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Universal's Classic Scores of Mystery and Horror

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Album Review

Just a decade after doing a partial recording of the music for Ghost of Frankenstein, the Marco Polo label has come back with this new recording of virtually the entire score from that film, augmented by the music from Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and portions of the scores from Son of Dracula (1943), Black Friday (1940), and Man Made Monster (1941). All of this material was written (or co-authored) by either Frank Skinner or Hans J. Salter, who frequently worked together on these Universal horror and mystery titles, to the point where it is often difficult for the outside observer to say who did what, or which. The music is in many ways more impressive and subtle than the film itself, especially in the case of Ghost of Frankenstein; some of this scoring — such as the pulsing strings under ominous reed and wind melodies, the horn calls evoking the presence of the monster, and also, more distantly, the melody associated with the broken-necked Ygor (Bela Lugosi) from the prior Son of Frankenstein — will be familiar. Sharply juxtaposed with that material are the lyrical themes associated with "Frankenstein's Castle" and "Erik's Dilemma" — crossing between them is "Elsa's Discovery," with its gentle motif for the scientist's daughter giving way to swirling string and flute parts, all built around the ominous theme associated with Ygor and the monster (as well as elements of Salter's earlier score for the movie The Wolf Man), the monster's on-screen arrival manifesting itself finally in a dark contrabassoon cadenza. The music may actually be more sophisticated than the final edit of the movie, and much of its construction as well; for many aficionados of classic horror, Ghost of Frankenstein was the film where the Universal horror series "jumped the shark," as they say in popular culture circles. Dr. Frankenstein's son unknowingly — in a vain attempt to undo his father's mistake — replaced the monster's original brain with that of Ygor, and created a monster 1,000 times worse. The movie has a threadbare look compared with past entries and few of the stylistic flourishes that made the three prior Frankenstein films such an unsettling delight to watch; the music, however, has surprising depth and class, as well as a fair degree of complexity. The other scores represented all have widely varying characters, despite being associated with horror and suspense films of the same era and having been written by the same composers — Son of Dracula's main title is actually rather wistfully romantic. And the producers have excerpted the most playful section of Man Made Monster's score, one of the most guilelessly charming pieces ever written by Hans J. Salter. "Electro-Biology" from the same score is a dazzling workout for the percussion, horns, and upper strings. The music for Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror contains musical elements (especially in the track "Voice of Terror") that would be explored further by Frank Skinner (and other members of the Universal music department staff) in the scoring for such 1950s films as It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula. Here, it's just beautifully moody, occasionally exciting, and generally underscores points in the film with more subtlety than much of the script did. The playing by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava is inspired and flawless, with conductor William T. Stromberg finding the perfect balance between exposing musical detail and maintaining the tempo and tension demanded of film music; this conductor and orchestra avoid the pitfalls of other re-recordings (primarily from England) where the players act as though the music will break if they don't treat it gently.

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