My Thoughts on: Horror of Dracula (1958)

As it was Peter Cushing who drew me into Hammer horror films in the first place, I suppose it was only a matter of time until I got to Horror of Dracula (also released as “Dracula” but I’m going by the title on my copy), the first of Hammer’s Dracula films and the first to feature Christopher Lee as the notorious vampire.

Considering I grew up knowing Christopher Lee primarily for his role as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit and as Count Dooku in Star Wars, discovering Lee’s horror roles has been eye-opening to say the very least. Oh, to be sure I knew that Christopher Lee had a lengthy history in horror, but it’s one thing to read about it and quite another to watch it on the screen. And one thing I’d heard for several years now is that his portrayal of Count Dracula was must-see.

And is it ever! While I was astonished to learn that Lee is on screen as Dracula in this movie for less than ten minutes, you’d never know it from the way he dominates the screen. I got a cold chill when he appeared for the first time as this looming figure at the top of the stairs. I love how Lee’s Dracula just oozes charm during his introduction. This is how I’ve always imagined Dracula to be: just this overwhelmingly charismatic figure that anyone would find irresistible if you didn’t know he was actually a centuries-old vampire. Also, I love the cape that Lee wears throughout the film, this is definitely what a vampire’s cape should look like.

Now, Lee’s appearance in the film aside, the story of this film did bother me just a little. Unfortunately for this film, I’m quite familiar with Bram Stoker’s original novel and my brain couldn’t help but point out differences between book and film throughout the story. This despite the fact that I know a Dracula movie isn’t beholden to copy Stoker’s novel to the letter. It’s just..this story is in some respects so close to the book and yet so different. I mean, we still have Mina and Lucy, and Dr. Van Helsing of course, but that’s where the similarities pretty much end and I don’t know why but the differences bothered me just a little.

Speaking of Van Helsing, I think I like Peter Cushing in this role just as much as I like him playing Baron Frankenstein. He projects such an air of authority that you have no trouble believing that this is an expert vampire hunter who will stop at nothing to see all vampires eradicated from the face of the earth. In fact, he plays the part so well that I found it legitimately frustrating when certain characters found ways to circumvent his instructions (I felt a similar way while watching The Brides of Dracula).

As for the horror elements in this movie, I was sufficiently scared throughout the movie. Believe it or not there’s at least one jump scare in this movie that had me almost jumping out of my skin. Most of the scares have to do with Christopher Lee and that gorgeous score that accompanies the film. Even before Lee makes his appearances as Dracula, you just know he’s coming from the music alone, which makes the moment he appears so much more terrifying.

There’s so much more I could say about Horror of Dracula but it all essentially boils down to the same thing: this is a great entry in the list of Hammer horror films and one I greatly enjoyed watching. The only way it could’ve improved was with more screen time from Christopher Lee’s Dracula, but I take comfort knowing that Lee returns as the titular vampire in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (a film I hope to review later this year).

Let me know what you think about Horror of Dracula in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Ever since I saw Frankenstein Created Woman and The Evil of Frankenstein last year, I was obsessed with getting to the very beginning of Hammer’s Frankenstein saga by hunting down The Curse of Frankenstein. Well, the recent holidays finally gave me the chance to acquire this film and I finally got the chance to see Peter Cushing’s introduction to the story of Frankenstein.

I’ve had quite a bit of time to turn this story over in my brain and I’ve reached some interesting conclusions about it. While the original 1931 Frankenstein is unquestionably superior, there are some good things to be found in Hammer’s interpretation of the story. Most notably, the best thing about The Curse of Frankenstein is Peter Cushing as the titular character. I’ve liked every iteration of Cushing as Baron Frankenstein so far, but this version, obviously the youngest (20 years before Star Wars for context) might just be my favorite. It’s here in The Curse of Frankenstein that we see how Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life got started.

