by Jason Comerford
But scoring a horror film seems to create its own problems, problems which seem to multiply themselves. Good horror music has proven to make sloppy films infinitely more effective: just take a look at Mimic and note how well Beltrami's music communicates all the emotions that you need to be feeling. But the actual process of the horror score has become rote; cue up a nervous violin section and you immediately know that there's a beastie around the corner, waiting to jump you and suck your brains out.
Jerry Goldsmith approached the horror genre in 1971 when assigned to score The Mephisto Waltz, an effectively creepy chiller, directed by Paul Wendkos, about devil-worshipping cults. Brilliantly restored and rereleased on a superb-sounding Varese Sarabande disc, the score's inventiveness is forever immortalized. There is a lot of Goldsmith's revolutionary avant-garde technique, pioneered in Planet of the Apes from three years before, that can be found in The Mephisto Waltz; you can hear elements of his experiments with instruments and orchestrations that are woven throughout the musical fabric. (One might call them quotations.) But where his music forApes sought to comment less on the story and more on the environment in which the story took place, his score for Mephisto Waltz takes the film's primary story elements and takes off with them. The score's main associative element is borrowed not only from the Lizst classical piece of the same name, but mostly from the famed "Danse Macabre" by Camille Saint-Saens: that of a demented violin solo, played with a suitably demonic, jagged flourish.
Lizst, it was rumored, had received his talent from the devil! Goldsmith borrows liberal doses from Lizst for his score, but does it in his typically astute manner. (My film instructors always tell me: if you're going to steal something, steal from the best, and make sure you do it intelligently.) I doubt that Jerry Goldsmith received his talent from the devil, but it when listening to The Mephisto Waltz you can't quite be sure. The music is sparsely orchestrated and ice-cold; it makes Alien, arguably one of Goldsmith's best scores, seem like Debussy. Alien had a dip into melodic writing ("The Landing" on the Silva CD is the best representation of the theme I'm talking about), butThe Mephisto Waltz doesn't bother with warmth. It's go-for-the-throat, beginning-to-end horror music that is totally uncompromising.
Producer Nick Redman took an interesting step with his restoration ofThe Mephisto Waltz, and paired it with another score culled from the Goldsmith oeuvre, the 1972 music for The Other. Redman placed a well-constructed 22-minute suite from The Other after the 35-odd minutes of The Mephisto Waltz, and on first listen, it's like apples and oranges. The suite opens with a gently pastoral theme, a quite lyrical associative element constructed for the film's "twins" and their mother. The film is much likeThe Bad Seed and The Good Son in its theme of devious children, and the idea to associate one with lyricism and the other with dissonance is a good one. (Indeed, The Good Son's music is quite reminiscent of The Other's in that sense, but it's almost heresy to suggest that Elmer Bernstein stole from Goldsmith.)
Where The Mephisto Waltz contained nothing but flat-out terror music,The Other is a marvel of gentleness, coupled with a sense of lurking, building evil. It's a testament not only to Nick Redman's appreciation for film music but also to Goldsmith's brilliant dramatic sensibilities to hear The Other's music take on a carefully constructed dramatic arc, and listen to its gradual progression from light to dark. Goldsmith's mastery of a film's subtext is brilliantly displayed in The Other, and while the music seems a trifle repetitive at times (due largely to its post-production butchering at the hands of director Robert Mulligan), it more than makes up for its shortcomings by the sheer will of its creator.
(The sole complaint I have with the otherwise-superb Varese Fox Classics issue is with Jon Burlingame's flat, uninformative liner notes; they do little justice to Goldsmith's intricate orchestral constructions and are less analysis than trite overview. )
There seem to be a lot of fans of The Mephisto Waltz andThe Other that happen to be composers. There is so much in The Mephisto Waltz that you can hear in any number of "modern" horror scores, most notably the strident, eerie string effect that Goldsmith conjures up in tracks like "The Library" , most notably the strident, eerie string effect that Goldsmith conjures up in tracks like "The Library" and "The Hospital", where the strings play in a carefully constructed counterpoint within the melody. (My non-musical vocabulary hasn't a term for it, yet.) It's useless to complain about it, because on one hand, the composers are stealing from the best. But it's an effect that is taken advantage of and overused; it's threatening to become a cliche for the horror score, much the same as the theremin is to a science-fiction score. Stealing from the best... yes, it happens daily and there's really not much one can do about it outside of firing every composer on the face of the planet. But there's that atmosphere, coming back to haunt us; that of the frowning-upon of inventiveness and originality, even within the framework and context of getting a job done. Surely there are other ways to go.