Twilight Zone: The Movie [TZTM] came at a time when Jerry Goldsmith was at his most prolific, scoring a seemingly endless amount of feature films during the eighties, with soundtrack collectors snapping up the latest album every few months.
It sounds hyperbolic, but during the years when Varese Sarabande and Intrada were coming into their own as pre-eminent soundtrack labels, Goldsmith was one of the main names that appeared on at least one or two titles among each company's annual releases. For a specific generation, it was the name to follow and catch up with, and to check out record bins for prior scores either part of a major label's back catalogue, or used shops beholding all kinds of affordable goodies.
By 1983, Goldsmith had already scored a few family-oriented films – the most notable being the animated Secret of NIMH for Don Bluth, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Poltergeist, the latter with its schizophrenic mix of gore and sappy family moments - and TZTM was part of a specific family-fare film wave from executive producer/director Steven Spielberg, and the first of nine theatrical films for director Joe Dante (ending with the composer's final work, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in 2003).
TZTM's producers had tried to bolster the film's nostalgia quotient by bringing in one of the original show's pivotal writers, Richard Matheson, and one of its main composers, Goldsmith, and whereas Matheson had to rework old scripts and stories, Goldsmith had free reign to write wholly new material for each segment, but with an edge reminiscent of his compact, punchy scores.
The music budgets of the original series were tight, yet each composer managed to write material in jazz, experimental, and chamber & orchestral styles, and the results were rarely disappointing. The budgets, moral themes, and handful of characters in each script perhaps simplified which aspects of each episode needed music, and the composers learned how to apply music only where it mattered. The cues had to have purpose, and sometimes infer more than what a few actors and a single set could convey.
Interestingly, TZTM made use of just a few sets, the special effects weren't all that extravagant, and the stories, including Landis' original, didn't mandate big scores, so Goldsmith was able to return to the lean concepts and functional writing from his early years, but what makes TZTM such an interesting work is how the mature composer, now associated with blockbuster action and epic scores like Outland and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, scaled back his style while incorporating more current sounds and his eighties style.
The early eighties were a major turning point in the composer's career because that's when he began to incorporate more electronic sounds into his work – an aspect that's seriously dated many of his scores from that decade; cute and catchy as “The Gremlin Rag” may be, it's aged a lot, alongside Runaway (1984), Explorers (1985), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985), Link (1986), and Extreme Prejudice (1987).
So while there are modest synths and samples throughout the score, TZTM was arguably his last major orchestral work less reliant on synths (Legend may be the sole exception), or certainly in the case of the first film segment, John Landis' “Time Out,” synths are used to either create a surreal, slightly abstract world (wholly appropriate to a story of a bigot forced to experience the persecutions of his victims), or mimic traditional percussion instruments with less electronic artifacting than Gremlins (where you know electronics are no longer part of the overall musical palette, but a distinct section of the orchestra with its own showcase sequences).
Goldsmith's “Time Out” also forms the perfect intro to the film because its minimal use of instruments and reliance on persistent rhythms, recalling the composer's classic music for “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” wherein the score consisted of tight, modernistic jazz cues set to a ticking motif.
Like that classic episode, the music for Landis' segment also emphasizes piano, various taps, and a wonderful progression towards harder, deeper percussion timbres in the suite's second half on the LP and CD. The 6-beat percussion statements are bridged by a long cascade of noodling piano notes, sustained synth notes, and a clipped march finale on snare drum, signaling the segment's close as the bigot is packed up and sent to his doom.
Much like a music album's alternating cue order of slow-fast-slow-fast, the film's four segments also shift between harsh, saccharine, surreal, and kinetic, and that's also evident in each score's mood, so from Landis' brutality, the film score moves into sweeping lyricism of Spielberg's version of “Kick the Can,” a tale dealing with pensioners stuck in an old home wanting to be young again – first physically, and then preferring a state of youthful zeal in the heart and mind.