And what’s really interesting about Frankenstein’s obsession is how it grows by degrees. He doesn’t start out immediately wanting to create life in a new body, it all starts as an innocent interest in science and higher learning. When he finds a brilliant tutor to teach him, the pair spend years delving deep into science and medicine until finally they’ve seemingly unlocked the secret of life and death, a huge medical discovery, but it’s at this point that Frankenstein’s devious mind begins to make itself known. Rather than share this discovery with the world, Frankenstein wants to keep it to himself and use it to breach the ultimate boundary: making a body and giving it life, effectively playing God. In this film as in the 1931 Universal film, this is presented as the greatest offense one could possibly commit against nature. It’s made abundantly clear that what Frankenstein is doing is completely immoral, the only one who can’t see that is Frankenstein himself.

It’s rather frightening how Cushing plays Frankenstein. As the story progresses and Frankenstein is pushed again and again to give up his experiments, his obsession with creating a body and proving that he’s right (never mind the question of whether he should to begin with) grows until it dominates every facet of his life. And the most unnerving part is that Frankenstein seemingly can’t see how he’s coming across to those around him. He’s robbing graves, picking up body parts from seedy charnel houses, he spends hours in his laboratory covered in blood putting a body together and he has no idea of how insane this makes him look. In fact, he’s driven so far that he, at one point, commits cold-blooded murder without so much as flinching in the brutal aftermath. A chilling performance indeed.

In fact, the story is so particularly insane that I have a theory. You see, the story of The Curse of Frankenstein is bookended by Frankenstein being in jail about to be executed for a crime he alleges he didn’t commit. The bulk of the film is a long flashback where he explains his side of the story. At the end of his recollection, his former tutor and alleged partner in the bulk of the experiment comes to visit him and Frankenstein begs him to tell the authorities that it’s all true. The tutor coldly denies everything, condemning Frankenstein to the guillotine with his omission and it seems that the tutor has gained the ultimate vengeance by keeping silent and leaving Frankenstein to his fate. However…it’s occurred to me that there’s another solution.

See….back when I was in grad school I learned about this thing in storytelling called unreliable narrators. Now, 99% of the time, when a story is being narrated to us, be it in a book, TV or film, you trust that you, the reader/viewer, are being told the absolute truth. But sometimes, and Game of Thrones (the books, not the show) is a noteworthy example, you get a story where you can NOT trust that the narrator is telling you the truth. And as I watched the closing minutes of The Curse of Frankenstein play out, it occurred to me that Baron Frankenstein might just be an unreliable narrator. Think about it, suppose this entire story of creating a monster is just the ravings of a man gone incurably insane? It’s frighteningly plausible and it really makes you rethink the story as it’s been told to you.

I also really enjoyed Hazel Court’s performance as Elizabeth. I instantly recognized her from her role in The Masque of the Red Death and was delighted to discover that she was in this film opposite Cushing for a decent chunk of the story. Interestingly, those beautiful dresses she wears throughout the film are vintage pieces from the Victorian era. Part of me wants to find it hard to believe that Elizabeth could stay ignorant for as long as she did about what Frankenstein was doing, but then I remember that Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is such a charmer that it would be quite easy to be distracted from what’s going on.

Finally, I’m still not sure how I feel about Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s monster. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen all of the Karloff Frankenstein films first and I’m pretty sure that’s colored my reception of Lee in the role. Oh, he certainly does the best he can with the role, it just…it just doesn’t compare to Karloff’s Monster.

If you haven’t seen any of Hammer’s Frankenstein films, I highly recommend starting with The Curse of Frankenstein. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I’m looking forward to watching more Hammer films in the future.

Let me know what you think about The Curse of Frankenstein in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

My Thoughts on: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

My Thoughts on: Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

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A Strange New World: Speaking with Herdís Stefánsdóttir about Y: The Last Man

Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.

Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!

Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series? 

Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?

How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man? 

The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.

It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.

Did that make the process easier?

In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.

Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?

It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.

Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?

Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.

What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?

I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.

Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?

I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.

I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?

What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].

Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?

I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.

