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CD Reviews: Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Elektra

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (2003/1978) ****


Perseverance PRD003

19 tracks 1:12:48

The '70s saw the release of several great horror films, including The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976) and Phillip Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy, this nightmare about pod people invading San Francisco combines expressionist camerawork, noirish lighting and eerie special effects to evoke an unusually unsettling atmosphere of anxiety and dread.

For the film's score, Kaufman recruited his friend Denny Zeitlin, a psychiatrist/jazz composer whose innovative arrangements of electronic and symphonic instruments had been drawing acclaim since the '60s. In the CD's liner notes, the director explains: "When the opportunity to do a score with him came up, I really thought that the film's nature of paranoia was ideal for him. Rather than Denny as a psychiatrist trying to cure paranoia, I thought he would be perfect to try to create paranoia!"

Kaufman's instincts were right. With few exceptions, Zeitlin's compositions throb with the same nervous energy that characterizes Michael Chapman's cinematography and W.D. Richter's creepy script. "Main Title," the album's first track, for instance, is characterized by a schizophrenic fusion of thudding drums, piercing strings, sighing horns and electronic noises that scrape like rusty hinges. "Angel of Death," in contrast, may be a much less violent work, but the piece's piano part, as it tip-toes over a bed of trembling strings, nevertheless suggests menace. Similarly, and despite its optimistic title, "Rescue" features a tense mélange of moaning and screeching strings, while "Escape to Darkness" creates a phantasmagoria of brittle notes, lush tones and distorted chirping noises.

Occasionally, however, some pretty, more lyric passages materialize. On "Love Theme," for example, a flute and trumpet play a parallel melody as a piano and drum sound quietly in the background. And Zeitlin's pipes-and-strings arrangement of "Amazing Grace" imbues the hoary old hymn with an aching, mournful beauty. By and large, however, the composer opts more often for vinegar than honey. Or he blends them, as he does with "Infiltration (Suite)," in which the melody from "Love Theme" and an unpleasant electronic pulse are introduced simultaneously.

Featuring a long, recorded interview with the composer, this commemorative disc should thrill Zeitlin aficionados. Fans of the film, however, may be a bit dismayed, as the music performed by the mysterious banjo-player doesn't show up. Fortunately, the quality of Zeitlin's score should make this omission easy to forgive.     -- Stephen B. Armstrong

Elektra ***


Varèse Sarabande 302 066 633 2

21 tracks - 45:21

Christophe Beck, most widely known for his pulse-pounding work on the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its offspring Angel, tackles action on the big screen with Rob Bowman's film version of the popular Frank Miller assassin Elektra. Having been weaned on Miller's seminal comic book work in the '80s, and having barely stomached the bastardization of Daredevil, I refused to see Bowman's latest inept excursion into mass entertainment. Accordingly, I expected Beck's music to follow suit. And while this is no Superman, I must admit there are good moments on this disc.

Beck revealed that, in the early stages of scoring Elektra, he held sampling sessions with the orchestra wherein he would electronically dissect and manipulate it. The result is sonically interesting, but let's back up for a moment. Elektra isn't all cool synth patches and slamming beats (although it does contain its fair share). The primary figure that represents the protagonist is a rising four-note motif that serves as the seed to a larger theme which underlines the tragic element of her character. As presented in the "Main Title," it gets things off to a good start. The score moves into a cross between atmospheric cues featuring Japanese percussion playing even meter rhythms (more convincingly than Zimmer's Last Samurai if that's any consolation) and sublime electronic textures. These elements actually establish a suitable tone and definitely evoke images of the Orient and martial arts training. Tracks like "Insomnia" also show Beck to be sensitive towards subtleties in sound design. Fragments of the orchestral sampling sessions can be heard amidst Chinese zithers and temple bowls.

Where things go a little awry are on big action set pieces such as "Ninjas" or "Kirigi," where Beck pumps up the volume with orchestral fireworks including the now ubiquitous modernist brass clusters/whole tone trills and aleatoric wind writing. Back when Goldenthal first introduced these techniques in the early '90s on scores like Demolition Man, they were an interesting departure from the standard approach toward action scoring. But after 12 years, it's gotten a little tired. It's too bad Beck didn't stay with the percussive approach as found on tracks like "Gnarly Gongs," because a good amount of this score is Asian-flavored (which is a good thing) and to be thrust out of that to good ol' European modernist techniques is jarring.

Luckily, Elektra ends on a good note with a lyrical rendition and more developed version of the figure that was introduced in the opening track and melodic material found on "The Kiss." There's a delicacy about the track where the motive is passed around the orchestra in imitation style contrasted by sparse piano chords. After all of the kinetics in the main body of this soundtrack, a moving elegy was the smart way to close the disc.

Hopefully, Beck will get better assignments for action writing in the future. I hold Bowman's directorial tastes to blame for some of the choices made in the scoring of this film. Beck even mentions in an interview that he found himself re-scoring the same scenes up to eight times. This, combined with a consistent type of "sound" to the scores of each of Bowman's previous outings (X-Files and Reign of Fire were scored by two different composers) says it all.     -- David Coscina

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