Be advised, there are quite a few frozen spoilers contained within this review, as we go track by track through Marco Beltrami's score for Matthijs van Heijningen's tale of bearded Norwegians, wide-eyed and beautiful palaeontologists and slimy, shape-changing beasties who have come in from the cold.
As far as the movie goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the more I listen to this, the more I love it.
Marco Beltrami is one of the premier tunesmiths working for the movies these days. This year he has had two important genre gigs lined up. The first was for Guillermo Del Toro's production of Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. Sadly, I thought that the film sucked and that Beltrami's score was fairly lacklustre and generic – two elements that I would never have thought possible for the man behind such majestic and exciting work as heard in much of his Scream material, and his classic scores for Mimic, Hellboy, I Robot, 3.10 To Yuma and Knowing amongst a plethora of other terrific genre hits. Something was missing from it, something primal, melodic and committed. Well, it would appear that he had been focussed a little bit more on how to musically translate one of SF/Horror's greatest achievements in terms of its much anticipated prequel. Called simply The Thing in lieu of something a touch more distinctive from its much-cherished and (ironically now) critically adored predecessor from John Carpenter (his greatest film, and possibly my own personal favourite of all time … well, right alongside Jaws and Gladiator), Heijningen's often quite enthralling motion picture tells us what happened to the poor Norwegians who first encountered the alien shape-shifter and were seemingly wiped out by it.
Before we go any further with Beltrami's score, it is important to understand what has gone into its DNA.
Carpenter, helming his first big studio picture (for Universal) was already under-pressure and knew that, given the complexities of the shoot, he would simply not have enough time to compose one of his signature synth scores. So, in a miraculous fluke, he literally sent a cosmic wish to the heavens and asked if the great Italian maestro, Ennio Morricone, was available and willing to do it.
Morricone, as great and as lauded as he is, has been highly prolific over the many years of his career. From Spaghetti Westerns to opera, from giallo to sex comedies, from swinging 60's teen romance to hard-hitting urban thriller, and from nature's revenge flicks to all-out macho heroic fantasy – he's done them all. His trademark was lush, lyrical and sweeping scores, although he would often use unusual orchestration and unorthodox instrumentation, usually entailing the weirdness that could be conjured up from the human voice. Whatever John Carpenter expected from the man behind Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Battle Of Algiers and Orca – Killer Whale, I doubt that what Morricone actually did come up with was exactly what he had in mind. The original's score has become a classic of its kind, despite the fact that Carpenter only used the barest elements of the deeply unsettling and inhuman music that his hero Morricone prepared. It is a fact that Carpenter, along with his long-time musical collaborator Alan Howarth (Halloween II and III, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince Of Darkness, They Live), was compelled to add to and to further augment Morricone's music with further synth cues because there were sections of what the maestro composed that didn't actually match-up with any sequences in the film, or effectively embrace the tone that the director was after.
I will be examining the 1982 score in-depth very soon when I review BSX's limited edition (1500 copies worldwide) release, so let's move on to what Marco Beltrami and the Hollywood Studio Symphony cooked-up for the much anticipated prequel.
He, his score producer Buck Sanders and the film's director Heigningen decided right from the outset that their score would need to be different from the Morricone/Carpenter music that everybody knew and loved. It wouldn't be minimalist, or synthetic. It would be fully orchestral, although it would still utilise some electronica in its musical armada, and it would attempt to bring in some distinctive themes of its own.
As the album commences, we get a short, ghostly rendition of the famous Morricone main theme, the eerie, doom-laden heartbeat. This is the connective tissue, musically speaking, that melds Beltrami's score to the earlier one, a strand of alien DNA spanning back across time. But this is not going to be a homage-rife score. The film has a different agenda. This is not about isolation and despair, two key ingredients that concerned Morricone's bleak and minimalist music, but a wild, action-packed ghost-train-ride. There is incident aplenty, fast and kinetic cues of fury and violence. There are creepy, suspenseful passages and lots of dark alien savagery. Along with Beltrami's own unique style – sudden hard-hitting action blended with eerie, primal lyricism – there are elements that sound familiar from the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Elliot Goldenthal, and, appropriately enough, their respective scores for Alien, Aliens and Alien 3. This makes the overall score a much more comfortable ride than the one from Morricone, with excitement, dread, dark beauty and horror all tumbling over one another like the rampaging cells in a frothy Thing-soup. Morricone wanted you to feel frozen, and as though your skin wasn't your own. In this respect, Beltrami goes for a far more traditional approach, although the effect is still uniquely unnerving.
