Here's a weird one for you, folks.
Les Baxter's off-kilter, experimental and resolutely avant-garde score for AIP's rather daft H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror (1970) (recently re-done in an even less faithful, and far more risible fashion with Lovecraft-regular, Jeffrey Combs), comes to disc, in complete form for the first time, from La-La Land Records. The history of Lovecraftian movies is peppered with hits and misses and, more often than not, the unusual tone of his atmospheric tales, with their hints of “Old Ones” and great cosmic entities returning from their black banishment to wreak havoc on humanity, have been elaborately hokey misses. The best ones have usually been those only loosely inspired by the vagina-fearing author, such as Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness and, of course, Brian Yuzna's gooey Re-Animator and From Beyond which were, at least, based on things that Lovecraft actually wrote. Whilst notoriously difficult to bring such fierce imaginings to the screen, those last few examples proving to be the rare exceptions to the rule, the music for Lovecraft's “Cthulhu Mythos” has been a lot more successful in evoking the dreaded, dimensional-dabbling diabolism rife at the dark heart of his profoundly possessive prose. Great scores for Re-Animator and From Beyond, by the ever-reliable, but under-appreciated Richard Band, have found the appropriate niche in which to coil their flamboyant, esoteric and often downright bizarre melodies of the mutation and madness.
And, going back to this early occult odd-ball, Les Baxter tackled the problem of composing for the, ahem, innately complicated to visually render, world of Lovecraft by going hell for leather in his own thoroughly unorthodox direction.
Smothered in a blanket of 70's groovy cult electronica, the dregs of hippy surrealism and some forward-thinking progressive sound textures and effects, Baxter's score for Daniel Haller's film, the director's second venture into Miskatonic territory after 1965's Die, Monster, Die (an adaptation of The Colour Out Of Space) is certainly quirky and strange enough to please those fond of Lovecraft's fretful musings on calamitous masses of amorphous horror lurking at the threshold. It contains plentiful “stingers”, a catchy title theme (that, incidentally, becomes too catchy for its own good, as we shall see), some startling effects and a highly ritualised sense of almost Manson-like, hallucinogenic hullabaloo. Baxter was no stranger to the horror genre, having already scored several of Roger Corman's lavish Poe adaptations - such as House Of Usher, The Pit And The Pendulum and The Raven - and he would continue in this vein with scores for 1972's effective eco-thriller Frogs, Baron Blood, The Curse Of Dracula and even the early 80's shocker, The Beast Within. A former recording artist, Baxter had even sung with Mel Torme and was an accomplished saxophone player, himself. A jazz background lent him an exuberant style, an economic sense of orchestration and a strong desire for experimentation. His most popular, and accessible works were undoubtedly those for William Witney's adventure yarn Master Of The World (1961) and his own first album, Music Out Of The Moon which, incidentally, sounds like the perfect Lovecraftian title, doesn't it? His unusual choice of instrumental combinations and hankering for mysterious synth and Theremin-style passages marked him far apart from his contemporaries, and his distinctive style even tore down a different path from the likes of earlier pioneers of musical extremity such as Bernard Herrmann, Dmitri Tiomkin and Miklos Rozsa - all of whom had enjoyed the otherworldly sounds of the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot and the humble electronic keyboard.