Like Goldsmith's Carol Anne theme from Poltergeist (1982), the approach is symphonic with a gentle melodic core, and swells of strings for the gushy, cuddly emotional parts – kind of standard for the family fare of the era, present even in James Horner's still moving score for Cocoon, and his treacle-embalmed anthem for Don Bluth's An American Tale (executive produced by Spielberg and his Amblin' team).
Depending on one's preference, it's either the most moving suite or the sappiest on the album; it's perfectly married to Spielberg's visuals – the music that accompanies the child-reduced pensioners as they question their future as kids is beautiful, whereas the sequence itself is brutality maudlin – but it's also atypical of the scores written for the original series; even with veteran Golden Age composers like Franz Waxman scoring yearning-themed episodes like “16mm Shrine” or Bernard Herrmann's “Walking Distance,” efforts were made to avoid the sticky goo of emotional treacle through careful understatement, or simple orchestral arrangements.
It's admittedly a debatable observation, but the Spielberg-produced assignments seemed to free Goldsmith's own inner sappiness that lay bolted away after years of writing action and thriller scores (and Islands in the Stream doesn't count, because the emotional swells and placid theme often morphs into a tragic elegy for troubled and doomed relationships, already overweighed by crates of past family baggage).
“Kick the Can” is the only suite to include sound effects and dialogue from the film – an unnecessary addition made in the finale bars - although Scatman Crothers' vocals and fence taps don't' affect the large orchestral swell. Crothers' vocals were actually quite low in the film mix, so it's unusually the brief lyrics were given such prominence on the album.
And like the soundtrack albums for The Omen and The Boys from Brazil, there's a pop song, “Nights Are Forever,” sung by Jennifer Warnes, that was used in the film as source music. Originally the first track on the B-side of the LP and contractually stuck in the middle of the four suites on the CD, it's a forgettable cut that's a nuisance to program out in order to keep the score's unity intact.
The last two suites on the album are the most rewarding, including Joe Dante's cartoonish hybridization of the classic episode “It's a Good Life,” about a boy with omnipotent powers whose immaturity dooms the adults of his phony family into living cartoon versions of parents and siblings, or dying most horribly.
The darkness of the tale was kind of left off the table in the film version, and Dante's increasing fixations with cartoon imagery and in-jokes gave his segment the weirdest tone of the quartet. Goldsmith's answer was a clever suite that immediately conveyed a fog of unease moving closer from the distance, done through a short theme that's performed by synths in place of traditional strings.
Electronics are appropriately used for contrast, and the otherworldly texture of the synths are paired against wild cartoon sounds – honking horns, coarse spinning objects, gear-revolving metallic textures – and some gliding brass explosions drawn from the sounds crafted for the final poltergeist assault in that titular film.
For the “It's a Good Life” intro cue, Goldsmith emphasizes warm tones through selective use of woodwinds – individual oboe, clarinet, bassoon – and the theme has a curious denouement that's part wistful, yet leaves one suspicious, particularly since the theme doesn't really resolve with a firm concluding statement.
The middle section snipped into the suite covers the family ‘dinner' in front of a big cartoon TV, and Goldsmith's music follows both the hesitation of the family as they're unsure of their conduct with the boy's new friend, and the horror show that follows when the TV explodes, revealing monstrous versions of cartoon characters, followed by the death of his ‘sister' on TV. Of the four suites, it's the most abrupt, although that's partly due to the inclusion of sound effects and music from the TV, heard throughout the home when the boy takes the teacher on a tour.
Unlike the finale of Dante's episode, the music has a more cohesive conclusion, mostly because Goldsmith ties up the thematic material, and tries to explain the trusting relationship between the teacher and the boy as they drive away from the hell house and start a new, weird future.
The final segment has Goldsmith returning to the minimalist concepts of “Time Out,” here basically taking a 4/4 beat and embellishing it with harsh violin flecks, uneasy strings, and an emphasis on darkly shifting moods. The brass effects are very similar to Poltergeist, with the sounds crafted to resemble metallic rubbing, nicely evoking a present beyond the safe hull of the plane, feeling its way around the metallic body for a weak spot to tear apart.
