Monday, May 5, 2014

A Review of the "Pet Sematary" Soundtrack

Released in the fall of 2013, La-La Land's expanded release of Elliot Goldenthal's score to Pet Sematary was limited to 2000 copies, but, surprisingly (to me), was still available for purchase when I sat down to write this review.  I'm not sure what to make of that, but here are a few guesses:
  • #1 -- the film-score fan community isn't comprised of all that many hardcore Elliot Goldenthal fans
  • #2 -- the horror-film-score fan community isn't comprised of all that many hardcore Elliot Goldenthal fans
  • #3 -- the Stephen King fan community isn't comprised of all that many film-score nerds

At least one of those things -- and, if I had to guess, maybe all of them -- must be true.  Otherwise, it seems likely to me that those 2000 copies would have been sold long ago.

I can say with certainty that at least one of them was sold, though, because I'm looking at it right this very moment.

2013 release from La-La Land Records

I'm slightly unsure as to how to proceed with this review.  A track-by-track approach made sense for Room 237, but it makes less sense with this disc, for reasons that I find I cannot immediately put into words.

As a stop-gap measure, I should mention one thing right up front: the Ramones song from the end credits ("Pet Sematary") is nowhere to be found on this release.  Nor was it on the original CD release from Varèse Sarabande, which has been out of print for a looooooooong time (making it doubly surprising that this new release has not sold out yet).  The Ramones song is therefore something you'll have to track down elsewhere, which is a bit of a shame.  I've got a legit copy courtesy of the Rhino compilation CD New Wave Halloween, which is a great disc even if half the songs on it fail to actually qualify as new wave.  The 1989 Ramones album Brain Drain also includes the song, which is probably also a good option, even if the band was well past its heyday by '89.

My stop-gap measure seems to have more or less worked, as a tentative plan of attack has presented itself.

Let's begin by talking about the 1989 release.

1989 release from Varèse Sarabande

I might embed a few key tracks as we discuss this.  Then again, I might not.  Either way, know ye that this entire album currently seems to exist as a single YouTube playlist which can be found at this link.  So, if you've an inkling that you might enjoy checking that out, then, as Jack Nicholson might say, go check it out.

It was an extremely short album, running for a mere thirty-two minutes.  This is not uncommon for soundtracks, especially for score albums, and doubly so for releases from Varèse Sarabande.  From what I've read, this appears to mostly be a problem between the labels and the musicians' union(s), the latter of which have rules governing what amount of money must be paid to its musicians for the amount of music that is released commercially.  And since there isn't exactly rock-star money to be made off of 99.9% of score albums, the labels don't always spring for a huge amount of music.

I can't swear that any of that is true, but it's the truth as it was given to me by some messageboard or other at some point in the past.  If you know better, correct me in the comments.

Here is the tracklist for the 1989 release:

#01 -- The Pet Sematary (03:00)
#02 -- Dead Recollection (01:21)
#03 -- Hope And Ordeal (01:23)
#04 -- Adieu Gage (01:23)
#05 -- Rachel Against Time (00:50)
#06 -- The Return Game (Jud and Gage) (03:43)
#07 -- Moving Day Waltz (00:31)
#08 -- The Warning Tour (01:42)
#09 -- Death Do Us Part (Rachel Hugs Louis) (00:54)
#10 -- Nine Lives Minus Seven (00:15)
#11 -- Up In Flames (Flashback) (01:38)
#12 -- Bitter Loss (Flashback) (01:51)
#13 -- Rachel's Dirty Secret (00:23)
#14 -- Return Game Attack (01:55)
#15 -- Rachel's Blow Out (00:21)
#16 -- I Brought You Something Mommie (00:35)
#17 -- The Return Game II (Louis And Gage) (02:53)
#18 -- Gentle Exhuming (01:03)
#19 -- To The Micmac Grounds (02:46)
#20 -- Chorale (00:30)
#21 -- Kite And Truck (01:22)
#22 -- Immolation (01:37)

You will note that some of those tracks are awfully short, but that's not uncommon for scores; some cues only need to last for a very brief time.  It all depends on what they are being asked to accomplish dramatically.  This is the nature of the film score medium.

I'm here to review the 2013 release, not the 1989 one, so I don't want to spend too much time on this.  However, it seemed necessary to point a few things out, beginning with the fact that the album is not in chronological order.  What I mean by that is that the tracks do not follow the order in which they appear in the movie. So when you see that the second track is titled "Dead Recollection," know that that music comes from deep into the movie, during one of the scenes in which Rachel is remembering Zelda.  This, too, is a very common practice for score soundtracks; they will also frequently combine cues from different sections of the film, give the cues titles that are misleading, use alternative takes of the music.  Not for nothing are there entire websites and messageboards and share sites devoted to untangling the semi-Gordian knot that can be film-music album presentations.