Track 1, God's Country Music (don't go expecting some kind of Antarctic ho-down!), begins with the mournful sound of icy wind blowing across the white-out wilderness. A great scene-setter that totally encapsulates the frozen vastness in which the Norwegian camp is based. This effect actually moves into one of the main themes almost subliminally – a sustained two-note motif that is drawn like fingernails over hard ice. It is somewhat reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's grim “bear theme” for The Edge, a sort of stretched-out klaxon-call of hugely ominous proportions. A distinct warning that the Thing is around, like some alien siren. Beltrami will use choked brass, wailing horns, sinew-taut violas to claw this motif across the psyche later on, but here it is subtly played via the strings, giving it the sound of being borne on the wind. This small introductory cue then moves into the familiar Morricone heartbeat, the brief recalling of the theme taking us through to the close of the track. This piece of music, incidentally, is actually to be found at the end of the film, in which Heijningen attempts to seamlessly marry-up his own finale with the dog-hunting prologue of Carpenter's film. Its placement at the beginning of the album is fitting, however, as it greets us with the cadence of the environment we will spending the next hour of music within, and it reminds us of precisely where this whole yarn is going to go. Thus, it sets up its own form of spectral symmetry.
We hear the Morricone heartbeat again, very briefly in Track 12, as well, underscoring an extremely tense moment of mutual distrust. Beyond this, and one other delightful piece for the fans, there may be one or two tonal references that are vaguely familiar, but for the most part this is new territory that we are exploring.
“We think the signal got triggered when the “survivor” exited the craft.”
Oops … might have been advisable to have stayed on that helicopter, darling.
Road To Antarctica begins quietly and with shivering anticipation, layers of strings coating the cue like slowly meshing frost and ice, woodwinds wafting in the distance. Another strong theme then kicks in, a propulsive phrase for high strings, churning woodwinds and percussion, urged on by a driving four-note voice for sustained strings and alternating woodwinds as Joel Edgerton's Macready-lite helicopter-pilot, Sam Carter, transports soon-to-be heroic palaeontologist Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and the starched 'n' stuffy Dr. Sander (Ulrich Thomsen) to the Norwegian site … and a brush with destiny. The track rises and speeds-up, a long, teeth-grating note on the violins lacerating the roof of the tumult. Beltrami is careful not to give his four-note “heroic” theme too much prominence, and to lace what we glean of it with a coldly cruel streak. He knows only too well that the audience already knows the outcome, and he is not going to mess with that fateful foreknowledge with any fake optimism or bravado. This is then followed with more moody, mysterious underscore as the newcomers are introduced to the huge ice-cavern that houses the alien spacecraft in Into The Cave. The slow sizzling strings from this visual breath-snatcher then carry over into the next track, reaching a paralysing crescendo as the full sight of the craft is revealed to them. Percussive wallops then reinforce the shock of the vision, with a receding brass tail-off for each one that filters around the cavern. The timbre of the score is established immediately – vigorous and bold, yet eerie at the same time. These wonderfully abrupt and rib-smacking impacts then abate as the investigators are shown the Thing that has crawled out of the ship and gotten frozen in the ice. Beltrami hits an appropriately alien sound with his stunning musical reveals, yet refrains from anything genre-clichéd like warbling synth or Theremin-like samples. He doesn't overstate the imagery, his cues steadily building to each new plateau, just driving home the uncertainty of the situation. Strings and tremulous woods denote the fantastical implications of the discovery, but there is an underlying core of dread twisted through it all. Let's face it, we know this Thing ain't ET!
After the poor pacing of the album for Knowing, which is a truly great score that suffered from having its two big action cues positioned right in the first few tracks, and then all the slower, more suspenseful and darkly mournful material dominating the rest of a long line-up, The Thing comes across as being much more inspiring and far better handled. Apart from the swapped finale-for-beginning track, the album is film-chronological, and the balance is just right. The textural stuff is nicely interspersed with the kinetic, the resulting album an enjoyable and coherent listening experience. Some material is missing from the album – sly tonal links (a lovely passage as Kate gazes at the stars in the Milky Way, for instance, and contemplates how she'll “never look at them the same way again.”) – and some elements have been re-jigged in the film's editing, but this is still a fabulously well-structured presentation for a general release. That new Thing-theme keeps clawing itself over and through the score, assimilating and absorbing the orchestration at every turn, forever keeping you on your toes. But, rest assured, there is plenty of action.
And, speaking of action – here it comes.
Track 5 is a belter. In Meet And Greet, Beltrami gets to grips with the beast, itself. After playing possum in the block of ice for a bit whilst “those crazy Swedes” (Norwegians, Mac!) indulge in a hearty session of traditional foot-stomping and chest-beating to celebrate their discovery, the alien makes a break for it – straight through the roof. Much to-ing and fro-ing then ensues as the team split up (uh oh!) and go searching for it in the snowy shadows. A terrific trumpet-scream ululates at the start. The score then screeches with strings that make repeated slicing lines, deep and very quick, over the top of plunging bass and woodwinds, the searing motif augmented with metallic percussion. Brass cuts through with raucous bleats of terror. The flutes cry out, too. Together, this creates a mightily galvanistic lurching effect that has the heart stopping then racing, stopping then racing. Beltrami is a master at such dynamic cueing. In this manner, he forces you to move – to duck and dive, to look over your shoulder, to pivot and to fall back. Or to slip on the ice if you're not careful. Manipulative, yes. But also extremely well-written, with an emphasis on reflexive action. It feels unpredictable, and primal, and so therefore Beltrami engages the gut rather than the ear. In this type of knee-jerk, stinger-rife score it is very rare to do that as successfully as he makes it seem. Horns provide staccato flurries whilst woods run in counter patterns, churning away and providing the impression of lots of individual panics taking place. Violins whirlwind through a diabolism reminiscent of Stravinsky's fiendish fiddles as the humans witness something grotesque happening to one of their own. A track that has been immensely busy and exciting then slides into shock-mode with a slow, dirge-like and distant-sounding rendition of the “heroic” theme from Road To Antarctica. Strings shimmer to a fade.
Autopsy pretty much speaks for itself. In the aftermath of the initial chaos, Sander and Kate haul apart the partially burned remains of a thing only to find something even stranger and more horrifying inside. As the film pays homage to Carpenter's “imitation dogs” lab-reveal, Beltrami keeps the music low-key and sinister, all very textured and moody as layers of prosthetic tissue are dissected and probed. Little veils of gleaming electronica and slow-burning pulses of dread are reminiscent of Horner's ominous “search-and-destroy” material from Aliens. The Thing-theme returns – again, really slowly, really excruciatingly drawn-out. Now it sounds sly and mocking. The track ends with lower tones from bassoon and clarinet, providing a sense of fatalistic inevitability.
In a neat take on the original's Dr. Blair and his dated computer graphics, Kate studies what the alien is actually doing to its victims under a microscope in Cellular Activity – but the same conclusions are drawn. Single notes plucked on the harp tick away the time. Strings and horns then gain a foothold. Deep threat is produced by the trombone, glittering metallic percussion and harp crystallise the terrifying abilities that the alien's cells have. Lots of low notes are hauled along in unsettling procession and then the Thing-theme grins its toothy maw over the top of it all. Kate's assistant may not want to believe what she is showing him, but we know the lady's sussed it, and Beltrami's music adds a gloriously foreboding voice to her conviction.
In Finding Filling Kate makes yet another grim discovery, this time of a set of bloody metal fillings discarded on the floor of the bathroom. A nastier sight awaits her just behind the shower curtain. Making that cinematic leap of logic that the genre is so fond of, she quickly deduces that somebody in the camp ain't who they say they are … and that the helicopter that has just taken off may well be trafficking the threat ever further afield. Beltrami's music dots the i's and crosses the t's in Kate's befuddled brain as she realises that she's now got to act. The inexorable two-note Thing-theme gets a more subdued, though no less sinister presentation. We hear something that sounds like a jet whining overhead, probably from the flutes and the synth, that whistles above the alien's motif, and then Beltrami ups the tension. Bass and percussion ripple and clang, the strings scurry into the fray, drums adding impetus. The Thing-theme climbs across the ceiling, like a siren as Kate attempts hail down the chopper before it is too late. A solo horn wails a forlorn lament that gets carried away in the wind. Beltrami then brings in a wonderful little homage to Morricone, with spidery bass scuttling about in a flesh-crawling litany of tissue-shredding wickedness. Morricone scored MacReady's final confrontation with the Thing like this, and it makes for a cool reference here … as things in the chopper go from bad to much worse.
Heavy, echoing notes from the keyboard in Well Done tremble into icy billows of brass and dark, wobbling phrases from the woods. Muted cymbals shiver. A three-note variation on the Thing-theme drives a wedge into the track depicting the tense disbelief that awaits Kate when she attempts to warn the others of her findings … and her suspicions of trouble-in-camp.
Another blistering Thing salvo comes next in Female Persuasion, as another alien charade collapses and the horror in the base escalates accordingly. There's a deliberate Alien-riff at the start of the track as celli and bass undulate in the lower register and echo alongside plucked harp and tremulous brass with a warped, organic cadence. A sudden string and woodwind-led rhythm then helps Kate find her feet and make a run for her life, the track erupting into adrenalised action for a dark spell. Strings and brass clamour to take the lead, the bass slashed and the trumpets angrily responding until the Thing-theme encases everything and smothers all. Dissonance, gleaming metallica and muted percussive rumbles capture the shock of yet more casualties, and this stays with the track until it fades.
Beltrami then has to juggle escalating paranoia and growing suspicions in Survivors, as the stunned team try to work out how to determine exactly who's who. A blood-test appears to be the best solution … but something swiftly puts paid to that and Kate's theory about metal or, more specifically, metal fillings seems like the best alternative. The music is insidious, dark and menacing. Listen out for the scary Elmer Bernstein American Werewolf-style bassoon and clarinet passage that digs deep and shadowy, really getting under the skin with all-out creepiness. The Thing-theme makes an impression, like a faraway police siren, ensuring that we don't forget who's really calling the shots here, and there is some great work from the harp, played by Marcia Dickstein, which delicately suffuses the track with a fantastical, otherworldly ambience.
This ominous section continues with Open Your Mouth, as Kate's plan is put into action, and the American girl assumes tenuous command of a situation filled with big hairy blokes. When Sander, who clearly doesn't like being pushed around, and least of all by a woman, puts his guard up, Beltrami brings in the Morricone heartbeat for a very brief, but effective piece of persuasion that makes an evocative highpoint in the middle of all this edgy underscore. Subtle things such as this make a lot of difference. The composer understands that fans want some recognition for material they love … and he is certainly not too aloof to provide it for them in little suggestive ways.
The inhabitants of the camp now tested and the shady ones shoved to one side – doesn't that couch over there look comfy? - Beltrami gets to ratchet-up the tension once again as a couple of forgotten faces turn up and an Antarctic Standoff takes place. After another Bernstein-like soul-dredging from clarinet and bassoon, the ante is upped and, with flame-throwers pointed at one another, and suspicions flying hard and fast, the team is ripped asunder by consequence, bullets and explosions. Although the track is largely composed of agitated strings, there is an interesting lull for a synth pulse, and then the tuba belches out some raw animosity beneath a flurry of Goldenthal Alien3-style lurching brass.
