Sound, music and monsters

The Day The Earth Stood Still
By Robert Barry

Robert Barry started out intending to write a brief overview of sound and music in monster movies, but rather like the creatures in these films, the subject proved hard to tame. Here, he takes a look at the early days of the ‘creature feature’, with the story continuing up to the present day in next month’s instalment.

Monsters, the recent science fiction film directed by British visual effects designer, Gareth Edwards, joins a long line of 'creature features' in following horror writer and producer Val Lewton's old principle of withholding sight of the monster for as long as possible. Though we catch a brief glimpse of the eponymous monsters in the film's brief prologue, the image is shaky, highly degraded, and for most of the film – until, in fact, the very end – the camera's view of the extra-terrestrial visitors remains forever partial or in some way obscured. We are, however, treated on several occasions to the sound of these creatures, and lines like “Did you hear that?” and “What was that sound?” occur frequently throughout.

Despite the repeated insistence of post-structuralist philosophers that modern Western society is characterised by the predominance of the visual (Luce Irigaray's “ocularcentrism”), cinema has always had difficulties in showing us the monstrous and the inhuman. Whatever the degree of development of special effects technology, the actual sight of the alien being has always run the risk of deflating the horror and the suspense the film has built up with the crudeness of its appearance, the insufficiencies in its reality. In consequence, ever since the birth of sound film (and pre-sound films are notable for the relative scarcity of larger-than-life beasts and behemoths), our experience of the monstrous has mostly taken sonic form, via musical cues and sound effects, in order to suggest to our ears that which, to our eyes, remains un-representable.

"Do this bit like the dragon," wrote King Kong composer, Max Steiner, in his notes to orchestrator Bernard Kraun, a seemingly offhand remark that would have a profound effect on cinematic representations of the monstrous. If the montage techniques of silent film directors DW Griffiths and Sergei Eisenstein were already understood by their practitioners as Wagnerian leitmotifs by other means, the early sound cinema would soon usher in a wave of more directly musical references to the pugnacious potentate of Bayreuth. Few composers were more indebted than Max Steiner, the oft-cited 'Father of Film Music', who famously said that if Wagner had lived in the twentieth century he would have been the number one film composer.

King Kong (1933)


Steiner's big breakthrough came with Merian C Cooper's, King Kong (1933), whose score reads at times like a non-too-subtle patchwork of thematic motifs, the most recognisable of all being the theme for the great ape Kong himself. For members of the audience familiar with operatic repertoire, the deep, slow, descending octaves that not only announce Kong's appearance onscreen, but seem to physically glue him onto it, covering the seams where two pieces of film have been superimposed to achieve the false-perspective special effect, will immediately evoke the "Wurm-motiv" from Wagner's Ring cycle. Though the trudging chords accompanying Alberich's transformation into a dragon in the third act of Das Rheingold are in tritones – the dissonant harmonic interval known since the 17th century as diabolus in musica – rather than octaves, the slow pace, descending pattern, and the orchestration for low brass instruments make the connection quite explicit.

From the thirties to the fifties, through such scores as Franz Waxman's for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale), Roy Webb's for the Val Lewton-produced Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur), variations on this motif became a kind of sonic shorthand for an increasingly unpresentable evil presence. In the latter film, the creature remains off-screen throughout, hinted at via sound effects and music by Webb, a former assistant of Max Steiner; notably, as in Irena's dream sequence, featuring a descending motif resembling the aforementioned 'wurm'.

In the 1950s, however, with a new kind of out-of-this-world monster, a need seems to have been felt for new out-of-this-world aural signifiers. The theremin and other electronic musical devices were not initially associated with creatures from outer space. The first Hollywood films to employ Lev Termen's invention – Miklos Rosza's scores for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend (both 1945) – were concerned with more internal terrors. But around the turn of the decade, electronic sounds became indelibly associated with the extraterrestrial and the monstrous, fast replacing Wagner's motifs. In fact, the crossover can be pinpointed quite precisely.

In The Thing From Another World and the Bernard Herrmann-scored The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951), we can still hear the thunderous low brass octaves derived from Wagner's Wurm-motiv at moments such as the appearance of the seemingly invincible eight-foot robot, Gort, in the latter, and the final confrontation with the eponymous 'Thing' in the former. At the same time, we find the first associations between aliens and the the theremin, in moments more suggestive of the visitors' otherworldliness, some unsettling or uncanny feature beyond the mere fact of their inhumanity.


Soon electronic sounds would be synonymous with monsters from outer space, not just accompanying their appearance, but frequently supplementing their non-appearance or the inevitable failure of their tawdry visual manifestation. In many films, such as Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), we hear the alien invaders long before we see them – if we even see them at all. In It Came From Outer Space (1953), director Jack Arnold and writer Ray Bradbury had not originally intended to show the space monster, though in the end – this being a 3D movie – the studio rather insisted upon it. Still the most effective moments in the film remain those planned by Bradbury and Arnold in which we see the normal world through the creature's eyes, and the presence of the monster behind the camera is indicated by the tremulous glissandi of the theremin. "I haven't seen anything," says radio engineer, Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer). "But I'm sure hearing things."

Part Two (coming soon!) will explore the way the directors of the New Hollywood created new kinds of monsters and new relationships to the extraterrestrial other, simultaneously referencing and reframing the sonic regimes of cinema's first few decades of sound, and providing the immediate context for the most recent screen monsters.

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