Film Score Friday #3: “The Thing” (1982)

IMPORTANT – this article contains not only spoilers, but links to clips that some people may find disturbing or frightening (it’s about a horror film, after all). Please proceed with caution!

Among John Carpenter’s substantial corpus (corp’s(e)?) of work as a director not only of horror, but a great many other fine genre movies, his 1982 alien creature feature The Thing is something of an anomaly. For one, following a previously unbroken a streak of commercial (if not always critical) hits – the more independently financed Assault on Precinct 13Halloween and The Fog, and the bigger-budget dystopian action thriller Escape from New York – the film was, at least at first, a resounding failure, making minimal profits on its budget and promptly losing Carpenter the major studio backing from Universal Pictures he had only just recently secured, leaving him, somewhat like its survivors, adrift in the (Hollywood) wilderness. On an artistic level, it also bucks the trend prominent in Carpenter’s back catalogue of the director (for both artistic and financial reasons) scoring his own films, often with the aid of his long-time musical collaborator Alan Howarth. (This practice would continue long after the release of The Thing and would, indeed, lead later to Carpenter pursuing a side career as a musician, including two studio albums of Lost Themes released last year.)

For a variety of reasons – the time constraints that necessitated outside involvement, the pressure placed on Carpenter by Universal to secure a big name to reflect the increased budget, his own admiration of the man’s music and his firm belief that he was the only man for the job – he and producer Stuart Cohen approached Ennio Morricone, whose attachment to a horror film, especially one with such graphic imagery as The Thing, might certainly have raised eyebrows among Western audiences familiar with his music chiefly through his iconic scores for Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. On the contrary, Morricone had, for his part, already proven himself to be a flexible and versatile film composer, contributing scores not only for a slew of so-called giallo pulp thriller/horror films in his native Italy (many for the undisputed king of the genre, Dario Argento), but also for Italian- and English-language comedies, dramas and art films.

Ennio Morricone (l.) with John Carpenter in 1981.

What makes Morricone’s involvement particularly curious, then, is more the fact that he is there at all, and indeed, Carpenter’s influence and musical aesthetic is never far from the surface. In his blog The Original Fan, devoted to production stories and recollections from the making of The Thing, producer Stuart Cohen describes the imprecise and rather rushed nature of his and Carpenter’s limited collaboration with Morricone. The two were forced to pick a miniscule two-day window in the composer’s busy schedule to fly to Rome and discuss the project in person, while Carpenter, anxious that his intentions for the music might not be accurately conveyed in the back-and-forth of interpreters that was subsequently required, attempted to approximate them for Morricone in musical form on the piano.

Quite how successfully this was conveyed in Morricone’s subsequent suite of work, which Carpenter then cut and reassembled for use in the film, varies between accounts. While Cohen surmises that the initial meeting was something of a success and that ‘Morricone had understood John perfectly’, Alan Howarth stated in a 2011 interview that Carpenter felt portions of Morricone’s score to be ill-suited to the film. Carpenter himself is also on the record as saying that he found some of Morricone’s original submissions to be too present and overt – in the words seemingly of Emperor Josef from Amadeus, he also described his original title track as having ‘too many notes’ – and consequently worked with the composer to modify the score to better match his specifications: in Howarth’s words, to ‘have him imitate John Carpenter’. Indeed, to this end, many selections from Morricone’s “suite” that made it into the final version of the film are drastically cut, and three – “Bestiality”, “Eternity” and “Despair” – are omitted entirely, replaced in part by simple electronic cues scored by Carpenter and Howarth that help greatly in contextualising The Thing amongst Carpenter’s overall body of work.

While Carpenter also emphasised his wish to remain faithful to Morricone’s vision as well as his own (‘in no way was I trying to compete with Ennio’s score’, he claimed in the same source, ‘The score is his’), his judiciousness in adapting and trimming Morricone’s score arguably brings it more into line with the story and style of the film itself. While the creature’s repulsive incarnations may be the viewer’s abiding visual memory of the film, providing the horror element of immediate loathing and revulsion, it is The Thing‘s sense of pacing that makes it a truly terrifying cinematic experience, with the men’s isolation, paranoia and mutual distrust allowed to take centre stage and crank up the dramatic tension like a vice grip, to which the monster’s various appearances provide something more like relief. True to form, the soundtrack is often conspicuous by its sparseness or even total absence; of the monster’s six major appearances, for example, three, including the first transformation in the kennel and MacReady’s climactic final showdown, are underscored by an ominous low synth drone that neatly intensifies the feelings of dread while without drawing dramatic focus away from SFX designer Rob Bottin’s nightmarish creations. Similarly, the discovery (and disposal) of the partially assimilated Bennings, the first on-screen instance of human imitation, takes place over a sustained church organ chord whose liturgical overtones lend the otherwise unworldly and frightening scene the sense of a grotesque apotheosis.