I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Soundtrack News: Milan Records to release ‘Belle’ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on January 14th

Milan Records has announced the January 14th release of BELLE (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK – ENGLISH EDITION), an English language version of the Original Soundtrack to Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda’s latest feature. Featuring both score and vocal tracks written by a team of composers led by Taisei Iwasaki and including Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bandoh, the album includes English versions of vocal tracks originally performed in Japanese, newly recorded in English by Kylie McNeill, who voices ‘Belle’ in the English dubbed version of the film. The album follows the massive success of the original Japanese Edition of the soundtrack, which has garnered over 20 million streams globally since its July 2021 debut.

Belle follows shy, everyday high school student Suzu as she escapes into a virtual world, becoming a globally-beloved popstar named Belle and setting out on an emotional and epic quest to find herself.

Ranging from anthemic pop ballads to emotionally-laden instrumentals, the soundtrack includes original vocal songs written and arranged by Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell and Yuta Bandoh as performed in the film by both Suzu and her virtual persona Belle, as well as original score music also written by the trio and Grammy-nominated composer Miho Hazama. The film’s main theme and album opener “U” was written and performed by groundbreaking Japanese act millennium parade led by Daiki Tsuneta, and two of the vocal tracks and recurring themes throughout the film, “Lend Me Your Voice” and “A Million Miles Away” also feature lyrics co-written by Mamoru Hosoda. The English album was produced by Taisei Iwasaki and supervised by Taka Chiyo alongside the team of composers and in collaboration with GKIDS and NYAV Post.


BELLE (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK – ENGLISH EDITION)

TRACKLISTING –

  1. U – millennium parade, Belle* 
  2. Whispers – Kylie McNeill* 
  3. Slingshot – Miho Hazama, Taisei Iwasaki
  4. Memories of a Sound – Taisei Iwasaki
  5. Blunt Words – ermhoi
  6. Gales of Song – Belle* 
  7. Fleeting Days – Ludvig Forssell
  8. Swarms of Song – Belle*
  9. Alle Psallite Cum Luya – Ryoko Moriyama, Sachiyo Nakao, Fuyumi Sakamoto, Yoshimi Iwasaki, Michiko Shimizu, Kaho Nakamura
  10. Fama Destinata – Belle*
  11. Dragon – Yuta Bandoh
  12. Justin – Yuta Bandoh
  13. Unveil – Yuta Bandoh
  14. Digital Ripples – Ludvig Forssell
  15. Dragon’s Lair – Yuta Bandoh
  16. Lend Me Your Voice (draft) – Kylie McNeill* 
  17. Social Warfare – Ludvig Forssell
  18. Assault – Yuta Bandoh
  19. Lend Me Your Voice – Belle*
  20. #UnveilTheBeast – Ludvig Forssell
  21. Authority and Arrogance – Ludvig Forssell
  22. Scorching the Façade – Yuta Bandoh
  23. The Truth Obscured – Ludvig Forssell
  24. Lend Me Your Voice (humming) – Bentley Griffin
  25. Distrust – Ludvig Forssell
  26. A Million Miles Away – Belle*
  27. Pieces of the Puzzle – Ludvig Forssell
  28. Faces in the Rain – Kylie McNeill* 
  29. Skies of Song – Ludvig Forssell, Kylie McNeill*
  30. A Million Miles Away (reprise) – Belle*

*Denotes vocal track

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My Thoughts on: Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)

I understand that this is several months late, but to be fair, the last few months of 2021 were a particularly insane time for me, so much so that I’m just now starting to get back on track (that’s why I posted next to nothing the last few months of the year). Part of getting back on track includes posting about some of the things I saw last year that I really liked before I dive into what’s coming in 2022. And one of the things I enjoyed way more than I thought I would was Muppets Haunted Mansion, a special that aired on Disney+ this past October.

