Comedian Martin Mull once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. While the surreal image of me gracefully waltzing around my office enacting the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater might bring a smile to your face, my aim here is to compile a core list of sci-fi and horror soundtracks whose noble notes brought an underappreciated elevation to the disappointing films for which they were written.
Original film scores and soundtracks are the connective tissue of a movie, and can enhance or diminish the emotional resonance of a cinematic experience in myriad ways. Here are eight prime examples of sensational soundtracks from an impressive roster of masterful musicians and composers whose commanding compositions deserved far better films than what they were given. Lend me your ears and strike up the band!
ORIGINAL SCORE BY MARC STREITENFELD
Don't pet the Hammerpede, but do slip this seriously scary score by Marc Streitenfeld into your stereo and drop into a consuming dungeon of disarming dread. I'm sure this may be a controversial choice that might incite riot but I stand by my music! But it's not in its sentimental strings over the main theme that this score excels, but in the later atmospheric tracks that create a suffocating aural odyssey with echoing blasts of industrial dementia and eerie sound effects effortlessly layered into the tracks. At times cacophonous with rasping metallic clawing wedged deep within the music. Ridley Scott's underwhelming Prometheus doesn't stand up to even the mildest of fanboy scrutiny but this disturbing soundtrack definitely does.
ORIGINAL SCORE BY DANNY ELFMAN
The amazing Danny Elfman wrote the haunting score for Clive Barker's Nightbreed, one of his most overlooked works injected into a frustratingly uneven supernatural monster flick. Right after 1989's Batman, but before the Grammy-winning artist linked up again with Tim Burton to create more iconic scores for Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow and Mars Atttacks!, Elfman conjured up this elegantly ominous horror soundscape that's a perfect companion for a quiet evening of pumpkin-carving and caramel consuming.
MORTAL KOMBAT (1995)
SOUNDTRACK BY VARiOUS ARTISTS
If you're into classic '90s techno you'll be off to the rave with this rockin' industrial companion album by raucous Gen-X bands like Utah Saints, KMFDM, Gravity Kills, Fear Factory, Psykosonik, and even the enigmatic axeman, Buckethead. A bizarre mix of practical + early diigital effects and some hammy acting kept Paul W.S. Anderson's film from cashing in on the video game's true potential as a film franchise, when the fantasy realm of Outworld becomes an epic arena of death for the samurai sorceror Raiden's roster of martial arts upstarts: Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Liu Kang. Some of the infectious tunes were used in the film, promotional material or included in the compilation album to amplify the intended atmosphere of the movie. Still a killer jam after all these years, even if Scorpion and Sub-Zero flay you with a flawless fatality.
THE HAUNTING (1999)
ORIGINAL SCORE BY JERRY GOLDSMITH
This sophisticated score by Academy Award-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, The Omen), is a tour de force of driving harmonics and orchestral pieces, punctuated by sinister strings, horns and the eerie notes of a spectral calliope. The movie itself, directed by Twister's Jan de Bont, was a hot mess of ludicrous storytelling and laughable haunted house play-acting by Owen Wilson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lily Taylor and an embarrassed Liam Neeson dialing in a dead performance for a paycheck. Goldsmith's baroque carnival of creepy tunes survives long after the screaming stops..
ORIGINAL SCORE BY HANS ZIMMER
I heard one critic say that this soundtrack by the legendary Hans Zimmer sounds like he fell asleep at his pipe organ, but it's one of my absolute go-to scores to listen to while writing. While the film carried with it some head-scratching leaps of logic, overwrought acting and fuzzy narrative coherence, the stirring score, using the grand instrument of a belching pipe organ into its central theme will stay with you long, long after you're stll trying to figure out the whole 5th dimensional bookcase thing. At times both sweeping and sentimental, it sublimely defines the essence of humanitiy's exploration of the cosmos in a way Christopher Nolan's opaque movie just doesn't match. Somber, mystical and surprisingly spiritual, this is Zimmer at his best, experimenting into some interesting musical universes and capturing that elusive lightning in a bottle.
TRON: LEGACY (2010)
ORIGINAL SCORE BY DAFT PUNK
Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the spacey helmeted duo of Daft Punk, delivered the year's best electronica score to a bewildering sequel to the original Tron from 1982. Don't waste a second on the rambling plot of Joseph Kosinski's ambitious sci-fi film and instead absorb yourself within the textured sythnthesized syncopations of this transportive Daft Punk gem. The pulsing digital frontier is perfectly captured in this beautifully-arranged, retro-futurism soundtrack, recorded in London with synthesizers hitched to a full 85-piece orchestra.
VAN HELSING (2004)
ORIGINAL SCORE BY ALAN SILVESTRI
Listening to this operatic, old-fashioned score by the wildy-talented Silvestri (Back To The Future Trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Avengers) makes you weep for what Stephen Sommers' manic monster mash could have been, if you deleted an hour of swarming CGI harpies, a nonsensical plot and the annoying tongue-in-cheek tone. The soaring main theme, Transylvania 1887, was tough enough to even be sampled by NYC rapper Ill Bill on his War Is My Destiny urban anthem. The bold blend of choral, percussive and orchestral elements on tracks like Burn It Down!, Werewolf Trap, All Hallow's Eve Ball and Useless Crucifix all comibine for a loud soundtrack that far outshines its forgettable film.
MAN OF STEEL (2013)
ORIGINAL SCORE BY HANS ZIMMER
It's hard to avoid Zimmer these days as his hands are all over a multitude of cinematic scores, so here's the second soundtrack of his that made my honor list. This score is a complete departure from his gentle, poignant music for Interstellar, this one more bombastic and propulsive in its approach, mostly due to Zimmer's thunderous "wall of drums" sonic storm to match Zack Snyder's epic story of Superman and the militant maniac General Zod. While I'm not among the fierce haters of this film, I do think the score is far superior, balanced with some quieter piano moments like the main title theme, An Ideal of Hope. Overall, an exceptional score slumming in an average superhero movie.
There's my starter set of scintillating sci-fi and horror soundtracks that brought an added degree of prestige to their shameful films. Which scores do you remember as being the best part of some bloated epic you've seen?