Home > Reviews > MONSTER HOUSE – Douglas Pipes

MONSTER HOUSE – Douglas Pipes

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Discovering the work of a brand new composer is always an exciting event, especially when that composer’s debut score is a success. So, I hereby introduce the film music world to Douglas Pipes, composer of the new animated comedy-horror from Sony Pictures, Monster House. The film is a computer generated fable about a group of teenagers in suburban America who discover that their neighbour’s dilapidated, scary old house is really a living, breathing, monster – which has a penchant for devouring anyone, or anything, which ventures too close! Although the film owes a great deal to both Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling in terms of its story and overall tone, the film has been roundly praised for its excellent animation, multi-faceted appeal for both children and adults, witty screenplay, excellent voice cast (which includes Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kevin James, Catherine O’Hara, Kathleen Turner and Jon Heder), as well as its music.

So, who the hell is Douglas Pipes? He’s a Los Angeles native who grew up in and around the world of amateur music. A piano player since the age of eight, Pipes began scoring amateur film projects in his late teens; identifying a knack for capturing the musical drama in cinema, he went to back to school to earn a degree in music composition, studied composition and orchestration in Los Angeles, London, and Paris, took film-scoring classes, and started doing student films, which eventually led him to the door of young director Gil Kenan, who was studying at the UCLA film and animation department. When Kenan was given the green-light to direct Monster House, he had to convince no lesser figures than executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis that Pipes was the musical man for the job; fortunately, Spielberg and Zemeckis agreed – and this is the result.

If one was to make broad comparisons of Pipes’s style, one could say he’s like early Alan Silvestri crossed with early Danny Elfman, with a little bit of Goldsmith at his most mischievous mixed in for good measure. There’s a certain lightness, a playfulness and an infectious energy which permeates the entire score, making it a wholly pleasurable listening experience from start to finish, even though a number of the cues are quite short. The “Opening/Titles” builds from a pretty music box theme into mock-menacing march, complete with rolling timpanis and rebellious strings, indicating the kind of orchestral bombast the rest of the score contains. The seemingly flighty and silly “Eliza’s Song”, complete with a childish vocal performance by 5-year-old Ryan Newman, actually belies its importance as a thematic anchor: the bouncy melody underneath the infantile ‘la-la’s actually forms a key part of several cues thereafter (“Parents Drive Off”, “The Plan”), acting almost as a leitmotif for the young protagonists.

As the score develops, Pipes lets his orchestra play, and allows his youthful enthusiasm to have full reign over his score. Pipes has great fun with his orchestrations throughout the score: there’s a Theremin in “Awesome Kite”, syncopated pianos in “Construction”, hooting bassoons in “Ding Dong”, a restatement of the music-theme box in “The Flashback” and many, many other moments of impressive compositional gusto. The suspense music, in cues like “The Chimney”, “Dummy Feed” and “Trapped” are interesting and effective, and Pipes even gets chance to play around with some pretty inventive dissonance towards the end of “Constance’s Tomb/Escape”, which is significantly harsher and scarier than one would usually expect to find in a children’s film.

The action music, when it kicks in, is bombastic and flamboyant, and makes a wonderfully refreshing change from the electronic pop beats and synth pads one has become used to hearing in modern action scores of late. “House Comes Alive”, the powerful “Cop Car Gets Eaten”, the unashamedly heroic “Chowder to the Rescue”, the rampant “House Chase” and the enormous Cutthroat Island-ish “The Battle” are the kinds of action cues you wish you could hear more regularly, especially when the brasses are trilling and the strings are swirling. There’s too much of a tendency in Hollywood these days to reign in this kind of musical splendour, as though allowing the music to rise to the fore and present itself in such gregarious fashion is somehow overly-manipulative. Needless to say, its this kind of music film music fans crave, and its so refreshing to hear a composer being able to let loose with such gay abandon. Once or twice, somewhat unexpectedly, the action writing reminded me of Laurence Rosenthal’s score for Clash of the Titans, and for some reason “We’re Back” contains an electronic pulse which made me think of Alexandre Desplat’s score for Birth, but I’m sure these were just happy coincidences.

Ultimately, this is the kind of joyful film music you rarely get anymore: music which revels in its own created sense of energy, which has interesting instrumental touches, rousing action themes, scary monster marches and flamboyant fanfares. It’s the kind of music which fans cry out for, which people like Bruce Broughton and Robert Folk used to write, and which people claim isn’t being written anymore. Well, it is: it’s in Monster House, and Douglas Pipes is writing it.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles (1:02)
  • Eliza’s Song (performed by Ryan Newman) (0:48)
  • Awesome Kite/Bones Tossed Out/Construction (3:43)
  • Through The Telescope (0:39)
  • Parents Drive Off (1:20)
  • Go To Your Room (0:41)
  • Jenny Walks Up/Jenny’s Close Call (1:41)
  • Elegy (1:37)
  • Ding Dong/House Comes Alive! (2:39)
  • Cops Emerge (1:33)
  • The Chimney (0:38)
  • The Plan/Dummy Feed (3:14)
  • Cop Car Gets Eaten (0:54)
  • Trapped/Constance’s Tomb/Escape (7:37)
  • Cops Get Eaten (1:15)
  • The Flashback (3:34)
  • Chowder To The Rescue (1:19)
  • Nebbercracker Returns (2:06)
  • House Chase (3:36)
  • The Battle (5:13)
  • 45 Years/Tricycle (1:33)
  • We’re Back! (0:49)
  • End Titles (1:09)
  • The Dance (0:42)

Running Time: 49 minutes 22 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6746 (2006)

Music composed by Douglas Pipes. Conducted by Bruce Babcock. Orchestrations by Jon Kull, Bruce Babcock and Jim Honeyman. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Album produced by Douglas Pipes.

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