Most of the modern releases from the specialty labels such as La-La Land, however, cater -- for obvious reasons -- to film-score nerds, who tend to prize chronological presentation and, where possible, completist presentation.  In other words, as much of the score as possible, in the order it appears within the film.

Which is why the track listing for the 2013 release looks like this:

If I had the patience and the inclination to do so, I could probably make this post a guide to telling the difference between the tracks from the '89 release as compared to the '13 release.  That's the sort of thing I enjoy having access to, and while I have the inclination to write it, I do not have the patience.  Apologies for that.  But you will notice, if you look closely, that all 22 of the '89 release's tracks are represented on the '13 release, though they are oftentimes melded into tracks alongside other cues from adjacent scenes.

Are you confused and/or annoyed yet?  If so, then welcome, my friends, to the world of film scores on CD.

I've determined that talking about each and every track on this La-La Land release would be pointless, so we've dodged that bullet.  I think it'll be worth talking about a few of them in at least cursory fashion, though, so let's hop to it, beginning with the track that leads off both albums, "The Pet Sematary":

If you are a horror fan, then the odds are good that that music reminds you of some other horror movie's score.  For me, the sing-songy sections for childrens' voices is heavily reminiscent of Lalo Schfirin's awesomely creepy score for The Amityville Horror, but King fans might have Jonathan Elias's score for Children of the Corn come up instead.  Or maybe Jerry Goldsmith's end-credits music for Poltergeist, or Krzysztof Komeda's main theme for Rosemary's Baby (which uses not children's voices, but Mia Farrow's, and to unsettling effect).

I mention all of these not to accuse Elliot Goldenthal of ripping anyone off, but merely to illustrate that his music for Pet Sematary is working within a tradition of other horror-movie scores of the same type.  I'm sure that tradition includes other films that I am not immediately remembering, too, and while this is not the place for a comparison/contrast essay on those scores (nor am I the author to bring such a thing forth), I think it's important to recognize that in some ways, what Goldenthal is doing in this score was adopting a technique that was already a minimum of twenty years old.

Again, this is not to disparage Goldenthal's work, but merely to give context.  After all, the mere fact that he was using techniques other composers had already used hardly means that his music is irrelevant.  Miles Davis was certainly not the first man to use a muted trumpet; that fact doesn't keep what he did with a muted trumpet from being genius, dig?

That said, I would not necessarily characterize Goldenthal's title music as being genius.  It is relatively effective.  Its seeming intent is to unsettle.  But what does that mean?  (Assuming it's true.)  Dramatically, what is the intent?  As far as I can tell, it is to make the viewer/listener uneasy by doing things that you wouldn't typically hear in symphonic music.  Why use the voices of children?  Well, in my opinion, it's because children are typically quite bad at singing.  Ever been to a Christmas pageant?  They're adorable, what with their little costumes and whatnot, but mostly, as singers, they suck.  Apologies to your particular little angel, but you that -- statistically speaking -- what I say is true.  So merely having children singing on a horror-movie score summons up the semi-subliminal hint of bad taste, so that automatically works toward the goal of being unsettling.  Goldenthal also does weird things with tone and pace, and the end result is that his music seems to be intended to not entirely sound like what most of us would think of as music.
Or, more appropriately, it is music that has somehow been warped, broken, perverted.  This mirrors how the revenants of Church, Gage, and Rachel are warped, broken, and perverted versions of the creatures they were prior to their deaths.  "This is unnatural," the music is suggesting; "this is evil, and it will not end well."

During the second track, the cues of which accompany the Creeds' arrival at their new home, the music is much more peaceful and melodic, which makes sense; the Creeds' world has not yet been turned upside down.  There are hints of menace, but they exist in isolation from the rest of the track; the good and the evil have not yet become entangled.  Here's a segment of that track as it appeared on the 1989 release:

As the score progresses, we soon get to the scene in which the ghost of Victor Pascow arrives to give Louis a warning.  This music is mostly atonal and troubled, reflecting the supernatural world from which Pascow's ghost has appeared.

One of the score's bigger moments comes during "Kite and Truck," which finds the fullest statements of the score's sweetness giving way to some of the darkest passages, as Gage's innocent little life is ended by a truck.

Another standout cue is the punnily-titled "Rachel Against Time," which represents Rachel's determination to get home to check on whatever horrific trouble Ellie has glimpsed.  This is frantic music, but it is also fairly straightforward music, which comes -- oddly -- as a bit of sonic relief:

The score's most effective horror music is maybe the music that accompanies the Gage-thing's attack on Jud, which is atonal and creepy and just plain weird:

This might actually be topped by what Goldenthal does with the string section toward the end of "The Return Game II (Louis and Gage)":

If that don't unsettle ya, I don't know what will.

