On the subject of low budget horror movie scores, most aficionados will attempt to assure you that Italians do it better.
They wouldn’t be too far from the truth, admittedly (just check our guide to Fabio Frizzi for some cold, hard proof), but we shouldn’t forget the litany of American composers that struggled against massive constraints (usually monetary) to come up with innovative soundtracks to the near-bottomless bins of straight-to-video horror sequels. Let’s be honest for a moment here, as a wide-eyed youngster browsing the horror section of the local rental spot, you likely had far easier access (at least in the U.K.) to the decadent, oozing delights of Ghoulies, Troll and Puppet Master than their often banned Southern European brethren Zombie Flesh Eaters or Tenebre. In recent years the obscure Italian catalogues of directors such as Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci and Lamberto Bava have been championed so forcefully that there’s a sense that their US counterparts have relegated to the minor leagues, which simply isn’t fair.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, one name that kept cropping up on vivid VHS sleeve after vivid VHS sleeve was Charles Band either on his own or at the helm of Full Moon Features and Empire Pictures, and he was smart enough to make sure his composer brother, Richard, was regularly by his side. Ever since the two teamed up on 1983’s Parasite their names would regularly be uttered in the same breath – it’s hard to think back to Stuart Gordon’s seminal Re-Animator (which was produced by Charles) without humming Richard’s Psycho-influenced score, and his generous compositions for such bargain basement fodder as Puppet Master 5 and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys often outdid the movies themselves. It was Band’s jaunty accompaniments that would come to signify an era of American VHS fodder, and his twinkling, unmistakable themes are well worthy of re-appraisal.
Band’s well crafted fusion of synthesizers, the plasticky canned strings you’d expect to hear on a made-for-TV movie and actual orchestras (he was an accomplished conductor) is still astonishing even today. He has since admitted that he always preferred real instruments, but of course that wasn’t always financially viable – it’s important to remember that many of these movies (including his brother’s seemingly never-ending run of sequels) were made on an absolute shoestring. When he was allowed to let loose , for example with the London Symphony Orchestra on The House on Sorority Row, he always made sure it counted, but there’s something about his cheaper, leaner scores that has sunk its talons into the minds of horror fans the world over for decades.
This is a list of ten of Band’s most crucial scores. Take a listen and then raid Netflix and/or Ebay – you won’t be disappointed.
Note: This list is a part of a series of Halloween-friendly beginner’s guides. Also profiled so far: the essential tracks by the almighty composer/director John Carpenter; the work of Italo horror go-to Fabio Frizzi; and the output of storied horror trailblazers Goblin.
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RICHARD BAND/JOEL GOLDSMITH
‘LASERBLAST MAIN TITLE’
(FROM LASERBLAST, 1978)
Band’s first score, Laserblast, is, oddly enough, one of the very few of Band’s soundtracks that can be acquired relatively easily in its entirety – it’s even on Spotify. The movie itself is an absolute atrocity, and was aptly derided in a memorable episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but Band’s triumphant synthesizer compositions still manage to stand up tall, even if they are better enjoyed in isolation. The woozy main title is the winner here, and was composed with assistance from Joel Goldsmith, who managed to escape his B-movie exile to pen music for Stargate SG-1, Call of Duty 3 and more.
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(FROM PARASITE, 1983)
Parasite marked the first time Richard Band worked with his director brother Charles, and still stands as one of his gloomiest and most unusual soundtracks. ‘Prologue’ is a specific highlight, as Band tempers his tendency to go all-out with the swooping strings, instead allowing percussive elements to signify something unsettling and biological. The two would work together again countless times (and will no doubt be working together again, as Puppet Master shows no signs of letting up) but Parasite stands as a curious oddity in Band’s catalogue, and one well worthy of seeking out if you can find it.
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‘MUSIC BOX AND THEME FINALE’
(FROM THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, 1983)
Music boxes are to Richard Band what Mellotron choirs are to Fabio Frizzi, and the familiar festive twinkle characterized many of his most-loved scores. Compared to, say, Laserblast, The House on Sorority Row sounds as if there was actually a proper budget (it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, no less) and its arching strings and inherent magnificence certainly dwarfs the film’s shaky slasher premise. There are signature flourishes here that would be repeated throughout Band’s career, but rarely did they sound so fresh and full of life.
