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Starburst Magazine Issue 406 - Out Now

Stop! Hammertime.

PrintE-mail Written by Rob Talbot Tuesday, 14 June 2011

OST - by Rob Talbot

There's a whole lotta Hammer going on in this edition of OST, as we take in a wealth of classic material from the 'Studio That Dripped Blood' before checking out an offering from its new incarnation. At times the soundtracks to Hammer films can seem almost like aural wallpaper when heard in the contexts of their respective films. Indeed, sometimes it's only really by hearing them divorced from the action they describe that one can truly appreciate the artistry at work. Three brand new downloadable compilations from Silva Screen (under the umbrella title of The Hammer Legacy) help to do just that, with work from the master James Bernard and names we sometimes forget like Tristram Cary, Harry Robinson and David Whitaker.

The Hammer Legacy: The Frankenstein Collection (Silva Screen) starts, rightly enough, with Bernard's majestic opening theme from Hammer's very first Eastmancolor nightmare, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), filled with Gothic menace and drama. It's a very old recording, and sounds like it, but Silva Screen have restored it enough for us to hear every nuance. Full of foreboding the theme may be, but it's also guaranteed to produce a warm fuzzy feeling whenever heard by long time fan or keen newcomer alike. The opening theme for Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) by Leonard Salzedo is perhaps less instantly familiar, but a strong piece that it's great to have access to at last.

Next up is the memorable, brash and melodramatic opening music from 'Frankenstein III', The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), from Don Banks, one of Hammer music supervisor Philip Martell's "favourite composers" according to Marcus Hearn's excellent liner notes (provided as a lavishly illustrated, high quality PDF when the complete album is purchased). It's strident and powerful, with plenty of the rolling drums and crashing cymbals you'd expect from the studio's 'house sound'. SS clearly had better materials to work with here, and for the remaining films represented, as it's all much more crisp and clear from here on in. Next are the Opening Titles / Closing Credits of Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), another classic of the series, with James Bernard adding soaring strings to summon the appropriate suggestion of female tragedy.

Bernard was also on board for the follow-up, and one of the best in the series, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), represented here by five cuts from its score as opposed to the one track meted out to the instalments thus far. Whether this is due to the scarcity of workable elements from the earlier scores or not, it's nice to at least have some extra tracks from this one. After the opening theme, tracks like Liberating Brandt and the wonderfully titled Frankenstein's Lust take you on a whistle-stop tour through the questionable delights of this twisted tale. This is a score by Hammer's soundtrack maestro at his best.

The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) was the entertaining but abortive attempt at a series reboot with Ralph Bates playing a younger Baron, at a time when the studio's stock was plunging rapidly. However, Malcolm Williamson's score, represented here by the Opening Titles, is a real departure from its antecedents and judged on its own merits is a pleasing piece of work. Williamson himself wasn't happy with it, though – he's quoted in Hearn's liner notes as saying "I felt that I had not provided the film with an adequate musical score". The opening theme is surprisingly lush and gentle, with flute and light strings suggesting the beauty of nature more than the 'Horror of Frankenstein', although there is the occasional sinister undertone.

After the cold reception Horror received, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) reassembled three tried-and-tested Frankenstein collaborators; Peter Cushing, Terence Fisher and soundtrack man Bernard. As Hearn points out, the 'violin theme […] serves as a haunting lament for the last of the traditional Hammer horrors'. We get four tracks from Monster from Hell, providing a fitting elegiac coda to this aural journey through one of Hammer's most popular series.

On to The Hammer Legacy: The Vampire Collection (Silva Screen) and we don't find themes from Dracula films as you might expect; because presumably – or just hopefully – there's a 'Dracula Collection' in the works.  Then again then there are a few cuts from Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) on here, but that madness always tends to be left out of the Hammer Dracula 'canon' anyway. Instead we have a selection of music, again in chronological order, from the studios’ 'other' vampire flicks.

In this case, the chronological ordering makes it so the album kicks off with the two best tracks. James Bernard's Opening Titles and The Vampire Rhapsody from The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) are at the core of one the finest soundtracks to one of Hammer's very finest films. After a brash, noisy opening, the film's unforgettable piano theme emerges; the 'Vampire Rhapsody' elaborated on in the subsequent track. Beautiful. After this, the compilation is mostly seventies-based, following on from Kiss with Harry Robinson's Opening Titles from The Vampire Lovers (1970). While accomplished, it represents the kind of 'historical' music that was by then starting to become rather clichéd and tiresome for most audiences. Still pleasant enough a listen, though. The same goes for the opening title tracks of both Countess Dracula (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971), also from Robinson.

The album stays with Lust for one more track, The Dream ['Strange Love'], which is more interesting thanks to its unusual (experimental?) song structure and breathy vocal by Tracy. The song formed the B-Side to Tracy's pop 45 Rock Me in the Cradle, also arranged by Robinson, who himself had risen to fame as the writer, producer and leader of Lord Rockingham's XI, the band of session musicians that spent three weeks at No.1 in '58 with the single Hoots Mon. You know, the one about the moose loose aboot this hoose. Or something.