Unbelievably, this was the first Halloween special the Muppets have ever done, which is mind boggling to me. How is it the Muppets haven’t covered Halloween before? I suppose better late than never. I set the bar for this special extremely low because I’ve not been the biggest fan of what Disney has done with the Muppets (remember their Disney+ series? Yea, me neither), but to my delight Muppets Haunted Mansion was pretty entertaining.

The setup for the special is relatively simple: instead of celebrating Halloween with the other Muppets, Gonzo and Pepe the King Prawn are going to a special “VIP party” at a famous mansion, which turns out to be none other than the Haunted Mansion. The challenge is for the pair to spend the entire night in the mansion. If they survive they’ll be allowed to leave, but it not…they’ll become permanent residents of the Mansion.

The overriding theme of the special, once the stakes are laid out, is confronting one’s fears and the fact that Gonzo claims to have none, despite being confronted by a number of scary horrors throughout the Mansion. This leads to a legitimately terrifying scene where Gonzo finally confronts his fears in the mysterious Room 999. In a million years I never would’ve thought a Muppets special could create nightmare fuel, but oh my good lord, the moment Gonzo realizes what his particular fear is….that was the stuff of nightmares. I had no idea a Muppets show could be that intense and I never want to see the Muppets go that intense ever again because it was TERRIFYING, even if it did make a good point about spending time with your friends while you can.

The Mansion itself was a lot of fun once Gonzo and Pepe got inside. I loved all of the musical numbers, particularly the “Tie the Knot Tango.” I’d actually forgotten about Constance Hatchaway, the bride who kills all of her husbands, so once I realized who this was, she immediately became my favorite ghost in the mansion, just because Pepe was so oblivious to the danger he was in. I also didn’t mind the big number that ghost-Kermit did to introduce Gonzo to the Mansion. I know a lot of people criticized Matt Vogel’s performance as Kermit the Frog, but honestly I had no trouble accepting his voice as belonging to the character.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Muppets do more Halloween specials if they’re all going to be this good. Bravo to Muppets Haunted Mansion for brightening up my Halloween.

Let me know what you thought of Muppets Haunted Mansion in the comments below and have a great day!

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The Adventure Continues: Talking with Composer Peter McConnell about Psychonauts 2 (2021)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with composer Peter McConnell about his work on the video game Psychonauts 2, which released earlier this year. In this game, the player controls Raz, a newly graduated Psychonaut with powerful psychic abilities, as he delves into the minds of others. Psychonauts 2 is set in a fictional, alternate world in which psychic powers exist thanks to the fictional element Psitanium – a substance brought to the planet by several meteors. The Psychonauts are an international espionage agency focused on psychic peacekeeping, scientific research of the human mind, and the development of psychic-based technologies.

Peter McConnell has composed award-winning scores for a diverse range of video games including Broken Age, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the Sly Cooper series, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Grim Fandango.

Peter studied music at Harvard with electronic composer Ivan Tcherepnin, graduating with High Honors. He has been nominated for over twenty-five Game Audio Network Guild Awards and won four, including Best Interactive Score and Best Soundtrack.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Psychonauts 2!

How did you get started as a composer?

The short answer is that I came out to California from Boston a few years after college having made a plan with my friends Michael Land and Clint Bajakian to start a band. By the time I got out here the band kind of fell through, but Michael had gotten a job starting the audio department at LucasArts, and he needed help. But there was some history behind that. I had loved music before I could even talk, taken violin lessons as a youth, taught myself to play banjo and guitar, and in college had an epiphany in electronics class which resulted ending my studies in physics, leaving for a year and a half and returning to graduate in music. So it was less a matter of “getting started” as a composer, and more a matter of continuing a long journey.


Were you excited to return for Psychonauts 2 so many years after scoring the original Psychonauts game? 16 years is a pretty long time to go between installments, was it difficult to get back into the story after so long?

Absolutely. And honestly, it wasn’t really a matter of “going back” to the score, since in a sense I never really left the score to begin with. Those themes were always percolating around in my head. I probably spent a total of 15 minutes  listening to the original  Psychonauts tracks before getting started. The music was already there. I find that is generally true with me, although it was especially true of Psychonauts, since it was my first gig as an independent composer after leaving LucasArts in 2000.


