Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Review of the "Salem's Lot" Soundtrack

The 1979 miniseries Salem's Lot is arguably one of the most famous and popular Stephen King films to this day.  It landed at #10 on my list of the best King movies, but it isn't uncommon to see it higher on other people's.  And it's a generally well-respected film within the horror community in general.

Despite that, the lush score by Harry Sukman had never been released commercially in any form until Intrada released it on CD in 2013 as Volume 256 of their Special Collection series.  In retrospect, this is a little difficult to fathom; the miniseries had been a big hit, and the score was a very highly regarded effort by an Oscar-winning composer.  No LP release, no cassette release, no CD release; no eight-tracks or minidiscs or MP3s, no nothin' until 2013.

Intrada finally stepped up, though, and righted that wrong, which means that you -- yes, YOU! -- can now visit their website and buy a copy of the two-disc release for a mere $29.99.  I know what you're thinking: "thirty bucks?!?  'Fuck' and 'no'!"  But look here, you cheapskate, it's thirty bucks for nearly an hour and forty minutes of music, plus a 24-page booklet of liner notes, and it's a score that seemingly stood a good chance of never being released at all.  So go buy a copy and thereby thank Intrada for making the release happen.

I don't have the slightest clue what format this review is going to take.  I think what I'll do is just listen to the discs, and from that point, que sera sera.

Let's start by having a look at the tracklist (so that when and if I make reference to track titles, you'll be able to refer to their placement if you so choose):

One of the things that I learned from Daniel Schweiger's liner notes is that "Dies Irae" (which you might remember from the Room 237 soundtrack review I posted a few days ago) forms a major backbone for the score.  It shows up as early as "The Church," but it is also present in the track "Holy Water (Main Title #1)," which, obviously, represents the music for the opening titles.

That music -- a slightly different version than what appears on this CD, granted -- can be found on YouTube, so here ya go:

Hear it?  It's in that jaunty, Herrmann-esque tune (which also seems to prefigure some of Danny Elfman's approach to film scoring).

I love that music.  Admittedly, it's perhaps a bit too jaunty and adventurous for the actual movie that follows it -- which is languid and somewhat reserved -- but I think it fits well enough to skate by.  Regardless, it's good music in and of itself, and it lends a sense of urgency to the first few minutes of the movie that do serve to put a hint of desperation and tension into the proceedings early on where it otherwise might not exist.

The score is certainly an eerie one, with plenty of low strings and woodwinds and such traditional approaches.  During my review of Elliot Goldenthal's Pet Sematary score, I discussed the notion that certain horror-film scores seek to horrify by stepping away from "typical" approaches to music, and going into the lands of atonality and dissonance.  
Not so Harry Sukman on Salem's Lot; he was more than happy to simply do the sorts of things composers had been doing in horror films with an orchestra since the early Franz Waxman days.  I'm fine with either approach, but the approach selected says something about the production which selects it.

Here, the music is telling us that Salem's Lot is nothing more than a traditional vampire movie.  It is comforting, in a sense, in that we sort of know what to expect from the movie/music.  However, it is worth pointing out that one of the draws of the novel -- and the miniseries adapted from it -- was that it set a conventional vampire tale in an unconventional setting: small-town America.  In 1979, having some of this music appear over shots of New England would probably have seemed a bit more atypical than it probably seems in 2014.

The score also contains several jazzy source cues, which are fine in their own right (especially "Source #3"), but sort of disrupt the flow of the rest of the score.  When I make my own playlist to put on my Walkman, I typically cut these out, lest they jar against the rest of the music.

One thing Sukman does several times during the score is toss in shock moments, such as in "The House #1," when he uses what sounds like a clapper to represent the moment in which Ben turns from gazing at the Marsten House to find Straker behind him, gazing at him.  It is an effective moment, but not nearly as effective as the one at the end of "The Monster Appears," during which a dark figure unexpectedly rises up in front of one of the Glick boys.  It's one of the better moments of the miniseries, and since I typically can't remember where the moment happens during the score, it almost always makes me jump.  In that sense, the music is arguably even more effective than the scene itself is.

