Re-Animating Bernard Herrmann

Re-Animating Bernard Herrmann by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Cinefantastique Vol.16/No.2/1986
Text reproduced by kind permission of the author Randall D. Larson

Picture the corpse. Once, very well respected. Living, vibrant. Now, sadly passed on, a cold shell inhabiting a steel table. A shadow. Suddenly it is alive again, twitching with a resurrected vitality – but something is amiss. There’s a strange difference. It is twisted distorted perhaps even corrupted. We could well be talking about the reanimated cadavers in Stuart Gordon’s 1985 movie, RE-ANIMATOR, but we’re not.

We’re talking about the music provided for the film by notable composer Richard Band, for in effect Band has reanimated the music of Bernard Herrmann in parts of his RE-ANIMATOR score, altering it to suit his own style – and corrupting it in the process, some might say. It’s far more than an imitation of Herrmann, as we shall see, but a very liberal quoting of Herrmann’s composition within a work Band calls his own.

Band, the son of producer/ director/ writer Albert Band (I BURY THE LIVING), has written moody and evocative scores for a variety of low-budget genre films, including LASER BLAST (in collaboration with Joel Goldsmith – son of famed composer Jerry Goldsmith). THE DAY TIME ENDED, THE HOUSE OF SORORITY ROW and METALSTORM. Band was brought into the the RE-ANIMATOR project, after filming was completed by producer Brian Yuma, who knew of his work because of involvement in a project with Band’s father. The composer was given three and a half weeks to write the music, which was recorded in Italy with forty members of the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra. Band later overdubbed the synthesiser elements on his own in Los Angeles.

Band provided the RE-ANIMATOR a serviceable score which effectively embellished the film’s various moments of suspense, romance, and excessive graphic violence. Yet the most predominant element of the score is its main theme, which is, essentially, a virtual note-for-note copy of Bernard Herrmann’s famous main theme from PSYCHO! Like the dead bodies of the Lovecraftian storyline. Band invested the music with a strange life that is both effective in the film and yet disturbing in its bastardization of Herrmann, a point not overlooked by the critics, who gave the score mixed reviews.

Kevin Thomas, in the Los Angeles Times, praised the score, calling it “first rate… in the full-bodied vintage Hollywood manner,” while Variety felt that the score “would be better if it weren’t so obviously derivative of Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score.” Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, commented neutrally on the film’s “Bernard Herrmannesque score,” while Paul Attanasio in the Washington Post spoke out bluntly that, “The score is not fresh enough; given what happens to plagiarists (in the film), it’s hard to believe that Band would transcribe Bernard Herrmann’s famous PSYCHO theme jot for jot. It’s a glaring flaw in a movie of splendid excess.” Pauline Kael described the score as, simply, “Bernard Herrmann with hiccups.”

Band claims that the similarity between his theme and that of Herrmann’s PSYCHO was “no coincidence.” He reworked the motif intentionally to provide a quality of parody and of humor to the RE-ANIMATOR score. “When looking at this movie,” said Band, “the nature of the Herbert West character is a psychotic sort of maniac, and behind him he has this driving force. To me, when I saw that, the driving force that is the main title of PSYCHO fit him perfectly. Therefore, I used that as a base. I modified the theme but kept that Herrmannesque feeling, putting my own theme in it. I wanted that momentum there to create that psychotic movement that described the Herbert West character.”

But to what degree has Band used the Herrmann material as an influence, and to what degree has he actually “plagiarized” it (as Attanasio suggested in the Washington Post)? “The theme is completely mine,” Band replied “(but) the structure is basically Herrmannesque. Obviously, I wanted no doubt in anybody’s mind that this was a Bernard Herrmann takeoff.”

Little doubt in fact could exist, as the famous PSYCHO theme is immediately recognizable. So much so that it may, in fact, produce just the opposite of the satirical effect Band intended. The PSYCHO reference may distract viewers who recognize its source and are annoyed by its use instead of appreciative of the in-joke, as some of the critical comments quoted previously suggest. Band, however, feels otherwise: “I’ve read close to forty reviews that revered the music, and especially the humorous treatment of Bernard Herrmann. It’s been about ninety-five percent very positive.”

Kevin Fahey, president of the Bernard Herrmann Society in North Hollywood, felt Band’s score was little more than a bland ripoff of its original source material. The main title is Herrmann’s PSYCHO overture with a rock beat, and the second cue on the soundtrack album is the FAHRENHEIT 451 main title, also with a rock beat. If Herrmann was alive, he’d probably sue.”