As the score comes to its close, "Death Do Us Part (Rachel Hugs Louis)" finds Goldenthal returning to a more or less normal mode of piano music.  The cue represents exactly what the title indicates, but the music almost seems to be telling us that the trouble is over.  This jars somewhat with the fact that a dead woman is walking around on the screen, so what is going on here?  In my view, it's simple: the score is telling us that whatever madness led Louis to want to resurrect Gage and Rachel has gone away, and that he has mentally returned to normal.  In that sense, the trouble has passed.  Of course, it seems likely that something bad is going to happen to Louis immediately after the film ends, so not all of the troubles have passed; but perhaps the "sour ground" of the Micmac burial ground is going to be birthing no further horrors, and if so, then things will be returning to normal in that sense.  The music is sad, but it is also reassuring in some way.  Check it out:

The CD -- and, again, bear in mind that we're talking about the 2013 version, not the 1989 version from which these embeds have been sourced -- is rounded out by a selection of alternate takes, some of which are the album version from that '89 release.  These are nice to have, but none of them are essential listening, in my opinion.  The best of them is probably the very brief "Nine Lives Minus Seven," which would probably make for a pretty decent creepy ringtone.

Overall, my thoughts on this score are that it works better within the context of the movie than it does as a standalone listening experience.  I'm the sort of nerd who likes to have certain scores to listen to whether or not they actually make for enjoyable listening, so I have a certain amount of affection for this sort of thing that the average King fan is unlikely to have.  Odds are good that you know in advance whether you fall into this or that category, and if not, then the embeds ought to help you make up your mind.

I tend to not give grades or scores in my reviews, but for the sake of putting my thoughts here into context, I'll award this score two-and-a-half stars out of five.  It's got good moments, but ultimately, I don't think it's particularly special music.  It does nothing that at least a few other horror-film scores didn't do much better beforehand, and if you want a better score from Goldenthal, I would point you toward his music for David Fincher's Alien³, which is exceptional (if also not quite what one would describe as easy listening). Goldenthal has scored a few other movies, including the two Joel Schumacher-directed Batman films, but he is probably better known for his work outside the film-music world.  I'm intrigued by his work, but not sufficiently to have spent much time investigating it.

As for the CD release itself, it is accompanied by a 24-page booklet consisting of some great photos and similarly great liner notes (including track-by-track analysis) by John Takis.  I figured it might be permissible for me to replicate a couple of the better photos, so here they come atcha face:

I love that cat.  Whatever breed that is, I want one.

And on that decidedly pro-feline note, this review has reached the clearing at the end of the path.  We aren't done with the soundtrack reviews yet, though; we've got more on the way, and of those, the first one will be Harry Sukman's Salem's Lot score.  See you then!


  1. That back cover with Louis carrying the body in the sheet is pretty striking.

    Agreed on whatever breed of cat that is. It almost looks like a pugilist of some kind. Not sure what it is, but that's my impression.

    Not one of my favorite scores, but I'm listening to the BBC World Service while writing/ reading this and the snippets I played synched up with coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial, resumed today. I didn't plan this, but man, that worked pretty well. So I now have a new association / enjoyment.

    I had Brain Drain back when that came out. That was the first Ramones I ever heard, actually. Ahh, memories - saw them on that tour or shortly after at the now-defunct Rocky Point Amusement Park Palladium. 45 minute set, where they played, it seemed, something like 40 different songs, 'Pet Sematary' among them.

    1. I am always thrilled when I am listening to a score and find the rest of the world syncing up to it in some way. Not too long ago, I was listening to one -- and I forget which one it was specifically, but it was either "Oblivion" or one of the "Game of Thrones"es -- in my car, and I was at a red light near the police station, which is near where I work and is also in a small valley, so that cars coming out of it have to come over a small hill. The music was sort of building toward something, and I was just looking straight ahead waiting for the light to change. When the music got to where it was going and crested triumphantly, a police car came tearing over the hill at THE exact moment the music really hit.

      It was badass. I love it when stuff like that happens.

      I also love the idea of the Ramones playing 40 songs in 45 minutes, and I don't have much trouble believing that that would be pretty close to being true.

  2. It's says something when a story can be so freaky that it makes the soundtrack sound freaky just by itself.

    I personally see the use of kids on the main soundtrack as suggesting, not just that the burial ground warps dead things, but also that anyone living that comes in contact with it is also warped too. This leads to a pretty frightening thought. Since the title Semetery is used mainly by kids, the music almost suggests that even if these kids never found the burial ground, it still managed to warp them in some way. Maybe they're even the Maine countryside equivalent of Overlook ghosts now. I'm not saying the composer had this in mind, or anything, but it's just a cool creepy thought.

    It's too bad the Ramones not being on the soundtrack, so this should even things out: