June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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When Good Ghouls Go Bad  
Music composed, orchestrated, produced, and conducted by Christopher Gordon
Performed by Pro Musica Sydney, featuring Avigail Herman (vocals)
With ‘apologies’ to J.S.B. and R.W.
  Available on Varese Sarabande (VSD-6281)
Running Time: 54:42
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Salem's Lot
  • On the Beach
  • Master and Commander
  • It’s very easy to make disparaging assumptions about a film called When Good Ghouls Go Bad. Based on one of R L Stine’s children’s books (the kid literature superstar before J K Rowling came to fame), the film by Patrick Read Johnson concerned a town where Halloween was no longer celebrated, a child visiting his uncle trying to uncover the mystery of the cancelled holiday. Hijinks involving a closed chocolate factory and a dead boy from many years before ensue. Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future plays the uncle, who I can only assume from the cover is the good ghoul that turned bad, since the cover features Lloyd dressed up as a ghoul, looking particularly ‘bad’.

    The film looks like fun, if not my sort of thing. Still I’d be curious to see it, as it seems like the kind of score that would closely dovetail the action, much in the way the composer’s score for the claymation short film Ward 13 worked. I had a lot of fun with this score, as it continually surprised me with its shifts from compositions of outright mischief to sensitive dramatic scoring to more unsettling thriller scoring. It never plies one style or mood for too long before the composer takes another tack.

    The first score track ‘Walker Walks and Falls in Walker Falls’ introduces a mischievous theme on celeste, doubled with piano. (Interestingly, Williams used the same idea later that year in ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ – it’s part and parcel of the genre I suppose.) From this opening, I expected a fairly light Halloween style score, the rest of the cue following the mood with the expected pizzicato, scratchy violin sound (the devil’s fiddle), woodwind solos, and brassier rendition of the theme. The theme appears in the brass in ‘Uncle Fred Returns’, and is placed in the celeste again in ‘Halloween’.

    The reference to Bach’s iconic organ in ‘Spooktacular (with apologies to J.S.B)’ very much fits this scoring approach as well. Featuring a playful dialogue for flute, strings and woodwinds, ‘Hand About’ is another strong moment, as is the playfully macabre march of ‘The Walking Dead of Walker Falls’. Probably no less suitable for the film, but a little harder to hear on their own, are ‘It’s a Mean, Mean, Mean’ and ‘Hand’s Down Polka’. The first is a source cue Gordon wrote for the film, the latter’s title kind of speaks for itself. They’re enjoyable in a perverse sort of way – this is a very eclectic score after all – but they don’t quite fit in. (Nor were they meant to.)

    There’s also the sweet side of the score. The warm piano and strings melody of ‘Uncle Fred’ and ‘Father Son’ comes from a refreshingly unfamiliar voice – we know the music Christopher Young, James Horner, Danny Elfman and (it must be said) John Williams would write here, and this composer doesn’t really sound like any of them. The same could be said for the unassuming secondary melody of ‘A Cheery Thought’.

    And then there’s the more serious side of the score, beginning with ‘Art Class’, a brooding orchestral work with clear references to Bernard Herrmann’s distinctive style of thriller scoring – churning low strings, descending-ascending motifs, groaning brass. When at the one-and-a-half-minute mark a harp glissando leads into a grand theme for orchestra, one can’t help but think of moments in Herrmann’s masterpieces, Psycho and Vertigo. Though the use of the piano softens the tone, there’s a seriousness to this music that also features in ‘A Pile of Pumpkins’, a cue that opens with those arcing motifs from Vertigo and a solemn rhythm before shifting into a major key for a passage that is truly beautiful. It neither feels overly-warm nor too subdued, it’s nicely placed on the fine point between feeling safe and not. Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein) would have proud of this cue, but Gordon has well and truly made his own.

    Both light and dark sections of the score come together in the longest cue – ‘The Statue and The Dance of the Ghouls’. After the gentle string-dominated opening, the Herrmannesque ideas of ‘Art Class’ return in force, if only to recede as the themes from ‘Uncle Fred’ and ‘A Cheery Thought’ are reprised in turn. It’s surprisingly beautiful for a track titled ‘Dance of the Ghouls’, but arguable there’s been enough mischief by this stage of the score, and Gordon gets the chance to develop his themes on a more extended canvas. (And maybe they’re dancing on the inside anyway!) The last cue ‘Trick or Treat’ can’t resist one more joke, this time at the expense of Richard Wagner, whose ‘Die Walkure’ is interpolated before one final statement of the theme from ‘Uncle Fred’.

    Of the composer’s previous works, this reminds me most of Ward 13, a claymation short film featuring a pastiche of action-adventure scoring. The sources are different here, but the tongue-in-cheek attitude to them is very similar. It has the effect of making the whole thing wortk together less successfully than Gordon’s strongest scores – On the Beach and Salem’s Lot – but on the other hand it’s such a different genre that it seems impossible to compare it to those anyway. Gordon’s such an interesting composer that even a slightly lesser title features writing of distinction that one wishes were applied to material of more stature. He seems more than capable of successfully scoring any genre of film placed before him.

    Recommended to fans of Danny Elfman’s work for Tim Burton’s films especially, John Williams’s The Witches of Eastwick, and the afore-mentioned works of Bernard Herrmann. And of course to fans of Christopher Gordon.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4

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