Meanwhile, arguably the two most dramatic and intense of these – the equally (in)famous “chest-chomping” and blood test scenes – both of which involve the dispatchment (either by death or transformation) of multiple characters, are completely unscored, with the ear being drawn immediately to the grotesque vocal and sound effects; the sound is so vivid one can almost visualise the rubber and latex (or, in the context of the narrative, the endlessly reformed human tissue) being physically stretched and reshaped as the camera rolls. In contrast, Marco Beltrami’s score for the 2011 prequel, while suitably effective for what is in essence a very different type of horror film from the original, is often an unfortunate accomplice in the commonly-felt criticism that it lacks the subtlety and nuance of Carpenter’s version, with the musical cues, especially in similar scenes involving multiple fatalities, communicating unequivocally to the viewer that they should, to quote David Cronenberg’s later body-horror classic The Fly, ‘be very afraid’.

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Kurt Russell on alien-ass-kicking duty as MacReady.

The film’s iconic “Humanity II” theme perfectly encapsulates this aesthetic, being perhaps the clearest example of the “Morricone magic” of Cohen’s account (albeit with Carpenter’s suggestions for simplification), and also reflects in many ways the film’s creeping inexorability that keeps the viewer so transfixed throughout. For one, it is built almost entirely around doggedly repetitive melodic and rhythmic figurations that never let up and emphasise for the viewer that there is no escape from the apocalyptic scenario depicted.

Alongside the constant repetition evident in its instantly recognisable, chillingly simple “heartbeat” motif, the synthesiser lines that enter on top create a strophic 12-bar form (four phrases of three bars each) that then itself cycles round and round in a manner reminiscent of a Baroque ground bass, with the crucial difference that the only variation is that of timbre and register, effectively heightening the dramatic tension whilst providing no obvious trajectory for it. Additionally, the piece’s multiple entries serve to underscore the sense of futility in the researchers’ efforts to defeat the creature. Following the opening title, for example, the action shifts from the icy bleakness of deep space, expertly rendered through Morricone’s use of timbre and harmony in the far more orchestral “Humanity I”, to the equally icy bleakness of the Antarctic, around which the “heartbeat” motif seems to reverberate endlessly, as a Norwegian helicopter vainly pursues the disguised dog-monster that sets the film’s chaos in motion.

It then reappears later on as MacReady and the other survivors, aware of their almost inevitable fate, dynamite the base in the hope of taking the Thing down with them, and then again at the very end as the exhausted MacReady, having supposedly destroyed the last remaining creature, witnesses Childs mysteriously re-emerge from the snowstorm, continuing over the closing credits. This moment provides further proof of Carpenter’s contribution to the soundtrack’s overall effectiveness. At around the halfway point of the full seven-plus-minute version included on the film’s soundtrack album, Morricone’s composition, much like the film’s monsters, suddenly “transforms” into something much more energetic (4’26”), ramping up the volume and allowing the quietly meandering mood to erupt in a peal of church organ chords and more agressively metronomic synthesiser accompaniment. Carpenter’s editing, however, omits this section to leave the accumulating tension unresolved, an effect far better suited to the ambiguity of the film’s ending, as the viewer is left unsure as to whether either of the two remaining survivors are still human.

The team examine the UFO crash site.

While such touches are undoubtedly important for the reception of the film from a cinematic point of view, this “uncharacteristic” transition, and indeed the full symphonic suite included on the original soundtrack release, does highlight an important and extremely intelligent facet of Morricone’s score that is unfortunately lost in its ultimate on-screen treatment. In his superlative review of the recent complete soundtrack album for The Thing, which includes Carpenter and Howarth’s extra additions and the truncated versions of Morricone’s work as heard in the film, AVForums’ Chris McEneany describes Morricone’s method as a ‘classical and symphonic approach…tuned more towards the grand design of the plot rather than its individual chapters’. Rather than limiting itself to underscoring individual moments, as Carpenter and Howarth and indeed Beltrami do to great effect, Morricone weaves the very essence and themes of the film into his overall composition process, allowing it to develop and linger much as the drama and tension do on-screen.

This is reflected just as much in the composition of “Humanity II” as in its usage. As well as the appearance alongside the “heartbeat” motif of a second similar figure – in McEneany’s words, ‘that of an alien imposter…almost semi-mimicking its plaintiff humanity’ – the manner in which the harmony of the overlying synth lines gradually expands outwards from the extremely close interval of a major second to a minor seventh (see the figure below) is in itself an effective musical analogue for the creature in a variety of ways. For one, especially when heard over the end credits, the combination of the slow and minimal melodic motion of the two voices, moving either in single tones or semi-tones, with the muted timbre of the synthesisers creates an eery yawning sound redolent of the monster’s grotesquely distorted vocalisations, especially the howls of pain as its offshoots are variously incinerated. Additionally, the gradual descending motion of the lower line, heard against the repeated C-D-flat motif in the upper voice which it thus continuously reharmonises, creates a harmonic “shape” that is at once constantly changing and yet, especially over the F-C pedal in the bass, also distantly recognisable and static – a dangerous quality when compared with the Thing’s expert powers of imitation. As this ostinato repeats, gaining in intensity as its filter envelope is modified, a second similar motif enters in between the various phrases, this time on a shimmering church organ, further strengthening the notion of the creature’s growing dominance.

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Intervallic shape-shifting in “Humanity II”.

This is equally true in other portions of Morricone’s score. “Humanity I”, for example, slowly germinates and builds almost exclusively from the simple semi-tonal motif heard at the very opening (and later recapitulated in “Humanity II”), extending outwards and gaining in complexity in a manner that suggests not only the organic multiplication of cells through mitosis but also, given the context of the film, the alien’s voracious capacity for assimilating its victims and then taking over and imitating this same process. While this is most obvious in terms of harmony, as no sooner is the home key (such as it is) of F minor established than it is immediately destabilised by a simple chromatic movement elsewhere, it is reflected in the orchestration too; following the initial phase of expansion in the strings and harp, a similar “block” of sound begins in the woodwinds, with clarinets and bassoons descending as the strings continue to rise.

“Solitude”, meanwhile, heard in part during the initial investigation of the ill-fated Norwegian camp, begins with a series of parallel minor thirds in the strings that would not be out of place in a Shostakovich symphony and which is then imitated in fugato form first in the upper and then in the lower registers to create a seething, writhing mass over which muted trumpets and piano solemnly intone jagged, semi-tonal lines. Even the refreshing sense of pace established by the repeating piano chords has an air of incessantness and madness about it, something which at the same time does little to disrupt the whirlpool of swirling strings underneath. A similar idea occurs in “Wait”, beginning this time with distant, muted French horns before upper woodwinds and strings compound the texture, to then be punctuated by sinister low-register piano tone clusters and sustained chords in the low brass. This idea then recapitulates around halfway through, first in the strings and then in the rest of the orchestra, and the way in which the various melodic lines overlap and criss-cross each other both harmonically and rhythmically results in a sprawling, atonal mesh that is perfectly suited to the accompanying sequence, as MacReady and Copper unveil the ghastly “split-face” creature recovered from the Norwegian camp.

Ultimately, while its splicing together (in many respects, quite literally through Carpenter’s editing) of electronic and orchestral sounds and the various musical contributions of Morricone, Carpenter and Howarth may have contributed somewhat to its nomination for Worst Original Score at the 1982 Razzie awards, the composite nature of The Thing‘s soundtrack is arguably an utterly appropriate counterpart for its shape-shifting antagonist. By turns familiar and spine-chillingly alien, futuristic and grounded in the present, it furthermore plays an important role in transporting the War of the Worlds-esque ending of Christian Nyby’s original The Thing from Another World, with its parting warning of “Keep watching the skies” signalling more of a reprieve for humanity than a victory, into the far more pessimistic present. Indeed, with the incessant pulse of Morricone’s digital heartbeat in “Humanity II”, one is reminded of the computer simulation run by the station biologist Blair, which grimly predicts the assimilation of all life on Earth within little over three years should the Thing ever reach civilisation. On a musical level, at least, the end of humanity is not only imminent in Carpenter’s version – it has already begun.

Film Score Friday #2: “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)

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Motoko Kusanagi contemplates life and meaning in Ghost in the Shell.

In a world where the human body has been augmented and all but replaced by technology, does the possession of a soul serve as the criterion by which one is judged to be human? And if so, what constitutes a soul? These are the primary questions posed in the near-future society of Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s highly successful manga of the same name, in which the barriers between man and machine have blurred to the point of becoming indistinguishable. When not fitted with robotic or cybernetic implants, many humans now live as cyberbrains (the “ghosts” of the title) inside specially created cyborg bodies (“shells”) and hooked up to a vast interconnected global network of information exchange.

With these new prospects come new dangers, as skilled hackers and cybercriminals find fertile online ground to exploit, and necessary new means of police protection, in the form of Public Security Section 9, led by series protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. One of the most successful and influential anime productions of all time, with its lasting impression seen most visibly in the story and visual design of the Wachowskis’ Matrix series (whose ‘digital rain’ effects it directly inspired), and beautifully animated, it went on to spawn not only a film sequel, subtitled Innocence, but two separate TV reboots, namely the Kenji Kamayama-directed Stand Alone Complex and the more recent Arise. A live-action remake, the subject of fevered discussion in recent months over its controversial casting of Scarlett Johannsen as Kusanagi, is due for release next year.

Both Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s film can be read as attempts to understand, navigate and, in some respects, anticipate the brave new world heralded in real life by the dawning of the internet age only a few years prior, of which the fictional world depicted in Ghost in the Shell can be seen as a logical extension of the increasing interconnectedness between both human societies and human bodies. (It was, for example, the first anime film released simultaneously in Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.) While the manga clearly outlines that its setting, the purpose-built New Port City, is in Japan, this is less explicit in the film, presenting the sprawling megalopolis (never mind metropolis) as a teeming, heaving melting pot of both regional and international influences. The visual influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is evident in the mixture of English, Japanese and Chinese script in the myriad neon signs that dominate the cityscape, as is the look and architecture of real-life cities such as Hong Kong, from which Oshii drew extensively in his conception of the city. It is not only different cultures, however, that live side-by-side, but both rich and poor and old and new, with tumbledown shanty huts providing both a stark contrast to the progress and technological miracles seen elsewhere in the city and a vivid reminder of those that they leave behind, as true of real-life, modern-day metropoles from Manhattan to Mumbai as of fictional, futuristic ones.

Ghost in the Shell‘s futuristic city setting.

This sense of temporal and cultural synthesis is mirrored in numerous ways by Kenji Kawai’s minimalist but fantastically effective soundtrack, which offers an eclectic mix of traditional and modern instrumentation and itself evinces a panoply of influences not only from East and West, but from film-scoring and pop music conventions as well (Kawai enjoyed some moderate success as a rock musician before transitioning into composing). The liberal use of synthesisers, particularly synthesised strings, not only aptly matches the film’s futuristic setting, but also draws comparisons with (and bears the influence of) other forward-looking film composers whose style is similarly predominantly defined by synthesised sounds. One might think of John Carpenter’s early electronic scores for his own films, Wendy Carlos’ work for Stanley Kubrick or, perhaps most fittingly of all, Vangelis’ immediately distinctive soundtrack to Blade Runner.

At the same time, however, while acoustic instruments feature frequently alongside electronic ones, it is somewhat telling that those that do are often the most identifiably Japanese; alongside three singers, the few fellow musicians credited on Kawai’s soundtrack are percussionists, playing a set-up of traditional taiko drums, bells and gongs. The atmospheric “Nightstalker”, for instance, combines synthesised strings with the distinctive tone of the Japanese koto, creating a ruminative quality that would not be out of place in a neo-noir film. Indeed, coupled with the film’s pan-Asian stylisation, the concurrent sounds of the expansive free-time strings and koto’s rubato phrasing draws more than a passing comparison with Blade Runner‘s famous “Love Theme”.

Rather than merely referencing this at certain points, however, Kawai sets this tone from the very start with what is essentially the film’s opening title, “Making of a Cyborg”, accompanying a sequence in which Kusanagi (or at least her cyborg “shell”) is, as the title suggests, “made”, in the sense of being literally assembled (see below). The first of three similar “Chants” interspersed throughout the soundtrack, Kawai describes in the accompanying featurette Production Report included on the film’s DVD release how the composition of this piece comprises a mixture of different musical traditions, with Japanese vocalists singing words in the ancient Yamato dialect to notes taken from Japanese scales and harmonised using techniques borrowed from Bulgarian folk music. The added presence of traditional Japanese bells and drums, providing unobtrusive and solemn background accompaniment, lends this number a further air of mystery, its evocation of ancient customs in strong juxtaposition to the futuristic images seen on screen.

The combination, however, of singing styles and percussive sounds heavily redolent of Buddhist religious music with words from a wedding incantation intended to banish evil spirits also takes on a strongly devotional aspect that is significant for the context of the film in more ways than one. Seen in the sense of the obvious implication that technology has become a new dominant religion to which the majority of the world’s population now subscribes in some way, it comes to resemble something of a purification ritual that keeps the “temple” of technology clean, safe and unsullied. Consequently, in a society where biological reproduction has been rendered almost obsolete through the widespread manufacture of cyborg bodies, the otherwise sterile isolation chamber in which Kusanagi’s “shell” is created comes essentially to represent a “womb of the future”, complete with amniotic fluid of sorts that protects and supports the shell as it develops. Particularly given the presence of entities such as the film’s antagonist the “Puppet Master” that are capable of hacking into, controlling, and thus violating cybernetic bodies, “Making of a Cyborg” also gives the impression of a prayer for the wellbeing of the “unborn child” Kusanagi and others like her whose shells are made in this way.

