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PET SEMATARY – Elliot Goldenthal

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Pet Sematary was an adaptation of a popular novel by horror author Stephen King. Directed by Mary Lambert from a screenplay by King himself, the film starred Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed, a doctor who moves with his family – wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), children Gage and Ellie (Miko Hughes and Blaze Berdahl) – from Chicago to rural Maine. Louis befriends his elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who alerts him to the existence of a pet cemetery in the woods on his new property. One day, months later, the family cat is run over and killed on the highway outside their home; wanting to save little Ellie from the pain of losing her beloved pet, Jud reveals to Louis that things that are buried in the cemetery often return from the dead, and sure enough the cat comes back, albeit with a much different, more aggressive personality. Months later still, little Gage is hit by a truck and killed on the same highway – and despite dire warnings from Jud, Louis buries his young son in the cemetery too. Sure enough, the next day, little Gage returns… but, as the film’s famous tagline suggests, sometimes dead is better. Pet Sematary was a popular success at the box office in 1989, despite many critics feeling that the sense of dread that was prominent in the book, as well as its more thoughtful ruminations on grief and death, were missing from the finished film.

The score for Pet Sematary was the first mainstream film work by the then 35-year-old composer Elliot Goldenthal. He had previously written music for a couple of small, independent, super low-budget films in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and would score director Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy later in 1989, but prior to Pet Sematary Goldenthal was mostly known as an exciting, fresh name in the world of classical music; he was a protégé of composer John Corigliano, and had received attention for his off-Broadway stage musical Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass a year or so previously. Horror movies have always proved to be a fertile breeding ground for young composers wanting to prove their mettle – James Horner, Christopher Young, Marco Beltrami, and literally dozens of others cut their teeth in the genre, taking advantage of the unrestrained musical possibilities it encourages. What’s interesting about Pet Sematary, though, is that the score contains very little of the music we associate with Goldenthal today, and never really indicates the type of composer we all now know he would become.

The score is mostly a showcase for a large amount of horror dissonance, filled with shrieking strings, ominous pianos, and some subtle electronic sound design, but whereas in a lot of composers’ early scores you can hear the genesis of the composers they would eventually become, that isn’t really the case with Pet Sematary. Going into this blind, you would never guess that this music was by the composer of such standout works as Alien 3 and Interview with the Vampire, even though he would write both of those within five years of this one; it just doesn’t have the musical sophistication, or the avant-garde brilliance you associate with the overwhelming majority of his work. Perhaps most disappointingly, the score’s recurring main theme – an eerie piece for quietly morose piano chords and a la-la-la children’s choir – is obviously modeled on Lalo Schifrin’s 1979 score for The Amityville Horror. Although it was most likely a temp-track request from the film’s producers, the lack of originality from a composer who is universally lauded for just that is frustrating indeed.

The main theme occurs in several cues, most notably getting an extended performance in the opening cue “The Pet Sematary,” where it is clearly intended to evoke the sound of children mocking and haunting us from beyond the grave. As the score develops it comes back several times. In “Adieu Gage” the theme is performed sans choir accompanied by dark groaning strings and eerie pianos. In “Up in Flames (Flashback)” the theme emerges from a bed of dissonant strings and scratchy synths, with a choir that gets louder, aggressive, almost angry, as it progresses. Unusually, in “I Brought You Something Mommie” and “Gentle Exhuming,” the theme has a sense of twisted romance about it; the arrangement of the theme for strings and piano reminds me very much of “Carol Anne’s Theme” from Poltergeist, and may be a subliminal nod of acknowledgment to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for another child tormented by demons.

Goldenthal addresses the family tragedy of the situation with some emotional writing for pianos and strings. Cues like “Hope and Ordeal” and “Death Do Us Part (Rachel Hugs Louis)” try to offer the audience a little bit of a human connection, allowing us to empathize with the loss and grief at the core of the story, but even here the music retains a cold, ominous tone that maintains the overarching sense of horror. There are two brief action cues, “Rachel Against Time” and “Rachel’s Blow Out,” which make use of rampaging string and piano lines, metallic percussion, and an energetic rhythmic beat to add some life to the proceedings. “Moving Day Waltz” is an unexpectedly elegant and pretty string waltz, while “Nine Lives Minus Seven” is a little music box piece for the film’s frightening feline.

