Perhaps the finest purveyor of sci-fi and fantasy entertainment during the genre’s boomtown days of the 50’s and 60’s, George Pal’s films were just as distinguished for their epic visuals of proto-Bay destruction as they were for their musical grandeur, none more so than his apocalyptic classics THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. So it’s fitting that these two scores lead off a terrific Intrada compilation of early Pal-produced soundtracks, making for one of the most old school geek-tastic releases to be mined from the opening of the Paramount mountain.
Where many of the era’s sci-fi scores are wonderfully recognizable for a surfeit of rampaging, over-the-top notes and fairly indistinguishable sound, what immediately personalizes Leith Stevens’ work for these WORLDS is how thematically thoughtful they are, especially for a WAR that doesn’t so much play the danger of the oncoming, piano wire-held Martian war machines as his music does a sense of pleading melancholy, the basic human need to be held in a loved one’s grasp as death relentlessly marches forward. There’s a real melodic tenderness here that’s one of the many reasons that WAR OF THE WORLDS remains an unsurpassed classic, tense emotion that’s unabashedly religious in its reveal that only God (and his smallest creatures) offer the characters’ salvation amidst the brooding, dirge-like score. Though remarkably compact at 16 minutes, the soundtrack’s emotional breadth feels all encompassing in its evocation of global destruction by an unknowable menace.
However, there’d be no stopping Earth’s shattering fate by the even more formidable force of a planet called Bellus in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. Understandably busier, and more Christian in his approach than WAR, Stevens’ goes from dread to alarm, his music accompanying still-impressive images of destruction with brass fury, while the orchestra works at a fever pitch to complete the ship that will carry its all-white cargo to salvation on the neighboring planet of Zyra. Playing like a mix-n-match of the five stages of acceptance, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE‘s swirling orchestrations are full of white-knuckle excitement, all while compassionate strings and violins pray desperately for a winning lottery ticket on the mountain-sledding silver craft. And of course when they land, choral hosannahs and church bells are there to meet them under the glorious matte painting of a new world.
Now the complete release of Stevens’ scores (of course with Martian sound effects and Paul Fries’ breathless opening narration) gives voice to this terrific, unsung composer who started the Pal space craze with DESTINATION MOON,and would go on to work with his far kitschier counterpart Irwin Allen for the more frenetic musical thrills for TV’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA and LAND OF THE GIANTS.
The set’s second disc offers two of the Hungarian producer’s lesser-known, if worthy movie efforts, beginning with Russian composer Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score to THE NAKED JUNGLE. Here, the disastrous threat was downsized to no-less terrifying multitudes of South American army ants, all thirsting for the flesh of plantation owner Charlton Heston. Given a film that’s at once a he-man romantic potboiler and an exotic nature horror movie, Amfitheatrof hits all of the bases with thrilling gusto. The furious drums of a native dance lead to passionately lush orchestral drama (complete with piano runs) of a blustering man-child trying to win over a reluctant new wife, the music building to a smashing climax for the big ant attack, with the score’s military percussion, brass shrieks and Wagnerian orchestra cleverly turning the insects into savagely unrelenting “marabunta” soldiers.
Equally boisterous work can be heard in (Nathan) Van Cleave’s score for Pal’s far more optimistic opus CONQUEST OF SPACE. Set to blaze a notable musical path in sci-fi with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK and ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, Van Cleave’s first step into the unknown has plenty of grandeur, suspense and more typical tropes like a haunting female chorus, though playing the Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” over a Martian snow fall offers a clever touch of the unexpected. Cleave’s CONQUEST conveys space exploration as a pursuit both noble and dangerous, again with a sense of religiosity that often infused Pal’s work. With all of these scores sounding very good indeed for material a half-century old, Intrada’s Pal collection is a wonderful blast from the genre past that fans of his wondrous output have fantasized about hearing for seeming eons.
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