Were you brought in to do the music early in the development process or late? And when you were brought in, was there a lot of collaboration/discussion with the game’s directors on where they wanted the sound/music of this game to go?

I was brought in fairly early. I was on the project for over 4 years, and I think they had done about 9 months of work on it when I started.


How much of the music for Psychonauts 2 is built off the score for the original Psychonauts? Or was it decided to go in a wholly different direction for this sequel?

I would say that the score for Psychonauts 2, like the game itself, is both a continuation and an expansion. As a composer I focus on melody, so the themes in the score are all-important. For this reason the characters that had been in Psychonauts 1 kept their original themes, but there were so many new characters! Each one got a new theme. Even the Main Title theme got a new “bridge” section, based on a significant new character in the game. And the music styles were expanded significantly. We could only afford a few live musicians in the original Psychnonauts, whereas in Psychonauts 2 we had The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a live big band, a rhythm section from Nashville, and of course the rock and roll band featuring the voice of the amazing Jack Black. 

What was the general process for creating the sounds and and music for each level of the game?

Each level is about a particular character and each character had a theme. Early on we went through a phase of just focusing on themes in the simplest form: simple piano sketches that, once approved, could be orchestrated into full pieces.


Following up to the last question, what inspired the overall sound world of Psychonauts 2? What groups of instruments did you decide to go with?

The characters inspired the instrumentation. For example, Hollis has an issue with gambling and her level is all about that. So the classic big band sound of Sinatra’s recordings with Nelson Riddle’s band had to figure into that world. Similarly, the Psy King’s level was all about psychedelic music from the ‘60s. It was the same way for all the characters, and each one pretty much called to me with a sound.


How much time did you have to score Psychonauts 2?

The score was done over 4 years, but in a project this size you don’t typically work all the time straight through from beginning to end. It’s safe to say that the entire score probably represents a couple thousand hours of work.


Were any of the game levels more difficult to score than others? For example, did you come to a certain point in the game and feel stumped as to where it was going to go musically? If so, how did you get around it?

There are often moments I run into with individual pieces, but nothing really sticks out. I think it’s safe to say there weren’t any real instances of writer’s block, or being stumped. I find if I do run into a problem, the best thing to do is listen carefully. Sometimes over and over. What comes next usually reveals itself.


Do you have a favorite musical theme/musical moment in the game?

My favorite two are probably the Lady Luctopus Boss and the Psy King music. The Lady Luctopus allowed me to combine the Melbourne Symphony, drums and bass from Nashville, and my friend Andrew Burton’s amazing Hammond organ playing in one piece. And the Psy King music allowed me to have a band reunion with Michael Land and Clint Bajakian—going back to all of our roots—and to create a piece with Tim Schafer for Jack Black to sing.


Is there any musical detail you hope players notice as they work their way through the game?

That’s a great question. There are many details I hope people will notice. For example, a careful listener may note that part of the clarinet melody in the Questionable Area and the Aquato Family Caravan music both come from a tiny little melodic fragment in a dream Raz has about his family in the original Psychonauts.

I hope you enjoyed our conversation about Psychonauts 2 and I want to say thank you to Peter McConnell for taking the time to speak with me.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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My Thoughts on: Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

After unexpectedly enjoying Resident Evil, I pushed on and continued with the sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse. This movie picks up almost immediately after the first film leaves off, with Alice waking up in an abandoned hospital and the T-virus raging throughout Raccoon City as the zombie apocalypse begins.

I think this film surprised me even more than the first Resident Evil movie, because it was my understanding that the films decreased in quality as time went on. But that decline clearly hasn’t started yet because Resident Evil: Apocalypse, dare I say it, is a superior film to the original Resident Evil (the lack of questionable CGI is a big mark in its favor). With the first film almost completely contained in the Hive, the sequel moving the action to Raccoon City makes perfect sense.

I really like how the film actually goes back and shows how the T-virus got loose in the city to begin with, with the meddling Umbrella executives making the situation worse by forcing the Hive open, allowing the surviving zombies (and the virus) to get loose. The montage that shows the early moments of the zombie apocalypse actually has a moment that had me laughing out loud. Remember when i reviewed the first movie and I wondered aloud if this was a universe where zombie films didn’t exist? Well, I think this movie confirms that zombie movies aren’t a thing in the world of Resident Evil because there’s a funny scene where the Raccoon City PD are hauling in handcuffed zombies in the police station and treating them like regular criminals. It’s so ridiculous, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Regarding Jill Valentine…I could see in her first five minutes onscreen why people took issue with her appearance and I completely agree with all the criticisms. Here’s the thing, when you adapt a story from video games, you are not necessarily obligated to duplicate the costumes in exact detail and I think the creators of this movie forgot that. That being said, Jill is such an absolute badass in this film that I’m willing to partially overlook it. The same goes with Alice. She was already a major badass in the first film, but she took things to a whole different level in this movie. I really loved the stunts she did with the motorcycle.

One thing that I wasn’t expecting at all was to see Oded Fehr in this movie (aka Ardeth Bey in the Mummy movies). I’ve been a fan of his for years and if I’d known he was in Resident Evil movies I probably would’ve started watching them years ago.

The biggest issue I have with this movie is Nemesis. I have a hard time believing that this…monstrosity…is supposed to be that one character from the first movie. Yes, I get that the ending of the first film was heavily implying that this character was mutating…but honestly, did that much time pass between the first and second movies for him to mutate that much? Not only that, but the makeup for Nemesis is just…I don’t like it. It’s a significant improvement over the bad CGI Licker from the first movie, but it still falls short and could’ve been better.

I admit, I honestly thought the sub-plot of rescuing the daughter in exchange for escaping Raccoon City was going to work out for our heroes. That moment, when we find out the villain has been aware the whole time…man that hurt. If you’re going to do a twist like that, that’s how you do it. At least the villain got his comeuppance and then some, it was very satisfying when he tried to take the easy way out and I heard the empty gun go *click*.

While Resident Evil: Apocalypse does have its fair share of problems, it is a marked improvement over the first film with a healthy dose of “Oh BLEEP” moments scattered throughout.

Let me know what you think about Resident Evil: Apocalypse in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

My Thoughts on: Resident Evil (2002)

Film Reviews

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My Thoughts on: Resident Evil (2002)

So one of my goals in 2021 was to continue to expand my knowledge of horror films after finally admitting to myself that I do in fact enjoy the horror genre, albeit selectively. It seemed a no brainer to include the Resident Evil movies, starting with the first film in that series: Resident Evil.

Before I talk about the movie itself, I should make it perfectly clear that I have never, ever, played a single Resident Evil game (nor do I intend to) and aside from knowing about some of the more nasty monsters (like Lickers), I really don’t know anything about how the games work or how they connect, if at all, to the Milla Jovovich series of movies (I’m aware the 2021 reboot is a more direct adaptation).

All that being said…I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying Resident Evil for the most part. The initial set up with the Red Queen and the Hive is pretty scary, and I felt particularly bad for the scientists caught in the flooding lab. I also like how the film takes its time in revealing the big threat of the film, i.e. the zombies. Though speaking of the zombies…I have to wonder if Resident Evil takes place in a world where zombie movies don’t exist. Because, thinking back, it takes the group an awful long time to realize that there’s something really, REALLY wrong with the first zombies they encounter.

Once the zombies *are* introduced to the story and recognized as the threat they are, well, that’s when things get really interesting. There’s so many jump scares with those zombies I lost count. I wasn’t sure I would make it, to be honest, because zombie movies really do scare me, but thankfully the story kept the action moving enough that I didn’t have too much time to think about it.