The gremlin's first and final assaults on the plane engines are scored for full orchestra, with Goldsmith alternating between muted (and almost laughing) brass and skittish violin, and some grand bass rumbling resembling thunderclaps as the plane ploughs through a major high altitude weather assault.
The suite's best segment is in the third quarter, where Goldsmith demonstrates his incredible knack for crafting tension by layering specific rhythmic streams towards one big payoff (which in the film, is the gremlin appearing on the other side of the passenger window in a sudden reveal).
The cue begins with short whole notes on cello, laying down the rhythm and tempo. A singular violin picks away at the edges with sharp statements of the 4-note theme, followed by second violin adding long, taunting whole notes. As the fiddlers dance around each others' notes and phrases, the cue shifts towards a heartbeat pulse, and all the streams (backed by a synth chord) converge towards a full brass assault. When the plane's engine flares out and the passenger tries to kill the gremlin, Goldsmith applies heavy bass reverberations with more brass, then pulls back to strings and a violin jig when the gremlin disappears into the clouds, leaving the plane a bit ruined, but able to land safely.
The cue order within each suite is chronological, but the “End Titles” are placed at the very beginning on the album. The tactic introduces all of the main segment themes and motifs (except “Time Out,” which is left out completely, probably due to the end crawl length), and works in place of the formal TZ theme by Rene Garriguenc that's cross-mixed with the last bars of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Those familiar with the original MGM Poltergeist LP will recall similar cue re-ordering and some cross-mixing and sound effects, negatively dubbed by critics as ‘Botnickisms,' named after recording engineer Bruce Botnick who produced the Poltergeist and TZTM albums. The TZ theme and Serling's original verbal intro from the TV series are used to close the album, and nicely wrap up the score with a nod towards the series' creator.
The original LP's short running time and suite edits were typical of the era, and the score really deserves a more integral release, although should that happen at some point, the restoration producer should do his/her darndest to make sure the fat acoustics of the original album are retained for the expanded CD. For all the great cues restored on Rhino's Poltergeist CD, that disc lacks the close-miked sound and soothing bass hits of the old MGM LP, and while that old platter ran much shorter with chopped up cues and several Botnickisms at the end of each side, the sound remains a key reason it's still preferable to spin that disc (crappy MGM vinyl stock notwithstanding) on a turntable.
Warners' vinyl stock wasn't A-plus in the eighties either, and the German and Japanese CDs are likely taken from the same music master which, if it's similar to the Japanese CD of the shorter, original Raiders of the Lost Ark album, should retain the fat high and low frequencies. (The old DCC LP and slightly shorter CD of John Williams' classic Indy score was dialed into indistinguishable mediocrity, killing the score's oomph.)
Goldsmith's TZ "End Titles" - subsequently rebranded "Overture' was later recorded on the composer's sci-fi compilation album Frontiers, and that version uses far less electronics, but the performance wasn't well recorded; the huge orchestral burst in the final bars for the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” material are muddy, due to frequencies bleeding all over the recording hall's hard surfaces.
TZTM marked Goldsmith's last association with the work of Rod Serling, having begun with the original TZ episodes, Serling's short-lived existential western show The Loner (1965), and scripts for Seven Days in May (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968). The most interesting association, however, is The Salamander (1981), Serling's last feature film script that was rewritten and ultimately (and ineptly) filmed after his death by the dunderheads at ITC.
In 1986, Goldsmith would score an episode of Spielberg's Amazing Stories TV series, along with the ill-fated Poltergeist sequel that same year, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Dante's 1990 sequel that quickly shifted from a satire of corporate behaviour towards an indulgent free-for-all of gremlins going looney, which did little to inspire the composer into writing a memorable score.
Note for a list of TZ scores by Jerry Goldsmith isolated on Image Entertainment's DVDs, click HERE.
For a review of the expanded TZ CD released by Film Score Monthly in 2009, click HERE.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan