With Kong: Skull Island out now, Sean Wilson looks back at the classic monster movies with top tunes…
It’s time for Kong to reclaim his crown as king of the movie monsters in all-action blockbuster romp Kong: Skull Island, the latest instalment in the ongoing Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures ‘MonsterVerse’ that will eventually see the great ape do battle with the equally legendary Godzilla.
Featuring an all-star cast led by Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly, Skull Island also features a rousing score from Captain America: Civil War composer Henry Jackman who uses every orchestral force at his disposal to depict Kong’s overwhelming size.
So what better time to recap the all-time-greatest monster movie scores from Hollywood and beyond?
King Kong (Max Steiner, 1933)
The one that started it all, as well as the birth of the monster movie and its accompanying soundtrack. Few images are seared onto viewers’ minds as vividly as Kong scaling the Empire State Building, but one of the key reasons the original Kong continues to resonate is the visceral conviction of Steiner’s thunderous, brassy score. Maintaining consistency with his European classical roots Steiner deployed the Wagnerian leitmotif and assigned key themes to Kong himself, Fay Wray’s imperiled Ann Darrow and Skull Island’s natives, among others. Hard to believe that the music was originally going to comprise selections of other scores – Steiner’s revolutionary work is as responsible as anything for securing the movie as a classic, helping to save RKO from total bankruptcy. Steiner’s musical roar has echoed down to all those who have scored Kong in the intervening years, John Barry, John Scott, James Newton Howard and the aforementioned Henry Jackman among them.
Godzilla (Akira Ifukube, 1954)
20 years after King Kong film music had progressed into yet more daring areas, avant-garde and neo-classical approaches gathering pace following the lushly romantic approach of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (It was during this time that the likes of Alex North rose to prominence with A Streetcar Named Desire.) One of the most experimental and defining scores from this period was Japanese composer Ifukube’s seminal Godzilla, a dark and toiling score that proved as definitive as its movie, mixing atonal sound effects (including a glove being rubbed down a double bass string) with militaristic marches to reflect the contradictions of the storyline. Compositionally, Alexandre Desplat’s explosively impressive work on Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is superior, but Ifukube was the one who set the standard.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, 1954)
No less than three composers went uncredited on the score for this timeless creature feature, the unforgettable Universal Pictures tale of a prehistoric beast lurking beneath the waters of the Amazon, and the hapless crew who go in to discover it. Among the musical trio was none other than the legendary Henry Mancini, renowned composer of Touch of Evil and The Pink Panther, among countless others, then in the throes of what would turn out to be an extraordinary career. In an interview the late composer wryly recalled the romping, unsubtle nature of the creature’s central, terrifying three-note theme, one whose sense of brooding danger was, at the behest of the studio, insistently reinstated by himself, Salter and Stein.
Dracula (James Bernard, 1958)
Hammer Horror’s definitive take on the bloodsucker features a powerfully imposing performance from Christopher Lee as Dracula, whose regal exterior masks animalistic danger and menace. Hammer’s lavishly colourful approach, full of heaving cleavages and plenty of blood, required a bombastic, ripe score to do the tale justice, and English composer James Bernard stepped up to the plate, having already scored the studio’s The Curse of Frankenstein the year before. Leaving restraint at the door Bernard’s Gothic onslaught of brass chords and shrill strings helped usher in a new era of monster movie soundtrack, one whose sense of menace was leavened with a vibrant air of romanticism.
Jason and the Argonauts (Bernard Herrmann, 1963)
Not, strictly speaking, a monster movie but Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion creations carry such a visceral impact that it would be churlish not to include this classic mythological adventure. Lending further weight to the likes of Talos and those infamous, sword-wielding skeletons is the typically progressive, radical score from Bernard Herrmann who having composed entirely for strings in Psycho, now left those at the door and instead placed emphasis on brass, percussion, woodwind and harp. It’s a robust, thrilling and thought-provoking work from one of the film score world’s greatest mavericks.
The Valley of Gwangi (Jerome Moross, 1969)
Best known for his rollicking, warmhearted Western score The Big Country, Moross perhaps doesn’t immediately spring to the lips of contemporary film score fans, a shame as there’s a lot of terrific stuff in his back catalogue. In fact, his Gwangi score owes more to Westerns than it does to the usual conventions of monster movie scores, hardly a surprise when the story revolves around a cowboy looking to lasso a T-Rex (animated by Ray Harryhausen) and make his fortune. Barrelling ahead on a bed of sprightly strings and snare drums in a manner that evokes wide open landscapes, the score is in many ways the most lighthearted entry on this list.
Jaws (John Williams, 1975)
Famously, when John Williams first presented his spine-tingling two-note shark theme to director Steven Spielberg on piano, the latter thought it was a joke. Translated into a full orchestra however and its fiendish effectiveness becomes crystal clear. Jaws was a movie beset by production woes, most notably the malfunctioning prop shark that caused all manner of headaches for Spielberg as he sought to film around it. This subsequently threw more emphasis on Williams’ score, one that becomes the shark’s heartbeat and whose horn/cello/double bass onslaught increases in pace the nearer we are to potential victims. One of the most intuitive and brilliant monster movie scores in the history of the medium, it got Williams his second Oscar.
Alien (Jerry Goldsmith, 1979)
Communication is a key ingredient for the construction of any film score, monster-related or otherwise. Sadly it was in short supply between director Ridley Scott and Jerry Goldsmith on the seminal 1979 sci-fi horror, a fraught and tense collaboration that saw much of the composer’s work being dumped and replaced with sections of his other scores, not to mention other classical staples. Regardless the music as heard in the movie is chillingly effective, Goldsmith in his usual style coming up with a whole host of extraordinary, slithery textures to give malevolent personality to H.R. Giger’s xenomorph. From strings filtered through an Echoplex to the uniquely unsettling sound of the Serpent instrument, it’s one of Goldsmith’s greatest achievements.
The Thing (Ennio Morricone, 1982)
Not too dissimilar to what happened on Alien, the working relationship between John Carpenter and the feted Ennio Morricone perhaps wasn’t entirely fruitful, the latter coming up with a whole host of avant-garde textures (including skin-crawling, infectious pizzicato strings) that ultimately didn’t see the light of day (at least until they were used in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). Instead, Carpenter reinstated the doom-laden electronic pulse of one of Morricone’s key tracks (see below), perhaps because it aped the director’s own material on his other films, at several points during the movie, whilst also composing several bits of electronic filler himself. Regardless, in terms of its cold and chilly atmosphere it’s one of the most effective of all monster scores.