Expanding on an idea from older mono-drama LPs - basically 10" and 12" studio recordings of popular radio plays or stories, read or performed by name actors, and sometimes backed with music and sound effects - a few record producers introduced into the market several concept albums in the then-novel format of stereophonic sound.
Already present in feature films as another means to yank moviegoers away from their TV sets, by 1959, stereo recordings had already found a home with nascent audiophiles - via some superbly engineered jazz, classical, and pop/rock albums - so it seemed a bit odd that stereo would pop up in a gimmicky concept album, pretty much aimed at kiddies.
Performing material by composers such as avant-guardist Paul Dessau may have seemed a stretch for band leader Dick Jacobs, but Themes from Horror Movies remained one of the few commercial albums that, for decades, contained vintage B-movie horror music.
It's no surprise that a generation of kids, influenced by the ghoulish and bug-eyed classics scored by these composers, would be the ones re-issuing and re-recording their scores on LP and CD, and while most fans are familiar with the 1978 Varese Sarabande version of Jacobs' album (re-branded as Themes from Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films), the original Coral LP - with sound effects and spooky dialogue ("In Ghoulish High Fidelity") has pretty much dropped into the abyss of obscurity.
It is a dodo-like platter of kitschy ephemera, but given the LP was never coupled with Varese's LP or CD reissue of their improved LP (which is a pity, since the label chose to couple the original 10" mono-drama of Island in the Sky with surviving isolated score stems, in a 1982 LP), the following review will give you a brief overview of the nonsense seared into the original album mix from '59.
Following a different track order, Coral's album begins with a dopey vocal prologue on music's ability to 'soothe the savage beast with dulcet tones,' alternating from Boris Karloff to Bela Lugosi imitations. All of the falsettos were performed by Bob McFadden, better known as one of the key vocal artists for the Rankin/Bass productions, with text written by Mort Goode (who also penned the album's painfully unfunny liner notes). After a loud growl, Hans Salter's Son of Dracula (Track 10 on Varese 's CD) really starts the album, peppered by a panning laugh effect at one point.
Goode's liner notes do provide some slight background info on Jacobs' career (which also included a recording of Elmer Bernstein's Man with the Golden Arm for Coral), and when separated from the kid-friendly spook-effects, Jacobs' score arrangements are pretty darn good.
The veteran arranger's jazz sensibilities perhaps ensured the suites would have crisp brass performances, and possess an excellent balance between high and resonant bass frequencies. A great example of this style is in Jacobs' arrangement of the main theme from The Incredible Shrinking Man (#4 on the CD), which veers from a chamber orchestra arrangement to jazzy brass shrill, while a trumpet performs a soothing melodic solo of the main theme. The original film version is less assaultive, but while Jacobs' arrangement goes for a precise level of unease, the extreme shifts and mocking brass performances make for a pretty mordant little cue. On the Coral LP, the track has a Karloff intro, and some woo-woo effects pop up twice in the cue, with some ambient reverb echoing in both left & right tracks.
Unlike the Varese version, though, the Coral album places the Shrinking theme close to Herman Stein's "Shooting Stars" cue from This Island Earth, with a short verbal intro muttering some silliness about 'zigging and zagging'. Varese went for a more cohesive suite by placing the film's "Main Titles" (originally the closing cue on the Coral LP) before "Shooting Stars" - a cue that, in both Coral and Varese albums, contains the same sound effect of something scraping the sky before plummeting to Earth.
The Mole People (#1 on the CD) also gets a verbal intro ("See the Mole People! You'll be pleasantly shocked! Feel their claws run up and down your spine! You'll dig it the most - They'll dig you, too!"), as does The House of Frankenstein (#7 on the CD), with the latter getting a Karloff falsetto, and clinking chains that fade up at the head and tail of the selection.
Like Mole People, meaty chunks of Herman Stein's Island Earth score were given a lengthy suite by the label Monstrous Movie Music [MMM] - 28 cues in their titular Island 2006 compilation CD - and some of Stein's Mole music kick-started the label's self-titled 1996 debut CD. MMM's faithful approach to re-recording the precise size, scope, and sounds of the original cues in digital stereo make for an interesting contrast against Jacob's own arrangements, and though performed by a smaller orchestra and written in a more intimate style, the Coral versions are pretty faithful to the film originals, with Mole People resonating an usually strong warmth from the use of select woodwinds.
(An example of severe re-interpretation, though, lies in Bernard Herrmann's Twilight Zone "Main Title" music on Buddy Morrow's 1960 TV theme album, Double Impact, which has NOTHING in common with Herrmann's music, and was designed as the album's intro cue to show off RCA's Living Stereo format with sound effects/dialogue/music.)
The Horror of Dracula (#8 on the CD) also gets a short Karloff intro courtesy of McFadden, and the delightfully grim Paul Dessau suite - with creepy organ - closes with a squeaky wooden door, and 'blood-curdling' female scream.
McFadden also does another Karloff intro for the Creature from the Black Lagoon (#2 on the CD), which also gets overlaid with wolf howls. With each of the three Creature films getting a spot on the album, it's clear Universal (also owned by Coral's parent company, MCA) was mining the instant recognition qualities of its beloved monster flicks (although the sound effects here kinda go against the overall nature of the Creature, since he has GILLS, and lives UNDERWATER, where there are no WOLVES.)
It Came from Outer Space (#5 on the CD) features a monster that, according to the British-styled, introductory verbiage, came "with love in its heart" (well, not really), and the cue is overlaid with subtle whispering - also retained in the Varese version.
Going for a more international flavour, a Bela Lugosi intro precedes the eerie music from The Creature Walks Among Us (#6 on the CD), and although the bass-friendly cue manages to convey a delicate upsurge of unease, the Coral LP adds an overlaid bear and dog growls (which, again, kind of go against the WATER-BORNE Creature from the black LA-GOON).
The Deadly Mantis (#12, closing the CD) gets a vocal intro but is otherwise bereft of sound effects, while the abrasive music for Tarantula (#9 on the CD) is preceded by a Peter Lorre intro, explaining how the tropical bug "was getting too big for his britches." An overlaid scream appears in the cue, with women screaming over the music from James Bernard's The Horror of Dracula (#8 on the CD) after another Karloffian intro.
Bela Lugosi introduces the Revenge of the Creature (#11, and also next-to last on the Coral LP), while a sick cow effect (Again: CREATURE. LAGOON.) worms through the cue in spots. A weird 'space-squeal' closes the album, after the "Main Titles" from This Island Earth plays, with Bob McFadden's narration saying something about interplanetary good guys, bad guys, singing songs, and fighting.
The value of Jacobs' album is perhaps intangible; it's a work that may have been designed as an ephemeral gimmick for a weekend sleepover or birthday party, but because of a paucity of horror and sci-fi albums over a 20-year period, the Coral LP remained the only treasure big kids had to evoke the fun they enjoyed from their 'olde' favourites.
Jacobs wasn't the first to exploit the gimmick-stereo sub-genre, however, as band leader, jazzman, and film composer Kenyon Hopkins came out with his own series of themed albums - Shock (1958) and Panic: The Son of Shock (1959), both for ABC-Paramount, plus Nightmare!! for MGM Records - as did Jeff Alexander, with inspired-by music for the album Music to Be Murdered By, conceived as a TV tie-in album for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (with mordant, droll narration by James Allardice), back in 1959.
During the fifties and sixties, horror music may have been relegated to pieces of chopped up stock audio in B-movies and TV shows after the original theatrical exploitation, but albums like Themes from Horror Movies, through their longevity, were unintentionally among the first efforts that paved the way for commercial releases of full-blown (and complete) horror scores.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan