The Wolfman - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review


The Wolfman - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

Man, oh, man what with Batman, Dark Man and Spider-Man behind him ... it was only fitting that Danny Elfman would come to score Joe Johnston's The Wolfman for Universal's lavish, but hollow remake of their 1941 classic horror starring the iconic Lon Chaney Jnr. But since the course of getting this celebrated monster rebooted was so publicly fraught with tribulation and strife, it was probably asking too much that its composer would sail through the process unscathed.

Temp-tracked with such things as Wojciech Kilar's Dracula, Elfman scored the film as he, and director Joe Johnston initially thought it was going to be presented to the world. But, as is already well-known, previews and studio execs enforced re-edits, re-shoots and a drastic change of pace to the movie - alterations that would prove so unforgiving and inflexible towards Elfman's music that, for a tortuous spell, Universal and Johnston had to reluctantly shelve his score entirely. Soundtrack fans, the world over, were dismayed. Even more so when it was announced that Tangerine Dream's Paul Haslinger was going to step in and create his own fresh score for the film. Memories of the debacle that surrounded Ridley Scott's Legend, and the utterly ludicrous swapping of Jerry Goldsmith's lush and now-classic score for some truly wretched synth and pop-heavy tripe from - you guessed it - Tangerine Dream, came flooding back. Well, the late maestro's original score eventually found its way back on to Scott's dark fairytale to astounding acclaim ... and, unbelievably, history actually went on to repeat itself for this even darker and more adult fairytale.

When his own synth-heavy and utterly inappropriate score proved unsatisfactory, out went Haslinger - thank God - and back came Danny Elfman. Or did he? Well, truth be told, he didn't come back to the project at all. The score he had created early on for the first cut - or partial cut - of the movie was brought back, but this was not a complete score and even the scenes that it did cover were so chopped, slashed and re-jigged now that his music couldn't possibly run successfully alongside them. So things still weren't in a manageable state. In a way, this ridiculous set of circumstances actually comes to resemble the title character, himself - a hybrid creature born of separate worlds and with the confusing traits of a split personality. But something had to be done to rectify this situation. With Elfman now unable to come back onboard to compose, and re-orchestrate for the tighter, yet more jumbled new theatrical cut due to his commitments to Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, it fell to his seasoned associate Conrad Pope to find the appropriate musical remedies to heal over some of the wounds. Together with Edward (Reign Of Fire/Sky Captain) Shearmur, he locked on to the task and wrestled with material Elfman had already created, capturing the main themes and smoothing them over the Frankenstein-like stitches of Joe Johnston's movie, skilfully crafting passages that contained the same unique sound and orchestration and adhered to the patterns and ideas that Elfman had been toying with.

The result is certainly more than serviceable and the seams largely hidden. But the sad fact is that the score still lacks anything memorable. Its main theme is little more than a reworking of Wojciech Kilar's outstanding music for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Personally, I think that Danny Elfman has been off the boil for some time. He may once have been a leading light in the dark fantasy and horror realms, what with excellent work for Tim Burton on the first couple of Batman pictures, Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks! and Edward Scissorhands, great creepy stuff for Clive Barker's Nightbreed and The Frighteners for Peter Jackson, but since Burton's naff Planet Of The Apes he hasn't recreated that former glory of haunting heartache and pulse-pounding action. When you consider that the best elements of his Spider-Man 2 score actually came from Christopher Young (who would then assume full scoring duties for the third instalment) and that the contribution he bolted on top of Terminator Salvation was so bland and devoid of character, the impression is certainly one of a composer who has lost his once grand and distinctive voice. Perhaps he was concentrating more on Alice In Wonderland for Burton, but his music for The Wolfman sounds like so much lazy retread. Which, of course, leads you to suspect that I don't like this score. But that is not true. Having heard the promo release a short while ago, I thought that although it sounded very familiar, it had plenty of Gothic atmosphere and enough dark brooding to topple Castle Dracula from its Carpathian peak, but I also thought that it was merely a taster of greater delights to come with the release of the movie and then the full score on CD. But this official release is exactly the same, I'm afraid and, as full of all those required elements for a dour and period-set creature-feature as it is, the score becomes pretty boring and depressing far too often ... which, given the talent and the material, is a real head-scratcher.