His work for Haller's propulsive and madcap story of Necronomicon-abuse, human sacrifice, possession and monster rampage is often terrific, but what totally bedevils this score is Baxter's brain-washing use of repetition. His five-note main theme courses through practically every cue in the score until you begin to dread the next track coming along. However, as main themes go, particularly ones from early seventies horror movies, this is actually quite a good, strong one. Heavy, doom-laden chords hammer out a severe, tragedy-tainted signature for the occult practices of Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell, who replaced Peter Fonda in the role after the icon opted to go Easy Riding instead of virginal slaughtering, and even went on to appear in the 2009 remake, although as a different character) and his horrific brother, the slobbering, tentacled mass that is Yog-Sothoth (one of Lovecraft's main poster-boys), becoming the musical conduit for their influence over the whole story. Played by synthesiser, bells and brass, there is something akin to the title theme of the Hammer House Of Horror TV series, and this emphatic dirge-like ditty also encompasses the unique vibe epitomised by the warped bleat and blurt of our own lab-coated BBC sound effects shop. In fact, this shouldn't be at all surprising. The trend for hip scores around this time was heavily influenced by both psychedelia - the pop-baroque marriage - and the exotic movement, which Baxter is actually often credited as helping to kick-start in the first place. Coupled with small orchestral ensembles, the product from banks of mixing desks and keyboards and sampled effects were becoming the sound of Sci-Fi, horror and fantasy, with one of our own leading lights, the great Ron Grainer, forging new ground in the medium of genre scoring, with The Prisoner and Doctor Who taking on the mantle of spearhead for all things musically wacky, way-out and eclectic. Baxter's score for The Dunwich Horror has a fair bit in common with Grainer's own awesome music for The Omega Man, although, as far as I am concerned, nothing comes close to surpassing that score for its wild and inventive pop/percussive rhythms and mock-operatic action grandeur. Shortly after this, even Lalo Schifrin was indulging in trippy effects work with his compositions for Enter The Dragon and Dirty Harry, both using diverse synthesised loops, drum-patterns and warbles to tune into Bruce Lee's battle-spirit and serial killer Scorpio's damaged mind-set, respectively.
With wholesome teen star and pop-cultural icon Sandra Dee (who was, by this time, twenty-eight) ensnared into the production with the sensation-baiting promise that she would be appearing nude during a cult ritual sequence, Haller's movie was guaranteed notoriety if not the commercial longevity and genre respectability that it needed more. As it turned out, however, audiences would see nothing of her, as she was bedecked in a sacrificial robe throughout the scene in question, but the film did have copious other nubile young flesh on display by way of compensation. Although definitely dark and twisted and delightfully subversive in tone, The Dunwich Horror is hardly a great film, but it does have Baxter's crazy musical endeavours going for it. This disc actually presents more material than is in the finished movie. Haller kept some monster-on-the-loose scenes bereft of score, and tracked-in familiar cues elsewhere, reworking the flow of the composer's music, but these moments have finally been restored to this edition, although they nearly all appear as bonus tracks after the main score.
Rather than do a full, in-depth analysis of the score, I think it is best just to address the highlights of Baxter's work for The Dunwich Horror. His main theme is in the majority of cues, in one guise or another, somehow negating the necessity for a comprehensive breakdown, but we should look at how Baxter approaches his contemporary “baronial” theme, just the same. Over the top of Saul Bass-influenced animated titles, he introduces his noble and funereal theme with huge weight and portent. Bells chime, various twists, rattles and wood-blocks accompany. The five-note motif is carried by flute and then trumpet, borne over a sea of jazzy backbeat and sixties brass that buffet the theme from one diverse set-up to another. Bass drums ripple and flurries from the keyboard project moods that are both demonic and, strangely enough, warm and lounge-like. Considering the heft of these five mighty notes, the various treatments that they receive are rich and decorative. Perhaps the most fitting, however, are the melancholy and foreboding versions that rise to dominate during several tracks, but Baxter certainly likes to ladle the theme onto the score with some force.
Eerie keyboards, a solo flute and a Theremin-like wail from Baxter's Moog instigate the passage of Sensual Hallucinations, Track 4, but there is a dreadful mini-bridge early on in it that sounds just like the caricatured rendition of Roy Budd's mock Stars and Stripes inversion from his score for the SAS-actioner, Who Dares Wins, that simply doesn't fit the tone and sticks out like a sore thumb. The main motif is given a piano-led treatment in Strange Sleep, Track 5, that commences like Joe Harnell's famous “The Lonely Man” theme from The Incredible Hulk TV show, and then a jazzed-up surround moves in from a glistening keyboard and wind effects swiftly envelope it as the cue goes on. This gentle rendition is quite pleasing, although it does play rather too far below the radar to establish any hook of its own. More Doctor Who effects clamour to be heard in the next few tracks - from sizzles, whoops and coils of electronica - that resonate quite emphatically and amusingly against Baxter's small scale use of tambourine, cymbals, vibraslap and alto flute. He sieves that main theme through pendulous brass and a burgeoning rock-based rhythm, really ramming those five notes into your head, almost like the telepathic messages and commands that the “Old Ones” issue to their Maine-based acolytes. The cumulative effect is almost metronomic in its relentlessness.
Track 8, Reincarnation, is a good one that steps away from the main theme. Baxter has a drum roll that menacingly undulates beneath a surreal melody from alto flute. He brings in bongos and tambourine to affect a semi-tribal quality that resides tantalisingly just out of reach, almost as though we are hearing it from a vantage point hidden away from the proceedings, the impression given, appropriately enough, of us eavesdropping on a depraved ritual taking place. The synthesised effects are quite glorious here. We have whooshing wind, arboreal hooting, slithering and shaking going on. The quivering, wavering synthesiser pulsates all over the place and jagged chords from the piano propel the piece onwards towards a brass-stabbed finale of demonic fury, making this one of the high-points of the score.
This new tribal motif comes to the fore in the next track, Devil Cult, in which Baxter manages to combine voodoo with jazz, Doctor Who with Lovecraft, and has just about everything swirling around those five notes of trumpet-delivered doom. That warbling, shivering synth-line is back again and the whole thing sounds like a cross between Bruce Lee's slo-mo, “jump 'n' crush” move from Enter The Dragon and a smoky session on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Unique, to the say the least. And certainly different.
Sadly, the main theme undoes the glorious weirdness of Track 10, Strange Sleep 2 (misnamed on the CD's track listing), because, by now, we have simply heard too much of it. Whilst playing this disc during the week, my wife, who was, at least, relieved that I'd ceased playing Star Trek scores almost constantly in the exultant wake of the new movie, was beginning to tear her hair out with this infernal theme working its black magic. And, by the stage of writing it up - with the damn thing playing even as I write - I have to admit that I'm unbelievably sick of it, as well. But, hey, listen to Track 11, the last official cue of the score as it was first issued on LP by American International Records at the time of the film's release, for some frantic, funky drumming, effervescent brass and a massive disco-flavoured vibe of the purest cool. Sounding very similar to the pop-blasting title theme for the wonderful Amicus picture, The Beast Must Die (SD reviewed separately), this track comes as a real vintage, toe-tapping, hip-jivin' belter. Good fun and a definite tonic from all the gloomy abstractions that have gone before.
The next five bonus tracks, totalling almost 22 minutes, gather together Baxter's unused cues, in chronological film order. They begin and end with two different AIP logo themes that Baxter actually composed for the film and, in the main, represent that title theme all over again, but this time it is dragged through some of his more outrageous and experimental writing. In fact, there is some powerful stuff here, that jungle/voodoo element really dishing out some pumping punishment in Track 12 (for the complete Devil Cult sequence) and a separate and, dare I say it, much better love theme treatment for the one that first appeared at the start of Reincarnation. Variations on the dream sequences and the ritualistic episodes are heralded by florid glissandi and an exquisite harpsichord-like sampling, and there is an abundance of that wonderful wind effect during the latter half of Track 13, which combines five distinct cues. Track 14, on the other hand, presents some violent squalling and aggressive tendencies as the movie's slobbering and barely glimpsed monster slays a young nurse played by Rocky's Talia Shire, before bowing-out with a terrific alternate version of the End Credits, which was never used in any form. Baxter's compositions are much wilder and more complex, but they are also much more enjoyable. Had he been allowed to keep them in the final cut of The Dunwich Horror, the result may not have been a better film, but there would have been a more fuller-sounding and thematically satisfying musical appreciation that what we are left with. The main theme would have been diffused a whole lot more and the score would have been considerably more dynamic. At least La-La Land allows us to hear these tracks now.
And then, for some real fun, just have a listen to the disc's collection of synthesised loops, stingers and effects from the Moog in Track 15 that serve to replace the traditional shrieking strings and stabbing brass that the horror film tended to inspire from composers for moments of high anxiety and jeopardy. I defy people of a certain age not to think of the Clangers from the kid's TV puppet show during early parts of this, and then, subsequently, not to be reminded of the incredible musical ambiances and tones that Louis and Bebe Barron created for 1956's awesome Sci-Fi classic Forbidden Planet.
