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Preserving The Sound and Music of Horror Films

By David Konow

Obsessed horror fans are digging back into film archives to restore and re-release the original music scores from their favorite B-movies. In some cases, that means finding an orchestra to re-record the soundtrack when the original master is lost to time.

Lalo Schifrin is the acclaimed composer of Cool Hand Luke, Enter the Dragon, George Lucas’s THX-1138, and many other memorable scores. He even wrote the Mission: Impossible theme. When he was kid, he realized the power of a film's score from watching horror films. “I remember paying particularly close attention to the music,” Schifrin said in an interview, and he would tell his friends at school, “I bet you anything that without that music it wouldn’t be that frightening at all.”

And indeed, the right composer can make a huge difference in a horror film. Think of John Carpenter’s soundtrack to Halloween, Bernard Hermann’s music for Psycho, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music for The Omen and Alien, among others. Music works hand-in-hand with the visuals in a horror movie--it's one of the most important ingredients in creating a scare--yet like the genre itself, the music in scary movies has been vastly under-rated and overlooked.

“When the composers had to write scores for these unbelievable movies, they had to go the extra mile, says David Schecter, the founder of the Monstrous Movie Music label. “They had to somehow convince us there’s a mutant, half-insect, half-man running about on this planet trying to get the girl. They’re trying to musically describe futuristic underground cities on other planets, and you can’t do that with simple music. You really have to put thought into the orchestration in order to impart this sense of grandeur, this sense of wonder, this sense of horror. I think it’s harder to score a lot of these pictures than it is to score traditional movies with traditional sounds.”

Schecter has made it his mission in life to preserve a lot of great horror music. The titles the Monstrous label has released include The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Brain From Planet Arous, It! The Creature From Beyond Space, and more. The label encompasses a wide variety of genre music, from classics to B flicks, and Schecter wants to prove to the world that this music deserves to be saved for future generations.

Way back in the classic Universal days of Bela and Boris, the movies were churned out fast and furious, and so was the music, which is one reason why the composers didn’t think too highly of what they created. As Schecter told us, “Most of the good horror film composers, the reason they got their jobs was they were not only very good, but very, very fast. They were able to write music of incredible quality at an incredible rate.”

Acclaimed composer Henry Mancini (Moon River, and the Pink Panther theme) did some sci-fi and horror soundtracks back in the fifties, like It Came From Outer Space (co-written with Herman Stein and Irving Gertz), as well as Tarantula (also co-written with Stein). Schecter says Mancini and Stein downplayed the music they wrote for genre films because “they wanted to score prestige pictures. Back then, science fiction was not considered prestige. It was unthinkable for science fiction films to be nominated for Oscars back then, it didn’t happen.”

When we spoke to Schechter, we expected to hear some insane stories about restoring master tapes, and the jungles of red tape he had to cut through to secure the rights to rerelease these film scores. While Schecter’s definitely has some war stories about tracking down the rights for a lot of music, a lot of the original recordings for these classics are sadly gone, and he’s re-recorded the scores with new orchestras for Monstrous Recordings.

The music for many movies back in those days was re-recorded for the soundtrack albums. “They did have the original recordings, but you had to pay the musicians again with a reuse fee,” Schecter says. “They would redo the music again to save money. When we started out, there were no original recordings. They were thrown out, or they were lost by the studios. In a few cases we had some tracks like Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space, but they were owned by the studio, and it would be too expensive to license them. Over time we started releasing the original soundtracks we were able to find.”

Schecter had to go overseas to Poland and Slovakia to find orchestras to redo the music. Recording in the States is prohibitively expensive because of union rates, and as Schecter explains, “Even the big budget movies aren’t recording in Hollywood because the musicians charge a lot of money.”

It was a unique experience teaching classical orchestras how to perform monster music the right way.

It was a unique experience teaching classical orchestras how to perform monster music the right way. “They were used to playing with more subtleties,” Schecter explains. “They hadn’t performed in-your-face monster music. We’d send them copies of the recordings and tell them, ‘This is the way we want them to sound.’”

As for tracking down the rights, they can be owned by a wide variety of people. One can own the music publishing, one can own the actual compositions, and another can own the physical master tapes.

“Universal stuff like Tarantula and Creature From the Black Lagoon had multiple composers,” Schechter says. “Some cues written by two people. There would be ownership changes, mistakes in the record keeping, and trying to get everything cleared up was a lot of work.” (Schecter now represents the estates of composers and the rights to their music, which he learned about when tracking down the rights for many Monstrous recordings over the years.)

Schecter also had quite an experience trying to track down Herman Stein, who composed the music for Creature From the Black Lagoon, calling every Stein he could find in the phone book for about three days. Once Stein got back to Schecter, “He was surprised that anyone remembered the music and that anyone cared about it. I don’t think he ever believed it was good music. I had to preach to Herman the way I preached to other people that good film music is good because of the composer, not because of the kind of movie it was written for.”

For Tim Ferrante, releasing the soundtracks for the B movie fun like Dracula Vs Frankenstein and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island came out of creating what he wanted to see in the world. In this case, the original tapes for both films were safely in storage and in perfect condition. Producer Sam Sherman, who owns the rights to both films, always took good care of his stuff, keeping them in large storage facilities that were climate controlled.

It was a special thrill for Ferrante to hear the actual reel-to-reel tapes of the Mad Doctor of Blood Island instead of having his well-worn cassette copy for years. On the playback, you could even hear the musicians talking in-between cues! The transfer was also not expensive; Ferrante had it professionally done with a radio engineer with studio level equipment transferred over to a master.

“There’s always an excitement when you hear something you love in the way it was recorded,” Ferrante says. “To hear these scores today with the original sessions, we’ve had it’s almost like hearing the music in a new way. To hear various takes, you can hear how the final sound was developed, and it answers questions you didn’t have.”

Doing it low budget and bare bones, like the movies themselves, Ferrante actually turned a profit on both soundtracks, and neither of them have sold out yet. If you’re resourceful and have the desire, you can do it too.

As Ferrante told us, “I would encourage anyone who is interested in film music, any kind of music, if there’s any piece of music that has moved you or charmed you, no matter how archaic, you are not the only person it has affected. You may think you are, but today you are not alone. Research it, find it, learn how to make it happen for yourself. It will cost money, there’s a learning curve, and I had to ask around and ask questions. If something moves you enough, and you have the desire to do it, nothing’s going to stop you.”