To understand the evolution of the werewolf-movie score over the years and to appreciate just what could have been with this, we'll have to take a brief look at what has gone before Elfman's moonlit symphony. Possibly the best evocation of loup garou music is still that which Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter composed for George Waggner's original The Wolf Man for Universal back in 1941. Bringing in some wonderful gypsy motifs, alarming menace and violent passages, together with a genuine sense of both magic and tragedy, theirs' is still the one to measure them all by. Flash-forward to 1960 and we have the exquisite score that Benjamin Frankel composed for Hammer's classic, and only full-length lycanthropic feature film, The Curse Of The Werewolf. Again, period motifs abound, but Frankel also managed to conjure up some desperate terror and full-throttle action as the hairy Oliver Reed rampaged around the little Spanish hamlet he had earmarked out as his hunting ground. Once again, the splendid use of a full orchestra hammered home the pathos and the suspense of such a saga. After a lean period in lupine movies, 1981 unleashed the beast again with the double-whammy of The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, and the not-unrelated environmental chiller, Wolfen. A young James Horner furnished Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen, the first out of the gates, with a simply mesmerising score that combined an achingly poignant wolf-theme with some nerve-shredding passages of remorseless, primal cunning and savagery. A lot of his own trademark motifs were created in this score, it should be noted. Then came Bernard Herrmann rip-off merchant Pino Donaggio, who provided a lush, string-led frenzy for Joe Dante's The Howling, the first werewolf film proper to come along during that infamous body-contorting year. Some country whimsy sat awkwardly alongside the wild shrieking of violins and sampled stingers, but there was much slashing musical terror to be savoured. Something much different howled at the Moon from the other side of the Pond, though. Besides the canny in-joke songs that John Landis peppered his far superior horror yarn with, there was the minimal, yet incredibly haunting score for American Werewolf that Elmer Bernstein came up with. Again, the sense of dread and foreboding was uppermost in the design of the music and, despite the humorous elements of the film, he guaranteed it an enormously creepy quality, as well, that genuinely delivers a frisson of the otherworldly.

In the years since these more celebrated wolf pictures, we have also had Jay Chattaway's slight but excellently unsettling score for the enjoyable Stephen King adaptation of Silver Bullet, and even Ennio Morricone trying his hand at the genre with his pulsating string and synth score for the really rather naff Wolf. Joseph LoDuca's awesome music for Les Pacte Des Loups is probably the best of the more recent scores - again utilising a delicious Eastern European Romany theme interspersed with lush horror and period dressing, even though we have also benefited from one of Alan Silvestri's best and most exciting works when he hitched-up for a ride alongside Van Helsing, but this was much more of an all-out action score and didn't really add anything to the musical mythos of the Wolf Man. So, it is safe to say that score-fans have been eagerly awaiting something new and full-fanged, and with such a rich and potent back-catalogue to fall back on, it seemed only fair to expect Danny Elfman to rise to the occasion and really come up with the goods.

But, much like the film, this is another disappointment, compounded all the more because we all know that this production deserved better and that the composer could have really delivered something of true power and eerie beauty.

Elfman has admitted that he admired Kilar's score for Dracula and that he intended, all along, to capture a similarly lush atmosphere of broad symphonic horror and passionately melancholic mood. But the inescapable fact remains that his theme is just too damn similar to Kilar's to possess any real dignity of its own. And the familiar motifs don't end there, either. There is also the yearning passage that James Newton Howard created for Peter Jackson's King Kong and more than a few nods and homages to Elliot Goldenthal's Interview With The Vampire. Elfman has done Gothic before, and very, very successfully, too. The first Batman and Sleepy Hollow are magnificent examples of what the composer can create, and this tale of cursed bloodlines, familial tragedy, monstrous secrets and doomed love should have provided him with all the appropriate motivation to produce something much deeper, more lyrical and profound than this gloomy, mightily doom-laden and occasionally po-faced offering.

