January 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Don DAVIS House on Haunted Hill   VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6088 [54:16]

Save around 22% with
Amazon UK

Amazon US

Welcome to a big bold, ravenous monster of a horror score, but first, perhaps an explanation is in order regarding the nature of the beast. In 1958 master of the exploitation gimmick movie William Castle, made a cheap Vincent Price feature under the title House on Haunted Hill. The following year Shirley Jackson published her famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which Robert Wise turned into the outstanding 1963 film, The Haunting. Earlier this year, Jan De Bont directed a new adaptation of the Jackson novel, which, for contractual reasons, most specifically was not a remake of the Robert Wise film, yet strangely, kept its simplified title. Hollywood seems to have a fondest for doing things in twos, and now just a few months later, comes the remake of House on Haunted Hill, which, just to confuse matters, bears marked similarities to the plot of The Haunting. The new version of The Haunting was executively-produced by Steven Spielberg, while this new House on Haunted Hill lists as one of the co-producers, Spielberg protégé, Robert Zemeckis. How such top directors could have been behind two such apparently awful movies must remain a mystery: still haunted by the headache-inducing horror that was Speed 2, I avoided De Bont's The Haunting, while the American reception of House on Haunted Hill suggests a badly made, suspense free bloodbath of sickening degree.

After the functional, all electronic, Universal Soldier: The Return, House on Haunted Hill happily sees Don Davis equipped with a budget once more, sufficient to pull out all the stops for a display of magnificently full-blooded thunder. Here we have orchestra, chorus, plus extra credits for guitar and percussion, and Mr Davis himself on synthesisers. Several cues feature an organ, but this is not listed in the credits, so is presumably synthesised.

The Main Title is simply splendid, a doom-laden Gothic organ motif over foreboding strings sets the scene for epic events, for horror with a grandeur not heard since Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. 'Pencil Neck' is a ferocious display of presumably Latin voices, thoroughly unnerving and absolutely relentless in a way which would have been unimaginable before Jerry Goldsmith's score for The Omen. The sound is extraordinarily dynamic and confrontational, designed simply to terrify. It works so well that it is not an enjoyable listening experience. The voices, and the organ (notably on the arppegiated sequence of 'Sorry, Tulip'), return on a selection of tracks, but Davis has other devices up his musical sleeve, mixing orchestral and electronic atmospheres to imaginative effect on a range of cues, several of which, without being openly derivative, suggest that he would be an excellent choice to score any future addition to the Alien series. Just listen to 'No Exit', 'Gun Control' or 'Surprise'.

Being a horror score, Davis inevitably has to mix all-out assault, with something-nasty-is-about-to-happen suspense music, but he does so with a degree of nasty invention which makes this a superior work. An Arab inflected melody runs through 'Price Pestiferous', overlaid with uncanny voice, while elsewhere treated voices and processed electronic samples create wild nightmarish soundscapes. 'Struggling to Escape' delivers a jolt of a different kind, a polished rock beat develops into the sort of Goth instrumental that might have appeared on an album by The Cure. Much needed light relief comes from an accomplished 1920's pastiche dance, 'Misty Misogamy', and an arrangement of an excerpt from Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor - though unfortunately this is spoilt somewhat by the rather obvious nasal breathing of one of the musicians. Meanwhile, Davis offers his own romantic melody, first introduced in 'Hans Vervosemann', a sinuous and appealing theme which offsets such malevolent set-pieces as 'Melissa in Wonderland'.

'The Price Petard' is a moving choral anthem which sounds like part of a 20th century requiem, and makes one wish Mr Davis would write such a work. The final tracks make heavy use of 'demonic' voices, atonal brass, wild piano figures, explosive percussion, and all sorts of unleashed musical fury. The result is exhausting, nerve wracking, and strangely thrilling. Superbly crafted, this is film music at the outer edge, as challenging as virtually any avant garde concert work, but rather more fun than most. This is one horror score that goes all the way up to 11.

Full marks also to Varese for putting a decent amount of music on the disc. At 54 minutes, presumably this is the full score. An end title cue to provide some sense of final musical resolution would have been nice, but presumably the film doesn't have one, no doubt offering horror of a different kind as the credits roll.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase

Return to Index