupino - is also included.
Mayne and Schecter's research also led to the discovery of valuable material detailing lost scenes, dropped cues, and perhaps more importantly, the origin and later re-use of certain cues in other films. Readers will be surprised to find how much music was tracked back and forth between monster movies - particularly in Universal's films - and the multiple names involved in a singular score.
The contributions of Irving Gertz and Herman Stein come to the forefront in the meaty suite for It Came from Outer Space (1953), which also got a theme excerpt on the Dick Jacobs album. Schecter's notes detail the creation and construction of the score - another marvelous melding of harsh dissonance, a warm (and sappy) love theme, and eerie mood music with "woo-ooo" Theremin solos - and how the Jacobs album created an ongoing mess by blurring the composer credits and completeness of actual cues from the movie.
The concept of the Jacobs album perhaps guaranteed - alongside Jacobs' experience as a bandleader and jazz arranger - that Themes from Horror Movies would be faithful only in spirit to the original scores, so while Schecter rightly chastises the flaws of that album, he's equally critical of Varese Sarabande's own reissue LP and CD, which retained the foggy credit histories, but on a positive side, offered the cues without the gimmicky narration and sound effects. MMM's suite finally presents the Stein-Gertz-Mancini cues as an exciting, fun experience, but perhaps as a sign of the music's quality, the Jacobs arrangements still retain some original (and kitschy) luster.
MMM's album also closes with bonus tracks - basically alternate mixes of It Came From Outer Space, without Theremin overdubs, which allow listeners to compare and weigh for themselves the importance of the weird little instrument. (This isn't a completely novel feature for the CD, as Michael Kamen's Guitar Concerto, recorded with Tomoyasu Hotei in 1998, also closed with an alternate Third Movement mix, lacking Hotei's electric guitar.)
Subsequent entries in this CD series - available directly from MMM or via the main mail order distributors - include More Monstrous Movie Music, 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