The score, as heard on this album, does not run in strictly film-narrative order, but this is down to the concept of providing the listener with a finer-flowing, more musical presentation - something that the likes of Jerry Goldsmith would often do for his initial score releases on LP, primarily, and then on disc which certainly shows an understanding of how the music, when divorced from the movie, can become an entity in its own right, with an altogether fresher life. Broadly speaking, this album supplies what could be termed as an overture in the first two tracks - Wolf Suites Pts 1 and 2 - and then some specific scene-related cues, rearranged and remoulded, followed by a short, sharp final resume of wolfish vigour.

Elfman ditches Gothic grandeur in favour of almost perpetual darkness. There is a thick and redolent ambience to this that has an undeniably welcome edge, and that fact that there is no allowance for fun and very little for any of the composer's trademarked ethereal harmony is a refreshing reminder that The Wolfman was supposed to be serious. Well, supposed to be. Unfortunately, this also means that Elfman's score frequently lacks colour, or variety. It is clear that he wants this to be down and dirty, and even if it never quite goes deep enough to make the blood freeze, or the scalp tingle, there is a palpable sense of foreboding and of grim revelations lurking just around the corner. But, detrimentally, he loses his way with the essential build-up of suspense and fear. I've banged-on about how well-suited to this project Christopher Young would have been, but this is precisely where he would have excelled - creating genuine unease and a collection of musical stingers that had real bite to them, rather than the often quite tame and somewhat monotonous smorgasbord of clamours and jangles that Elfman throws in whenever a shock tears suddenly across the screen.

Plus, with his score for Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, Young revealed a quicksilver affinity for gypsy music or, at least, the wildly weird and flagrantly mischievous capacity that it has to chill the soul with its prancing, medieval fiddle jiggery-pokery. His warped and delicious concoctions for the soul-snatching gypsy-summoned demons in that movie intuitively caroused, serenaded and deceived us with the sort of dexterity that this story would have thrived on.

But, to give him his due, Danny Elfman knows a thing or two about giddy and malevolent string-playing, as well ... and this absolutely vital component to the music for The Wolfman is not left wanting. Violins, celli, harp and fiddles abound, high keening strings are scratched and waves of sweeping dark lyricism buffet the senses. The beauty of this intricate and quite unstoppable barrage from the extensive string section only really begins to reveal its power after several listenings. The two Wolf Suites demonstrate the all-encompassing nature of this spellbinding lamentation to such a degree that the intelligence of the writing is somewhat overshadowed - but there is a delicious twisting, rolling surge to the cues that stems from bold chord progressions and an emphatic four-note motif for the Wolfman that is sharp and shrill, yet evocative of medieval woodcuts and grisly tales from frightened yokels swapped around a flickering tavern-fire. The main theme, which incorporates this motif, is set in stone during the first track. Elfman establishes a strong, rhythmic drive. Rolling percussion churns away beneath the strings, a steady, resonant pulse marching defiantly to the tune of a demented and implacable dark heart. There is a synth at work here, too, just a hint of electronic enhancement to the brass and percussive clout, but it is important to note that the score is vastly orchestral and written for a large number of players. The depth of the recording is excellent and this presentation lacks nothing in terms of clarity or detail which, when you contemplate the sizzling dexterity of the strings and the swooning broadsides of brass and percussion that will follow, is a definite bonus.

Track 3, Prologue, has some definite gypsy leanings with a solo cello that squeals like a fiddle, mournfully setting out a deadly agenda that has the orchestra joining in with it in earnest. The flavour is dark and terrible and if you get the feeling that there will be no joy in this drama ... then you would be dead right. Pensive lulls give way to a steady, mocking beat that hauls with it some brassy flurries, and a delicious crescendo for ignited strings rounds off the film's opening kill.