Two of my favorite actors in this movie were Milla Jovovich as Alice and Michelle Rodriguez as Rain. I really liked how the story gave Alice amnesia so that she starts the movie knowing nothing about the situation, thus putting her in the exact same position as the audience. As Alice learns about the situation, so do we, so we have something in common with her.

I’m also a really big fan of the Red Queen, the malevolent AI Alice and company find themselves up against for most of the movie. This movie is further proof that artificial intelligence will someday be humanity’s doom (in fact I almost included this movie in my dissertation because of the Red Queen) and I love the role she plays in the latter half of the film.

That’s not to say that Resident Evil isn’t without significant flaws, because oh my God are there some glaring flaws in this movie. The most notable of which is the godawful CGI for the Licker. Oh my lord, I CRINGED when this creature first emerged and I cringed every time it appeared thereafter. I can’t even give the year as an excuse for how bad the CGI looks, because the early 90s CGI in Jurassic Park looked better than this travesty. It’s almost like the animators were 2/3 of the way done with the Licker and just decided to stop. Even the “mutated dogs” looked better than that monstrosity. I also take issue with the reveal of how the T-virus was let loose in the first place. If you’re trying to escape with a sample of the virus…why are you letting a sample go? I’m probably overthinking it but I thought it was pretty stupid of that character to set the T-virus loose like that.

Flaws aside, I did enjoy Resident Evil, enough in fact to continue watching the series (though that is a story for another day). It’s flawed, sure, but few movies are perfect.

Let me know what you think about Resident Evil in the comments below and have a great day!

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Film Reviews

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Exploring a New World in VR: Talking with Composer Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon

Earlier this fall I had the chance to speak to composer Jakob Eisenbach about his work on the VR arcade experience Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon. In this exploration game, you and your team are teleported to an ancient Mayan temple where you must work to stop the awakening of evil during a ‘blood moon.’

I’ve been fascinated by VR for a long time, so it was really cool to get to talk with Jakob Eisenbach about his work on Tikal and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the game (and working in VR).

How did you get started as a composer?

It’s quite a funny story: I wished for a guitar on my 15th birthday because of falling in love with the sound of electric guitars, thanks to the game Guitar Hero 3.
Since I was somehow pretty quick at learning technique, practiced up to 12hours a day and advanced unusually fast, I got interested in more and more complex and high energy music. Then I joined a metal band, played lots of Dream Theater, Jason Becker and other very technical music, but became bored with only “complex and fast” eventually.

Since this really was the first time me being good at something, I decided to take my luck into my own hands and start a career in music. But to not be too crazy and only relying on guitar, I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about music.

And as crazy as it sounds, after starting to take piano and theory lessons for 4 years, I already managed to get accepted as one of four students at the Zurich University of Arts. Something which turned out to be my most lucky punch ever –
the year I joined the program “Composition for Film, Theater and Media”, was also the first year where all of the Universities Departments moved into a newly constructed building.

And there I was….studying my dream occupation while being surrounded by so many talented people, state of the art recording studios, concert halls, classical/jazz music students, while having yet the craziest advantage to come: Collaborative in-house programs with students from game design, film, theater, dance, conducting, recording, you name it.
Somehow our field of studies turned out to be at the intersection between a lot of those disciplines, so any project we did could be recorded live with real instruments since the very beginning – simply because the musicians were next door and we simply had free access to the infrastructure.
We literally recorded full-size orchestras for fun little school projects, because the most difficult thing was to only find enough musicians. The rest was already there and free.

Fast forward a few busy years, students graduate, some find jobs at different production companies or game studios and then you eventually get a call: “Hey Jakob, since you worked on my MA graduation game, my company and I have this new project….”
And suddenly I find myself inside this incredible VR startup “True VR Systems”.

How is composing for VR different from composing for, say, a regular video game or a film?

Basically, as with any kind of storytelling, you’re aiming to re-create human experiences. And there’s only limited ways of doing that. Film for example, is something that you’d call a “linear” story: You as the consumer can only go forward in time. The most interactive a movie gets, is you pausing it or adjusting the volume.