There's more from Robinson in the next cut, as we move on to Opening Titles from one of my favourites, Twins of Evil (1971), with its strident march of a theme instantly conjuring up images of Cushing's puritanical Gustav Weil leading his men off on another witch hunt. Vampire Circus (1972) follows this with two tracks from English composer David Whitaker: the ominous Opening Titles and the much more exciting The Tiger Dance, with the latter's tribal rhythm augmented by sinister chords played on a mandolin or some such instrument.

James Bernard returns with a reprise of his classic Dracula (1958) theme with Opening Titles from The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), his final score for the studio. This is followed by Ambush from the same film, a gradual build up of tension that could be dropped at random into almost any other Hammer film without anybody noticing. The Battle Rages and Introducing Vanessa Buren finish off the Legend section and This Is Your Life and The Professionals composer Laurie Johnson's swashbuckling Opening Titles for Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) rounds the compilation off.

The final compilation in this terror triumvirate is The Hammer Legacy: The Science Fiction Collection (Silva Screen), although 'The Quatermass Collection' might have been a more appropriate title, were not for the inclusion of one standout track right at the end. The album begins with the one that started it all: James Bernard's doom-laden opening music from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The obvious age of the material only serves to make it even more terrifying; amongst the most frightening pieces of music ever produced for Hammer. The opener of Quatermass 2 (1957), also from Bernard, is of the more traditional Gothic sound as heard on the Frankenstein and Dracula scores.

Almost the entire remainder of the album is devoted to nine tracks from esteemed composer Tristram Cary's score for Quatermass and the Pit (1967). The late Cary was something of a pioneer in electronic music who provided a substantial amount of early electronic soundtrack cues for the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who and founded the company that manufactured the first mass-market portable synthesiser, not to mention the Royal College of Music's first electronic music studio. Despite this, most of his Quatermass score is orchestral and in the recognisable Bernard/Hammer mould, but no less big and powerful for it. According to Hearn's notes, music supervisor Martell, unhappy with some of it, "composed several cues himself and substituted two of Cary's cues for library tracks by composers Armando Sciascia and Dennis Farnon". Farnon's Deserted Harbour, included here, was used for the end credits; a thoughtful, tragic sounding piece. However, we do get to hear Cary get his synth groove thang on in the subsequent track Electronic Music, an almost experimental jam that perfectly communicates the concept of approaching death – from space! Oddly enough, this, the penultimate track, is the first one to really sound as though it actually comes from a science fiction film rather than a Gothic horror.

I said there was an exception to the Quatermass rule on this album and here it comes in the form of American jazzer Don Ellis's cracking Opening Titles for Hammer's 'space western' Moon Zero Two (1969). The track is an irresistible slice of space-themed soul and lounge, with a splendidly sassy vocal from jazz singer Julie Driscoll. Of course it's totally incongruous with the sustained menace and carefully built up atmosphere of the last 11 tracks, but who cares when it's this much fun? Just hearing this and seeing the beautifully illustrated pages of the liner notes has made me desperate to revisit a film I've scarcely thought about since seeing it on BBC2 at the age of around twelve.

If I've done these compilations any justice, they should surely have any Hammer completist rabidly chomping at the bit by now. Lots of rare material, well assembled and remastered, make these 'must-haves' for the serious Hammer devotees amongst us. The chronological approach also works well, as we far too often find that such compilations seem thrown together willy-nilly. Top marks to Silva Screen for three great compilations, but – can't we have them on CD and vinyl as well, please?

Here's some more Hammer goodness, this time from the new incarnation of the studio, with Micheal Giacchino's score for Matt Reeves' Let Me In (Varese Sarabande).  The score for the film's Norwegian antecedent, 2008's Let the Right One In, was an understated, bittersweet affair from Johan Söderqvist, whereas Giacchino (who also provided the score for Star Trek (2009), amongst other blockbusters, and is set to do the same for Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton's forthcoming John Carter of Mars flick – which I really hope is going to be good), has headed more down the 'generic modern horror' route with his interpretation. However, this doesn't stop it from being a fine album in its own right, if a trifle overlong at 80 minutes.

The first track is called, appropriately enough Hammertime (a nice touch), a short and minimal introduction, with sighing voices signifying 'horror territory' from the get-go. The following cut, Los Alamos, is a nail-bitingly tense and terrifying affair in case you were still in any doubt. Subsequent tracks like Peeping Owen have gentle piano melodies and muted children's choirs, communicating the loneliness and alienation of Oskar, sorry Owen, and Abby's existences. The most frightening tracks are those clearly engineered around the character of 'The Father', such as The Blood Flood,  Killer In-Stinks (!) and, most of all, Acid Test Dummy. If you've read the book or seen either of the films, you won't be able to help but know which scene that describes.

With so many short pieces and at such a length, after a while it all seems to melt into one continuous suite; which perhaps it's supposed to. Your attention will wander, but enjoy coming back to it again and probably again after that. It's nothing ground-breaking, or 'important' and it certainly won't get your foot tapping, but it's a solid orchestral score that does what it's supposed to do. Which is to scare the living bejesus out of you. Recommended – but do yourself a favour and don't walk around with it on your iPod if you're feeling low, paranoid or even just generally out of sorts. But, hey, Hammer! It's great to have you back.

I don't know! First Doctor Who, now Hammer Films? Next you'll be telling me that they're bringing Starburst back.

Til next time – keep listenin'.

robyn.talbot@starburstmagazine.com


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