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(FROM MUTANT, 1984)
Another epic selection of orchestral curlicues and twinkling glockenspiels, Band’s score for Mutant was performed by Bernard Herrmann collaborators the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and remains one of the composer’s most acclaimed to date. At this time in his career there’s a sense that Band still had something to prove, and certainly the scope is huge in comparison to the actual film’s trashy provenance. It was an early reminder that Band’s compositions all too often added gravitas that simply wouldn’t have been there otherwise, a quality that has remained his key selling point for many years.
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(FROM RE-ANIMATOR, 1985)
His best-known score by a long shot, Re-Animator was Band’s chance to re-appropriate his hero Bernard Herrmann’s familiar Psycho theme (there’s even a humorous apology on the cover), sneakily referencing antagonist Herbert West’s mental condition at the same time. It’s a smart score that goes hand-in-hand with Stuart Gordon’s none-too-serious directorial style, and stands as one of the most important American horror soundtracks of the 80s. It’s hardly surprising that it received the deluxe remaster/reissue treatment from the fledgling Waxwork imprint earlier this year.
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RICHARD BAND/SHIRLEY WALKER
(FROM GHOULIES, 1985)
Ghoulies is one of those movies that remains intrinsically connected with the ’80s schoolyard – a merciless rip-off of the earlier massively successful Gremlins, the grotesque demons had a habit of hiding themselves in the toilet, which when you’re seven years old is a very big deal indeed. The film sports one of Band’s jauntiest, most unashamedly fun themes to date, and it compliments the movie’s puerile tone surprisingly well. It’s not highbrow stuff, and Band’s audible nods and winks are the perfect accompaniment, especially for those of us looking in a good quarter-century later. Frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (another Herrmann acolyte) might be best known for this kind of sound, but there’s no denying that Band’s appropriation was just as successful, artistically if not commercially.
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(FROM TROLL, 1986)
Richard Band’s Troll soundtrack might not be anywhere near as well known as his score for Re-Animator, but it easily stands up there with the best of them. Here Band fused the glassy synthesizer work of his early soundtracks with orchestral elements and almost comical choral parts, which in the movie were supposed to be performed by the Trolls themselves. The result is gripping and nightmarish, sounding somewhere between a child’s lullaby and the back room of an Italian Cathedral, which given the tone of the film, is surprisingly on-point.
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(FROM FROM BEYOND, 1986)
Evocative and unique, Band’s second collaboration with Stuart Gordon was incredibly fruitful. The surreal, often atonal orchestral parts sit awkwardly against rattling electronic percussion and hissing synthesizers and are a perfect mirror for Gordon’s nightmarish on-screen vision. There’s something about H.P. Lovecraft (or, indeed, Gordon himself) that has a rejuvenating effect on Band – he even returned to the horror genre many years after abandoning it (“I was kind of burned out doing them”) to help out with a made-for-TV version of Lovecraft’s Dreams at the Witch House. It can’t be just mere luck that it led to his first Emmy nomination.
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‘PUPPET MASTER THEME’
(FROM PUPPET MASTER, 1989)
While Puppet Master might not be Band’s best known or most acclaimed score, most horror fans out there will have heard it. The film itself appeared as part of a glut of ‘toys come alive’ horror movies (think Child’s Play or even Demonic Toys) and was surprisingly popular, so popular in fact that’s it spawned nine sequels, each of them sporting Band’s memorable theme. There could hardly have been a more appropriate choice given the film’s premise – Band’s scores for The House on Sorority Row and Troll were spine-chilling enough without being accompanied by visuals of murderous dolls, and the ‘Puppet Master Theme’ just feels like everything falling into place. Here’s to the eleventh instalment.
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(FROM DOLLMAN VS. DEMONIC TOYS, 1992)
It would be fair to say that Band’s contribution to his brother’s cheapo Dollman vs. Demonic Toys wasn’t the most storied move of his career, but included on the excellent Full Moon Features compilation album Full Moon Features Archives, it’s a clear highlight. It’s a rare treat to hear Band working entirely with electronics, and his echoing percussion and ooky, spooky sound module bass separates this particular cue from many of the others in his catalogue. There’s something tropical and decadent about it, and the track refreshingly lacks the restless quality of his usual compositions.
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