Record producer Tom Null, at Varèse Sarabande Records, who prepared the RE-ANIMATOR soundtrack album, feels that critics have misinterpreted Band’s score. “Anyone who has seen the film should recognize the parodistic use of the music which is so obvious from the opening credits.” Null said. “Richard was not slavishly copying Bernard Herrmann but intentionally parodying him.”

The PSYCHO theme which Band used is the most dominant of five distinct motifs composed by Herrmann for the classic Hitchcock film, all of which were performed only by strings. All other instruments were eliminated from the orchestra, an example of Herrmann’s creative orchestration. It is first heard over PSYCHO’S main titles, and again to accompany Marion Crane’s panicky flight from Phoenix with the stolen money, wherein the music seems to imitate the staccato rhythm of the windshield wipers on her car.

Band’s version of the theme, first heard in the main title, also opens with a series of low staccato violin strokes – eight of them instead of five. Over an ostinato of warbling strings similar to Herrmann’s he introduces the same distinctive rising and falling phrase that Herrmann used, (one-two-three, one-two-three, one two three four, etc.) given a jaunty and humorous quality through the use of a jazz / rock drum beat which gives the theme a wholly different character yet retains its obvious source.

After repeating this sequence four times, Band segues into an arching melody which is nearly identical to the one Herrmann used in PSYCHO – except where Herrmann’s consisted of eight notes. Band uses only the first five and thereafter moves them in his own direction. But the imitation is obvious and glaring. The structure of the theme – its four parts (staccato strokes, repeated ostinato, rising and falling motif, slow arching melody) – are identical to Herrmann’s. What Band has done is to incorporate them into a setting of his own, with his own instrumentation, counterpointed and developed with his own themes.

While one might question the fact that Band chose to use Herrmann’s material instead of coming up with a theme of his own that would convey the same feeling, it remains that the score as a whole is highly effective in the film, and serves it well. Viewers cannot help but laugh when Band plays this jaunty, foot-tapping theme behind scenes of perverse mayhem. It may, indeed, be only the purists who are infuriated by Band’s tampering with a film music institution.

“The film was so unique from the standpoint of being so gory and so bizarre.” Band said. “There was no way I felt I could approach it seriously. In an overall sense it’s so absurd and so horrific, it’s funny. Therefore, I decided to use a lot of humor in the music and, besides that, to do some musically outlandish things: some very weird rhythms, a lot of electronics, and really go overboard when it comes to questionable musical tastes. My approach was to try to match some of the bizarreness of the movie itself, and to add a lot of humor that I didn’t feel came through as well in the actual film.”

The score mixed many diverse elements, from symphonic strains, a lyrical love theme, to pop-styled tunes and eerie, electronic synthesizers. “It called for a kind of mishmash of things, all with a degree of humor,” said Band. “And that’s the way I started out the picture, by utilizing a familiar Bernard Herrmann feel for the main title sequence. I wanted to get it off on the footing that people should not take this as an extremely serious movie.”

Other elements of the RE-ANIMATOR score are less Herrmannesque. There is a slow, meandering violin theme (heard when Meg searches for her lost cat in West’s room, and elsewhere) which recalls the suspenseful motif that Herrmann used when Lila Crane explores the Bates’ mansion in PSYCHO, and in one of the cadaver attacks upon Meg and Daniel, Band falls back on the oft-abused PSYCHO murder music, with its shrieking violin stabs. Outside of that, the bulk of the score is pure Band, maintaining the high standard he has brought to previous horror scores, utilizing a minimum of dissonance and atonality, and instead concentrating on achieving a fluidity in the music and experimenting with highly successful mergings of electronics and symphonies. It’s unfortunate that the PSYCHO material incorporated into the RE-ANIMATOR score tends to detract so much from Band’s original material.

Band composed the score primarily on his own, with little direct involvement from the filmmakers. Producer Brian Yuma did give him some initial, though vague, instructions: “He wanted me to stretch into some very bizarre directions.” Band said. “He did not want a conventional score.” Director Stuart Gordon did not involve himself in the music at all, except to listen to some of Band’s material and give it his hearty approval.

Critics apparently will remain divided on the aptness of copying the Herrmann theme verbatim in the RE-ANIMATOR, and it may, in fact, be much a matter of taste. I asked Band how he would answer critics, especially Herrmann purists, who might question his utilization of Herrmann’s famous composition and transforming it, “re-animating” it, in effect, into something totally different.

Band replied: “My answer would be that Bernard Herrmann had a very wry sense of humor and he would probably laugh very loudly at it. I would think they should do likewise.”

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