The main theme returns, now forming an attachment to Benicio Del Toro's doomed Lawrence Talbot as he makes the long-delayed and reluctant return to his home in Northumbria to meet a father that he despises and join in the hunt for whatever beast it was that shredded his brother. Now it becomes his theme. Violins give it heart and a sense of colossal grief, celli providing a depth that we know Lawrence will be forced to sink to. The brief cue that follows, Bad Moon Rising, carves out a threatening omen as the strings turn more sinister and decree that something terrible is going to come out the woods. Which, to the marvellous accompaniment of Track 6, Gypsy Massacre, it dutifully does with a speed and ferocity that lays waste to a considerable number of travellers and townsfolk. Although I have to maintain that Elfman's “scare tactics” aren't the best in the business, then I must also concede that his action cues are terrific. Kinetic, fast-paced and full of instrumental detail, these are the moments when the score comes alive. Percussion pounds away in Gypsy Massacre, hurtling the momentum of limb-loppings and throat-severings with almost militaristic gusto. Plateaus of sliding strings morph into slopes of barrelling brass, the cue literally loping along until it reaches a rather abrupt ending.

Wake Up, Lawrence (Track 7), is a pensive, string-shivering testament to the sadness of the whole affair. Badly injured in the wolf attack, and fatefully bitten, he begins to make his supernaturally-aided recovery. The first moments are constructed with soft piano notes, slowly caressed strings and a mournful clarinet. The main theme attempts to slide through this gentle motif, but soft agitation from the violin floats across to smother it, pawing it back down again. A tragic, dirge-like gypsy phrase issues at one point, with delicate plucking of the harp delivering some aching poignancy. The last section of the track turns darker and more ominous. The three-note threat motif comes in, and a churning, cyclic ripples through, tiny chimes issuing from somewhere very far away, before the fiddle's more raucous voice cuts through it all and the track fades out with receding discord. Another long piece follows in The Funeral. Again, this commences with a sombre gentility, emotions dredged through memories of blood and chaos, before a rising welter from strings and woodwinds gives way to a peal from brass - the French horn - that lifts us, momentarily, from the dark thoughts of a roster of characters who are allowed not one glimmer of hope. The main theme, corrupted and veiled drifts, alone, against this tide but, once again, cannot make headway. The deepest recesses of Elfman's former glories can almost be discerned ... the heartache of Edward Scissorhands, the fragile and misunderstood dreams of Jack Skellington ... but it is the next track, The Healing Montage, that presents something a little more definitive of Elfman as a small female choir join in with the morose orchestra to serenade us with something that is thinly beautiful against the wall of despair that surrounds us with ever-thickening walls. Quite majestically, this lilting quasi-ethereal cue accompanies an iridescent dust-mote caught in a shaft of sunlight as Lawrence lies dreaming in wolfish recovery - a rare moment of pure magic. Although other instruments make fleeting appearances, almost like ghostly voices in the mist, the strings, once again, hold sway, heavy and portentous. Whatever tenderness once glistened here, the darker blanket of discontent soon smothers it. The story may be a tragedy, but the screenplay, the acting and the fun effects, as well as Joe Johnston's choppy, in-yer-face direction, seem hell-bent on squandering such strong emotional bleakness ... which only makes all this depressing soul-searching from Elfman all the more thickly ladled and overt.

Thankfully, then, the album then cuts to the chase, almost literally, as we arrive at the pivotal First Transformation, Track 10.

A futile sweetness pervades the introduction - fiddle, piano and strings - but fairly swiftly we get a sustained build-up from percussion, a spooky glide from the harp and some malleable bass signifying the change that Lawrence's body is undergoing. There is a hint of Elfman's own Planet Of The Apes somewhere in here, and some very slight synth padding-out the deeper urges. But this is a good track that evokes the horror and the thrill of the hunt, even if it ends just when it seems to have gotten going. What follows in You Must Go, Track 11, is actually from an earlier sequence. Full of long lines from the violins and severely dour underscore, occasional padding on the piano keys, the first half is unashamedly weighty, Gothic brooding that could encapsulate all manner of Dickensian or Brontean woes. This is dramatic and exceedingly serious, but then the second half picks up the pace, unhitching the gypsy violins and developing a fierce rhythm that then veritably gallops until the fade.

Track 12, The Antique Shop, which hails from much later on in the film, features the now-typical glacial string layers that shiver and tingle above a few meandering notes from the piano. Gradually getting heavier as the cue moves along, this becomes the film's love theme. Quite bizarrely, considering how brief it is and how equally doomed as the rest of the score it sounds, this seems suddenly out of whack - but Elfman and Pope seem to realise this and the fragile little piano phrase is then shunted away under a broom of yet more melancholia. It is this preponderance for gloom that lets the score down more than anything else. Whilst watching the film, you really get the impression that cast can hear the music and are just getting evermore depressed at the sound of it. There is something of Patrick Doyle's swirling morbidity for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at work here, too. Which is hardly surprising, of course. The Wolfman treads the same emotional turf as the stitched-up creature and the misguided genius who gave him life, as well as that suavely sinister Count craving for new blood and new love from beyond the grave. All hark from the same seedbed of wretched nightmare and philosophical torture, so the fact that Elfman's score sounds so similar to such previous Goth-fests as Coppola's and Branagh's is not really surprising. But what is surprising, however, given that the scope for horror is greater with the Wolfman, is that he tends to brood possibly even more than the composers for the earlier creature-features, despite writing for a film with considerably greater action and violence in it.

But then we get Country Carnage, almost as though Elfman is trying to prove me wrong. Suddenly, we are plunged into a rampant set-piece of musical mayhem as Lawrence, spitting fur-balls and drooling with saliva, takes the fight to a gaggle of would-be hunters out in the woods. Rearing strings rush helter-skelter, percussion is beaten into the ground. Chimes, bells and timpani scatter and cry out. Cymbals clash, drums growl and brass snarls out of the shadows. There is a little furtive and squirrelly motif taken from Goldenthal's Interview With The Vampire - blurting trumpets screaming rapidly into the air - but this is the sort of thing that we need more of. Fast and frantic fun, indeed. A wonderful rising squall of high strings opens the next track, Be Strong, but the piece must turn through some violin-led reproach before reaching a driving section of harboured plans and vengeful desires that spins it to the end.

The Madhouse is a fine set-piece that, in the film, contains some hefty, though obvious twists for the poor incarcerated Lawrence and some ghastly memories told in visceral flashbacks. Elfman follows all this with clever and emotional writing, somehow moving from rage and madness to dark beauty and through to glacial tension. The main theme, altered smartly into a more streamlined and bitter variation, arcs through. Then a fading passage quietly wallows in grim resolve, the violins see-sawing with steady inevitability. Two cues make up the next track. The first section, entitled Reflection has shades of Kilar's Dracula and even his Ninth Gate scores, with slow, gathering dread and angst for electrified strings that culminates in a cloud-piercing crescendo. And then we are treated to the 2nd Transformation, as Lawrence, lashed to a chair in the middle of a host of stuffy academics lets supernature take its course and proves all their theories completely wrong. The choir, this time both male and female voices, appears over the top of the second cue's tense crescendo, yet they are kept well to the rear of the music.

Although we have heard the motif several times already, the James Newton Howard “King Kong” theme makes its most noticeable appearance in Track 17, The Travelling Montage. This was the sequence in the film that had me almost howling, let alone poor Lawrence Talbot. Howling with laughter, that is. As three separate parties all make their own individual way back to Blackmoor for a final fateful night of snarling, ripping and gouging - and all arriving almost simultaneously despite the different routes and methods of transport they use - Elfman's music becomes a yearning, twisting and remorseless travelogue. Blending in the main theme with sinuous strings and some fine brass signatures, the piece then develops little motifs for the various characters - a downtrodden yet determined voice for Lawrence, footsore and skulking about the wood and hiding beneath bridges, a more bustling and rollicking variation for the carriage transporting Hugo Weaving's Insp. Aberline and his squandered hit-squad, and an even quicker and more kinetic piece suggestive of the locomotive that Emily Blunt's Gwen Conliffe rides on.