The single best cue of the score -- possibly even including the main title -- is probably the pizzicato-esque "Ralphie Is Floating," which is all sorts of creepy and ominous and hypnotic, and serves perfectly to underscore both the mortal peril and the morbid fascination of what is happening.  YouTube actually has a version of this music, so let's have us a listen:

It's worth pointing out that the audio quality on the CD is approximately ten times better than that YouTube version, which sounds to my ears like something ripped off of the DVD from a single channel.  I might be wrong about that; I'm not wrong about how much better the music sounds on disc.  I wouldn't say that it would fool you into thinking it had been recorded in this new century, necessarily, but at its best, it sounds quite good for a 1979 television score.

I have not discussed this as yet, but it's worth pointing out that a great many of the score's cues -- excluding alternates, there are 77 tracks on the two discs -- are quite brief in length.  Over half of them clock in at less than a minute, and in some instances, they almost seem to end before they ought to end.  This makes for an occasionally disjointed listening experience, and is probably the result of the editing of the film.  The tracks mostly flow pretty well from one to the next, though, so unless you're listening to the album on shuffle -- a thing no normal person would do, surely --

Some of the other standout tracks for me include:
  • the main title music, obviously; and specifically, I think "Main Title #2" is slightly the better of the two
  • "Straker," an oboe-rich (I think) piece of business that is practically the definition of "ominous"
  • "Susan," a lovely romantic theme that nevertheless manages to suggest that this new relationship (with Ben) may be doomed
  • "The Thing," the first appearance of the motif that plays while the vampire kids are at the window(s)
  • "So Long, Kid," which Schweiger describes thus in the liner notes: "Sukman's harpsichord-like percussion and diabolical orchestra give his" [Straker's] "theme an almost soothing feeling, as if Straker were a butcher mercifully preparing an animal for slaughter."  I would add that the music might also be suggesting that Straker is being psychically influenced by Barlow.  I'm not sure that's actually the case; but it's a way of looking at it. 
  • "Goodbye Crockett," which is essentially just a three-second stinger with twelve seconds of trail-off at the end, but dadgum, what a marvelous stinger it is!
  • "Confident and Evil," which is all drive and portent, and effectively underlines the notion that Straker knows exactly what sort of doom is in store for this small town in which he has found himself
  • "Mike Dives In #1," which underscores the first part of the scene (the first night's climax) in which Mike Ryerson jumps into the freshly-dug grave of Ralphie Glick to see what is making all that noise inside his head
  • "Now It's Marks Turn," which begins as a version of the Glick-at-the-window music, but eventually brings in compelling religioso organ and bell sections to indicate that Mark Petrie is not the easy prey that the former Glick might wish him to be
  • "L'Inverno," a Vivaldi piece that Sukman, as Schweiger says in his liner notes, renders into something that sounds "like the flapping of bats' wings."  I might not describe this piece of music in quite those colorful terms, but I would definitely agree that Sukman somehow makes the piece his own, and it fits into the score quite nicely, giving a subtle hint that Straker has perverted something toward his own intent
  • "Mr. Barlow," which is like a supersized version of the "Goodbye Crockett" stinger; this is brutal, animalistic music, and if you want to freak people out and/or make them think you are a weirdo -- which, let's face it, you probably are -- then I suggest this would be a great ringtone for you
  • "It's Mr. Barlow Again," which is kind of terrifying
  • "Susan Is Curious," which takes Susan's theme and turns it from a hopeful and romantic one into an ominous and threatened one
  • "Have You Seen Susan?", which takes the music and gives it an urgent spin, kicking into a gear it had not found outside of the main titles by virtue of Susan being in peril
  • "Stake for Mr. Barlow," which has a low-register synthesizer tone of some sort underneath certain parts; it almost sounds like a zipper, but much eerier and stranger than a mere zipper

Really, though, the vast majority of the second disc consists of standout tracks.  The music for the first night (the discs are divided by nights) is fine, too, but once the plot kicks into gear during the second part of the miniseries, the score becomes much more aggressive and prominent.  I love the entire thing, but the second night's score is probably the winner.  Its faith is stronger.