As if to emphasise and even uphold this ritualistic relationship with technology, similar motifs and combinations of sonorous metallic and membranophonic sounds form the basis for a large portion of the score that follows. “Ghosthack”, for example, is accompanied by ominous low synth tones, gongs and scraped cymbal effects more commonly heard in suspense or horror films. “Access” and “Ghostdive”, meanwhile, almost variations on the same theme, both revolve around the tintinnabulous sounds of tuned gongs and tubular bells, occasionally interspersed with digital or digitally treated percussion. The “Puppet Master”‘s main theme is almost a slowed-down version of this same idea, with the transfigured sense of pace and the microtonal differences in tuning between the various gongs drawing as much of a comparison with Aphex Twin’s early ambient work as traditional Japanese music.

The chant first heard in “Making of a Cyborg” also recurs on two further occasions, each with slightly varied instrumentation. Furthermore, the final chant plays over the closing credits, book-ending the film along with the first, and offers the first real semblance of a full orchestration, adding not only extra instrumental voices but extra instrumental textures, with a string melody and accompanimental dulcimer quaver figurations now clearly discernible amongst the held string chords and sparse percussion from before. This is doubly significant coming shortly after the film’s climax, in which Kusanagi agrees to the Puppet Master’s request to merge souls with her, creating a being that is neither one nor the other, but a combination of both in a symbolic act of reproduction. (As if to make this analogy inescapable for the viewer, Kusanagi’s new “shell”, her old one having been destroyed in the aftermath of the battle, is a smaller one bearing strong resemblance both to a doll and to a child.) Furthermore, the musical transformation and the “fleshing out” of the instrumentation heard, coupled with the subtitle “Reincarnation”, mirror the sense that, in her new persona, Kusanagi, and indeed the Puppet Master, are now somehow more complete through their act of union, having seemingly found answers to at least some of their initial questions.

Kusanagi and the Puppet Master’s union is presaged through the use of perspective.

While the film and manga certainly offer glimpses at the possibilities for human evolution through the continuous process of mechanisation, and furthermore hint at their inevitability, there is little disguising the sense of ambivalence that comes with it, particularly the implication that even the emotional connections we make with the world around us and the experiences that arguably form the concept of a soul can be digitally replicated, leading to the gradual erosion and erasure of the qualities that we take for granted as being innately human. It is telling, for example, that the climactic battle and “meeting of minds” between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master takes place in a museum, and furthermore one showing signs of its obvious age and decrepitude. As further emphasised by the prominent wall mural of an evolutionary chain leading up through various species of fish to “hominis” at the top, the suggestion is abundantly clear that humankind, having previously been at the apex of this process, is fated instead to be merely another stage in it that will (and, it is implied, must) be bypassed by the advent of modern technology and reduced to an artefact, a forgotten and abandoned relic.

Kawai’s instrumentation here, in the appropriately titled “Floating Museum” (drawing immediate associations with Debussy’s piano piece “The Sunken Cathedral”), illustrates this implication in a way that is both beautiful and unnerving. Perhaps the most overtly modern selection on the soundtrack, its sound defined primarily by electronic effects and soft synthesiser lines that steadily build in mood and intensity, the chanting vocals heard at the film’s opening in “Making of a Cyborg” are heard again, but this time in sampled, synthesised form, creating the eery impression not so much of echoes as of vestiges of the original human source. In many senses, however, this hybridisation of organic and synthetic sounds, as well as being the defining feature of Kawai’s soundtrack, also defines its overall effect within the film. Although its electronic elements are very much prominent, they are in roughly equal proportion to their acoustic counterparts, which linger and persist despite all best efforts, very much musical “ghosts” – not just of the spirit, but of the past – within the soundtrack’s digital “shell”. Indeed, by limiting his acoustic ensemble to such primal instruments as percussion and the human voice, and furthermore by demonstrating how these can be manipulated and even substituted with digital versions, it is almost as if Kawai challenges the viewer to consider what the caveats are that come with the kind of modernisation presented in Ghost in the Shell, and furthermore whether we are happy or prepared to accept them.

Kusanagi dives into the film’s interconnected world by means of camouflage.