Although things are clearly being set up for a grand climax - the film actually lets the side down with a lacklustre dog-eat-dog skirmish - the album track entitled The Finale, offers little in the way of excitement or pathos. More seething underscore dominates the cue, until a very brief gasp of gypsy dramatics bubbles over the last stretch with dancing fiddle-play. Track 19, the teasingly titled Wolf Wild #2 (we don't get #1) is presumably the piece that plays over the stylish end credit sequence. Just a short version of the main theme, this is over far too quickly to have any real impact other than to remind you of the Wolfman motif that you have heard almost constantly throughout the score, albeit in a variety of guises.

As you will no doubt realise, there is still more music in the theatrical cut, though a good deal of this is just what you hear on this album, re-positioned and repeated with subtle expansions here and there. However, this album is as good a treatise on the troubled final score as you will get without being privileged to savour all the various bits and pieces of composition that went into the entire project. I have absolutely no doubt that both Haslinger's and a fuller version of Elfman's work will become available by fair means or foul ... but the nagging conclusion that remains is that, musically, The Wolfman is still something of a let-down. Here was a God-given opportunity for the composer to have rejoiced in subject matter that had his name written all over it ... yet too much of it feels stale and turgid.

So, in the end, just like the film, itself, Danny Wolfman didn't quite measure up. Not entirely his fault, of course ... the film was clearly cursed from the outset, and his score was merely another victim. It remains tantalising, yet purely hypothetical, to think about what could have been. My money would have been on Christopher Young nailing this project and the temptation to try and synch his Drag Me To Hell on the top of The Wolfman when it comes out on Blu-ray will be hard to resist. Too familiar-sounding to stand on its own four paws, too relentlessly gloomy to properly stimulate or excite, Danny Elfman's lycanthropic symphony is certainly impressive in places, but much too repetitive and often bewilderingly dull. Although compared to what Paul Haslinger came up with, this is a definite masterpiece.

Full Track Listing

1. Wolf Suite Pt 1 (4:12)

2. Wolf Suite Pt 2 (5:55)

3. Prologue (2:57)

4. Dear Mr. Talbot (1:45)

5. Bad Moon Rising (0:59)

6. Gypsy Massacre (2:24)

7. Wake Up, Lawrence (5:17)

8. The Funeral (4:13)

9. The Healing Montage (2:50)

10. First Transformation (3:30)

11. You Must Go (3:46)

12. The Antique Shop (3:32)

13. Country Carnage (2:31)

14. Be Strong (2:31)

15. The Madhouse (5:32)

16. Reflection / 2nd Transformation (4:12)

17. The Travelling Montage (4:27)

18. The Finale (4:11)

19. Wolf Wild #2 (1:27)

After fearing the worst with Haslinger's ill-conceived score, we finally get Elfman's suitably Gothic and determinedly brooding “original” interpretation and a much more fitting experience this is. Regrettably, however, the troubles of the production reach into the music too, as it is possibly obvious for some to discern just where Elfman's music ends and the patching-over process from Conrad Pope begins. The lack of any memorable main themes that are unique to The Wolfman is also a problem, as is the constant musical reminders of Kilar's Dracula and, to a lesser degree, Howard's King Kong and Goldenthal's Interview With The Vampire. But the score does grow on you after a while. I've listened to it a lot and I confess that I am enjoying more and more each time. Certain of the more action-orientated elements are really good - The Gypsy Massacre and Country Carnage, for instance - and stand out from the roiling despair that clouds so much of the rest. The love theme is a bit a let-down, admittedly, but the sense of absolute darkness and foreboding that courses through the majority of the score is, naturally, welcome and, of course, necessary.

I still hanker for what Christopher Young could have done with this material and, after hearing the Romany/tinker themes of industrial-gypsy that Hans Zimmer brought so vividly into play for Sherlock Holmes, even he could have brought more colour and variety to the pot. Perhaps.

The Wolfman, both as a film and as a score, miss the mark ... which is something that I am still having trouble coming to terms with. The film is fun but determinedly stupid and un-scary. The score is, perversely, no fun at all, yet strives so hard to provide emotional depth to characters that just don't have any that it becomes almost hand-wringing in its brooding despair. Still, it is infinitely better than Paul Haslinger's score.






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