The rest of the score is made up of extended sequences of horror dissonance, wherein Goldenthal goes hell for leather with groaning string harmonics, thunderous pianos, eerie electronic synth tones, creepy chimes, and aggressive and angry banging and whining from the percussion section. This music is the stuff that will either make you or break you; it’s just relentless, a cacophony of chaos that sounds disorganized and could well come across as little more than noise. This is what I mean when I say that Pet Sematary doesn’t really provide any hints of the musical sophistication we would come to know from Goldenthal in his later works Even when he is at his most experimental, you can still feel the underlying musical structure, but that is rarely the case here. Whether it was his inexperience at the time, or lack of support from the studio, or some other reason, I don’t know, but Pet Sematary just seems like the work of a less talented composer, or at least one still finding his feet and finding his voice.

Having said that, there are still some moments of merit. “The Return Game (Jud and Gage)” underscores the famous Achilles-slicing scene and is angry and edgy, with multiple parts of the string section playing against each other to create a frightening cacophony of stabbing, scraping anarchy. “The Warning Tour” puts the electronic tones much higher in the mix, with dark, moody industrial pulsing. “The Return Game II (Louis and Gage)” is outlandishly creepy, a nightmarish combination of stingers and screaming strings, which at times become almost painful via their high harmonic range. “To the Micmac Grounds” surrounds hints of the main theme with strings, synths, chimes, and prominent percussion making growling/cracking/slapping noises, as well as some sinister ethnic woodwinds that clearly are intended to evoke the Native American culture and history surrounding the cemetery itself.

The finale begins with a falsely optimistic version of the main theme in “Kite and Truck,” which is warm, childlike, and more consonant than almost everything else in the score, although even here the pianos and strings are still a little creepy. The cue ends with a final outburst of nightmarish string groaning and creaking to underscore the movie’s shocking twist ending, before the conclusive cue “Immolation” brings back the full Main Theme for one last statement, with the Amityville voices, and the tragedy in the orchestra, building to a dark and scary finish. Thankfully the punk rock song “Pet Sematary” written and performed by The Ramones, which is heard over the film’s end credits, is not included on the album. Incredibly, the song became one of the Ramones’ biggest radio hits and was a staple of their concerts during the 1990s, despite it being by far the worst song they ever recorded.

I have been a huge fan of Elliot Goldenthal’s music for years, but I find myself struggling to make a recommendation for this score. Even once you move past the Amityville Horror ‘homage’ of the main theme, the horror and suspense music is just not really interesting enough to make it stand out from the crowd that existed in the late 1980s, and there is little to no emotional content to latch on to. Very little of Goldenthal’s compositional intelligence and instrumental creativity appears to be on display, and compared to his later works in the genre the whole thing sounds somewhat predictable and even a little safe. What I can say is that, from a historical perspective, Pet Sematary is an important score. Every composer has to make their film music debut somewhere, and (if you discount those two very early works) for Elliot Goldenthal it was here. As such, fans of the composer’s more accomplished and acclaimed later works may want to check this score out simply out of curiosity. However, for me, in terms of actual music, it remains a disappointment.

Buy the Pet Sematary soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Pet Sematary (3:00)
  • Dead Recollection (1:19)
  • Hope and Ordeal (1:22)
  • Adieu Gage (1:22)
  • Rachel Against Time (0:49)
  • The Return Game (Jud and Gage) (3:42)
  • Moving Day Waltz (0:30)
  • The Warning Tour (1:41)
  • Death Do Us Part (Rachel Hugs Louis) (0:53)
  • Nine Lives Minus Seven (0:14)
  • Up in Flames (Flashback) (1:38)
  • Bitter Loss (Flashback) (1:51)
  • Rachel’s Dirty Secret (0:22)
  • Return Game Attack (1:54)
  • Rachel’s Blow Out (0:20)
  • I Brought You Something Mommie (0:34)
  • The Return Game II (Louis and Gage) (2:52)
  • Gentle Exhuming (1:03)
  • To the Micmac Grounds (2:45)
  • Chorale (0:29)
  • Kite and Truck (1:22)
  • Immolation (1:37)

Running Time: 27 minutes 39 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5227 (1989)

Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal. Conducted by Steven Mercurio. Performed by The Orchestra of St. Lukes and the Zarathustra Boys Chorus. Orchestrations by Elliot Goldenthal and Robert Elhai. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Album produced by Elliot Goldenthal.

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