The seven tracks of alternate cuts will not make you crap your pants with glee, or redefine your understanding of the score, or anything like that, but they're worth a listen, and I always appreciate such things being included in these deluxe presentations.  The disc's final three tracks represent rerecordings that Sukman did for the European theatrical cut (which I continue to hope to find one of these days, simply from a completist's standpoint).  I don't particularly care for this version of the main title, which interrupts the flow of the music (con), but also includes a version of the Ralphie-at-the-window music (possibly pro).  "Vampires!," on the other hand, is a great little cut, a highly urgent version of that at-the-window music.  The feature version of the end credits begin with that motif, progress to a version of the Barlow stinger music, and then go on to reprise the feature version of the main titles, complete with the same stop-and-start problems.
A word about the liner notes seems in order: they are good, but Intrada has a tendency of not doing track-by-track analysis; they seem to prefer to group the analysis by theme or some other factor, which makes it more difficult to use their notes as a reference tool.  Despite this, they are well worth reading, and have some great photos, several of which follow:

Bless your heart, studio-stills photographer...

...bless your heart...

I wonder if that poster actually exists?  If so, I'd hella buy one.

All in all, this is a damn fine score, one which is likely to get a great deal of airtime during the month of October on an annual basis at the Truth Inside The Lie home offices.

So, final thoughts: this is a marvelous score, one that simply did not deserve to go unreleased for an amazing thirty-four years.  As far as King-film scores go, it would almost certainly rank near the top, up there with The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption and Carrie.

I'm starting to think that a worst-to-best ranking of King-movie scores might lie at the end of this soundtrack-review series.  What say ye to that idea?

Either way, we're still in soundtrackville for now, and the next one in the series will be the 2011 Intrada release of Richard Bellis's score for It.  That probably won't appear until the weekend, though, so see you in a few days.


  1. I'll admit I hadn't paid much attention to the soundtrack till now. The selections here help one take notice of some interesting music.

    For some reason, that scene with Ralphie the window always creeps me. A point the selection seems to drive home. As Bill Murray said, "Don't look at me that way, ya got the...bug eyes look."


    1. I would say that that scene with Ralphie is considered creepy by probably 99.9% of all persons who have ever seen it. And the music is a massive part of that equation; I'd never really consciously thought of it in that way until listening to the music on its own. It was one of those scenes in which the music is SO marvelously integrated that it simply became a part of my psyche while the scene was playing. It isn't every score that has a cue that masterful.

  2. I vote yes for best of film-scores.

    Which makes me wonder what my own votes/ rankings would be. Or for best-soundtracks, which probably would just be a toss-up between Stand By Me and Maxmimum Overdrive. Different category/ rankings, of course, than film-scores. Anyway - I vote yes.

    Nice header photo - that looks really sharp. I salute it in all its short-lived glory. Like a horrifying flower that blooms for one bloody night then wilts in the sun. Much like Barlow's face.

    I always loved the main theme from this one. I can easily picture some vampiricized version (whatever that means) over the North by Northwest opening credits.

    Good lord - Ralphie at the window is even creepier as a still photo fading in as it does in that youtube clip.

    I had to re-familiarize myself with "Mr. Barlow" to imagine it as a ringtone. That would be funny. Dawn used to have something similar on hers, actually, bless her horror-movie loving heart. When we met, I had mine set to the "Halloween" theme.

    I agree on that poster from the liner notes. That'd be fantastic for the home office or anywhere.

    1. The figuring-out of a format for that score rankings post is going to take some doing. Do I go with scores only, or with scores on CD only, or open it up to any soundtracks on CD? I don't by any means own them all, although I do have a fairly comprehensive collection of MP3s.

      I'll figure it out, though. It'll probably end up simply having to be less comprehensive than I usually make those lists. Thanks for the vote!

    2. I say, scores only. Then a separate one for soundtracks. Then an omni-one down the line of every-damn-thing.

      Which probably isn't helpful. (insert pic of Batman, concussed.)

    3. I think I like that idea. I may have to do the scores simply as a best-of list, though, so as to eliminate the things that I'm unable to properly evaluate. There are lots of King movies that you can't even find a bootleg score for, ranging from the z-grade (the various fauxquels) to the b-grade (Desperation, Bag of Bones, Creepshow 2) to the a-list (Hearts in Atlantis).

      So the optimal idea seems to be a two-parter, with one part focusing on scores and the second part focusing on any and all legit music releases.

      That'll work, concussed Batman; that'll work.