In Track 14 we have an absolute standout cue. Every Beltrami score has a greater moment amongst many great moments, and Track 14's Meating Of Minds is The Thing's most electrifying. It acts as an extension of Meet And Greet, but piles on more energy, more blood 'n' thunder. There are rich elements here, and befitting the concept of a creature that takes the shape of other entities and then evolves their form for its own end, there are shades and glimmers of other music inside this barrelling assault that he has taken, rewoven and mutated into something new and exhilarating. Hints of James Newton Howard's Signs can be heard with the creepy medieval string-play. And there are echoes of Beltrami's own blistering momentum and aggressive flair from his cue, Alley Fight, from the first Hellboy score. This pounding, listing, skin-crawling track scores the sequence when all hell is quite literally let loose in the camp. A man is down and things go boom … and then suddenly other Things seize their chance to wreak havoc. This is the breaking point in the movie, when everything changes. The battle lines are drawn, the masks are off and humanity is going to be taken down a few pegs. Amidst swirling tentacles, spider-hands that go on the offensive and a big lumbering monstrosity that looks like something that came in From Beyond, Beltrami has to find shape to the chaos. The alien-theme acts like a battering-ram, pushing down hard on all the other motifs and action-beats that dare to rise up in the maelstrom. The strings trill and scythe with that wild Stravinsky-fuelled diabolism. Drums pound in-tandem with flailing limbs. Brass squalls in an agonised mock-fanfare for mutating flesh, reaching a crescendo as the Thing-theme spikes its way into the proceedings in its boldest incarnation, the cymbals clashing in support of its inhuman superiority. Beltrami isn't afraid to tone things back down again in a bleakly emotional pay-off to the carnage for strings and low brass, as the track then draws to a close.
From now on, it's a game of cat-and-mouse.
Track 15's Sander Sucks At Hiding offers plenty of trepidation and suspense. The music is uncomfortable and jarring. Sudden stingers abound. Strings and flute squirrel madly away. Eruptions of brass smack you over the head and then recede. Long sections of shimmering, sea-shell-to-the-ear periods fray the nerves … and the score's backbone of the new Thing-theme reminds you what could be just around the next corner, and it is worth listening out for a little synth-aided phrase that recalls Henry Manfredini's Friday The 13th spooky hushed-echo “Che-che-che-a-ha-ha-ha” main theme. In Can't Stand The Heat, Beltrami combines the alien's insistent motif with a steady ticking rhythm of determined humanity as the numbers of the camp are whittled-down and two of the most valiant go on the offensive armed with axe and flame-thrower. Suspense dominates the first part, glacial strings buffeted by brassy, percussive swells that grow in intensity until the Thing-theme whips its tentacles through all the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Brass hollers in gobbets of anguished vitriol. Drums, bass and harp make for a strangely compelling combination beneath those viciously cutting and spirited strings.
With the camp now in flames, Kate figures out where the last vestige of the Thing is headed and she and Carter set off after it in Following Sander's Lead. This continues in a sort of driving pursuit mix that keeps the pace going with a buoyant rhythm, until that cute little Manfredini riff returns to gently unhinge. Trumpets urge the heroes onwards to the alien crash-site, but sharp see-sawing violins continue to harass them every step of the way. The track then falls into the realms of mysterioso – and then a vague pulse resonates as the orchestral activity begins to recede, perhaps warning us that nothing conventional exists in this new dojo.
All manner of weirdness is then crafted for In The Ship, which covers possibly one of the most contentious aspects of the new film. As the title suggests, we now get to see inside that iconic saucer that malfunctioned as it hit the Earth's atmosphere 100,000 years ago., and Marco Beltrami now allows us to hear what it's like inside the Thing's ship. There's lots of shivering glass and metal percussion, chimes and sustained cymbals. Vague forms of electronica hover at the periphery, but the overwhelming majority of the effects created here are orchestral. The Thing-theme teeters in the air with fragility. But all of this ethereal ambience comes crashing down around our ears when the alien makes its presence felt in the next furious and swift track, Sander Bucks. Here, we are smashed in the face with an anvil of metal percussion, and then kicked all over the shop by a tempest of violent brass. Everything seems to be thrown into the melee as one last act of heroism makes MacReady's final stick of dynamite look like child's play.
The End finds grim melody with an epic and melancholic grandeur. The bow teases the strings of the cello, and delicate harp-play suggests the calm after the storm. Strings hold sway over rolling brass, the horn signifying a noble, almost sacrificial flavour. The cello sounds mournful and lost. This is the most gentle piece of music in the score, a tiny respite from the carnage. Somehow, even musically, you know that it can't last. And, thus, in How Did You Know? we can hear similar yearning strains from pivotal moments in Mimic and Hellboy, Beltrami giving us an epic close to the album with big, rolling, pent-up chords from brass and strings to denote a greater tragedy. As we would probably expect from a trust nobody scenario like this, the film has another surprise up its sleeve, but the score doesn't fall into the spasmodic stinger trap that many others may have done, and plays the final revelation in a poignant and understated manner that focusses more on the pain and melancholia of doing what has to be done. Beltrami then ends the cue as he started the album, with that Antarctic wind howling across the wasteland. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that part of me wouldn't have loved the Morricone heartbeat to have returned and played us out. Mind you, it does in the film, at least partially during the “interesting” end credits … but then we heard that at the beginning of the album. It's just that this final cue seems so prepared to segue into the classic theme.
Overall, I love the score. It is intricate and volatile. Beltrami pulls no punches and he maintains that icy, alien tone that makes you shiver. His music isn't exactly “fun”, but it is a great deal more accessible than the Morricone/Carpenter score. The new Thing-motif is startlingly effective and really sticks in the mind. It is incredible how much excitement, fear and suspense he can garner from what is nothing more than a simple two-note slide-sustain. Beltrami is also able to use this to convey the isolation of the outpost and the harshness of the environment, so this doesn't feel at all like a generic horror score.
Director Hijningen provides a little note in the liner of the album, and we get a listing of the performers involved in Beltrami's orchestra. We don't hear from Beltrami, though. Which would have been nice.
I have to say that this is a great modern horror score from a composer who certainly knows a “thing” or two about the genre. It is perhaps less SF in its tones and themes and in its instrumentation, but there is no mistaking the monstrous threat that the music is pummelled along by. Having listened to both Morricone's score and now Beltrami's in close succession, and over the course of a few nights, I can say that this is a worthy … well, what shall we call it … predecessor to the icy, infernal and unutterably alien music from Carpenter's classic. And, as a listening experience separated from the film, it is more enjoyable.
Full Track Listing
God's Country Music 1.12
Road To Antarctica 2.41
Into The Cave 0.39
Eye Of The Survivor 2.25
Meet And Greet 2.55
Cellular Activity 1.32
Finding Filling 3.25
Well Done 1.32
Female Persuasion 4.51
Open Your Mouth 4.20
Antarctic Standoff 3.03
Meating Of The Minds 4.28
Sander Sucks At Hiding 2.22
Can't Stand The Heat 2.10
Following Sander's Lead 2.39
In The Ship 2.39
Sander Bucks 0.45
The End 2.33
How Did You Know? 2.29
Whatever your opinion on the prequel to Carpenter's classic masterwork of SF/Horror – and, personally, I found it really enjoyable - there can be no disputing the fact that composer Marco Beltrami has more than come up with the goods and created something special to illustrate The Thing's wild rampage at the bottom of the world. Strident, exhilarating action sits alongside tense moments of pure dread and suspense. The evocation of the Antarctic wastes is acute and the new themes, for both the human struggle and for the alien, itself, are wonderfully sly new additions to the mythology of The Thing. It should be applauded that Beltrami didn't merely opt to rework what Ennio Morricone, Carpenter and Alan Howarth devised back in 1982. There are a couple of respectful nods, but this is a score that strikes out on a vastly different tack. Eric Heisserer's screenplay is more relentless and action-packed, and therefore debut director Matthijs van Hiejningen needed music that would set the pulse racing. He couldn't have found anyone better than Beltrami, as far as I am concerned.
This surely won't be remembered as fondly as the original's score, which is now iconic, or be as instantly recognisable. But this is the nature of the beast. You play the Morricone album and you are dropped into a cold and frosted isolation tank. Your mind gets scrambled with suspicion and distrust, and your blood is profoundly chilled. It is a cold and alienating experience. With this score, you are taken on a ride that is altogether more emotional, visceral and frantic, and more genuinely thrilling. It suits the movie to a tee, and it makes for a terrifically bravura experience as an album. Plus, that new Thing-theme is an excellent addition to the musical mythos of one the SF's most macabre monsters.
Definitely recommended for Thing-fans, Beltrami devotees and score-lovers in general.
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