Overall, this is a difficult score to fully recommend. The very nature of it is divisive and the sound of it so eclectic that the album does not really stand up to repeated listening. But, for those who enjoy the whacked-out sensibilities of that musical turning point of the late sixties into the seventies, Baxter's score for The Dunwich Horror represents a devoutly pioneering spirit that flips the bird to the conventions of genre composing. When heard together with Grainer's superlative The Omega Man, the two do make an oddly form-fitting and compelling pair, and there is a definite Englishness to this score that is curiously bewitching for such a locked-down American horror picture. There are certainly elements here that are wonderful. The wailing synth and the blood-pounding voodoo beat are pure stand-outs. The main theme, itself, would be terrific if it wasn't so endlessly over-used. But the appeal of this score is, I'm certain, limited. Historically it is quite important, with Baxter's innovative use of his electronica pre-dating all but Morricone, and going much further than the aforementioned trio of Herrmann, Tiomkin and Rozsa into the realms of the unorthodox and the avant-garde. It is tempting to ponder on the fact that without Baxter's forward-thinking attempts to meld sound with mood in such a textured, tonal way, we wouldn't have had the music-concrete of Christopher Young's Invaders From Mars or, for that matter, quite the propulsive and synth-heavy style of a certain John Carpenter. For surely, Baxter's use of keyboard, percussion and synthesiser foreshadowed their frequent and eminently stylish use in the films that followed The Dunwich Horror.
La-La Land's great-sounding stereo release is limited to 1200 copies worldwide, and is presented with a snappy little 12-page booklet of notes on the movie and on Baxter's score from frequent film-music contributor Jeff Bond, as well as some lavish stills of a wild haired Dean Stockwell, the adorable Sandra Dee and some topless Californian babe being menaced by an owl-headed Cthulhu desciple.
Full Track Listing
1. Dunwich (Main Title) (2:25)
2. Sacrifice Of The Virgin (1:54)
3. Black Mass (2:47)
4. Sensual Hallucinations (2:20)
5. Strange Sleep (2:25)
6. Cult Party (3:49)
7. Necronomicon (1:59)
8. Reincarnation (5:14)
9. Devil Cult (1:33)
10. Strange Sleep (4:35)
11. Devil's Witchcraft (1:51)
12. AIP Logo #1 (Not Used) / The Kettle / The Glass Prism / The Black Mass / Devil Cult (Complete Version) (7:34)
13. The Promise / Liz And Armitage / Sensual Visions / Devil's Hopyard Parts 1-3 / Cult Party (8:30)
14. Elizabeth's Car / Cora's Car Wreck (Not Used) / Cora's Death (Not Used) / THE DUNWICH HORROR - End Credits (Not Used) (2:01)
15. Loops, Stingers And Alternate AIP LOGO Theme (Not Used) (3:37)
Well, try as I might, I just can't fully embrace this score. Baxter's repetition ultimately gets on the nerves and there is a “small” feel to the music that somehow makes the score sound uncompleted and confined - a meagre set-up and over-reaching ambitions, perhaps - despite its full incarnation here. That's probably a very unfair thing to say, but whilst this may be the type of thing that initially hooks you, intrigues and even stimulates you, the preponderance to experimentalism will invariably veer towards to aggravation. As mood music, this plays out like the score to an extended Doctor Who episode from either the John Pertwee or Tom Baker eras. I had been looking forward to this release with a huge tinge of nostalgia, but this just compounds the fact that the film, itself, really wasn't very good and Baxter's unorthodox and pop-baroque sensibilities were about the only things to ignite any genuine atmosphere or excitement. Director Haller made the mistake of truncating and reworking Baxter's score for his movie, which only made it sound even more repetitive - yet the album, set apart from the imagery, ends up doing much the same thing unless you reprogram those unused tracks back into it to diffuse that brainwashing main theme.
What Baxter did with his scores and this one, particularly, is certainly admirable. He created his own musical style and broke down the conventions of established film composing with it. Yet whilst the likes of Ennio Morricone did much the same thing with his use of diverse instrumentation, wild writing and rule-breaking, he also managed to make his music broadly appealing and accessible, as well as progressive. Les Baxter's horror scores were proudly individualistic, that's for sure, but such a maverick approach does not always work. However, this CD is very definitely a welcome release, even if the music it contains caters for a taste that not many can fully appreciate.
Weird, nightmarish stuff, folks ... and the strange thing is that it captures the tremulous, expectant essence of Lovecraft's florid, though often over-cooked prose perfectly.
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