Then there’s games: some of them also have a linear tendency, like Journey.

Most games however tend to have more “non-linear” gameplay: open world games like Red Dead Redemption or World Of Warcraft, where you can spent as much time as you want, where you want, and even do things repeatedly.

Depending on how the story is told, the music has to connect to either the environment/mood or a linear sequence, like in cutscenes or timelines.

Actually, since the definition of music is anchored at the “perception of organized sound” it’s the job of me as the composer to create those organized chunks that a consumer may eventually perceive as music. They can consist of many different possible sections with lots of outcomes, transitions and different versions of the same story and mood.
Or you can create one singular timeline, that you have to experience in one in one sitting.

In the projects of TrueVR it’s the same: the only extension is that you could place the music in virtual spaces and environments. But no matter how much technical extension you add to a story, it still has to make sense in the consumer’s head.
Those VR projects are mostly non-linear but have a few linear timelines where the music has some straight moments (for example on the Lava River).

Fun thing to think about: The reality we experience every day can also be observed as some kind of linear story with moments and chunks of non-linear, repeatable timelines.


What inspired the sound of Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon?

The main inspiration lies in the idea that you are experiencing a “strange” world, but you are some kind of main character/hero that’s solving the ancient riddles and mysteries of this temple.

As the game itself aimed for the “wow effect” experience of huge dimensions, especially in the vertical, we decided this is achieved best with a real symphony orchestra.
The 24-piece choir really added the feeling of an ancient magic being at work.

To achieve the “strangeness” I was strongly inspired by Balinese Gamelan culture, since this has a strange character to most western ears, and I was familiar with their theory. Extended with Arabic and Asian instruments it became less specifically on one culture though, while retaining the character of something “different” and “tribal” next to the orchestra. Nobody really knows how Mayan music sounded after all. We only know of some self-made instruments like bamboo flutes and drums.


Why was it so important for the music for Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon to be recorded live? 

Two reasons. The first: This game should evoke the feeling of being impressed and stunned by perceiving the virtual world, but not the kind of “gimmicky impressive” you have in most trailer music.
The second reason: Since we established a kind of “real instrumentalists only” trend, coming from the amazing experience in my studies, I simply had the experience how to pull this off. Since we did small school projects with real orchestras and ensembles all the time already, I very strongly felt that this project, which became internationally available and feels like something exceptional in its way, especially deserved to have a real soul.

How did working on Tikal compare to the other VR projects you’d composed for? It sounds like this one was bigger than the ones that came before.

Tikal was planned by the studio as their flag ship project in their “explorer genre” from the very beginning. They wanted to have one very high-quality game, and Tikal was going to be that one. The other projects that have music of mine (like Patient Zero) are more focused on the interactivity and shooting zombies had a different approach from the studio. And they felt that for PvP and PvE shooters there’s other necessities than having a huge score. 

How much time did you have to score Tikal?

Not much time, then suddenly a lot of time, and then suddenly not much time again.

So, while designing the core gameplay with the visual artists and creative team, we really went hand in hand. I scored a 10-minute suite within a few days, then we split this into different sections that could work to what we transcribed in the storyboard.
During the level design, we tested a lot in the actual VR environment, like how you perceive the time for different locations etc.
But because the new licensed partners in Canada wanted to open their franchise with a new game, we had to go into beta very early. So from first draft until beta, I had around
3-4 weeks.

Then this got stuck, because the dev team and me (hired as sound designer) had to go to different projects, so the composer side of me was left in the dark for quite a while.

But then, more than a good year later we got back to this refurbished the game for the new 4K hardware and the arenas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Which was when we felt this was the time to finally record the music – but then there was COVID.

So, lots of stop and go, then during the “European summer break of covid” we sneaked into a little timeslot where travelling and recording full orchestras in one room was allowed and finally managed to pull this off in Budapest.

Let’s just say the composing part of this project was the least difficult part by far, ha ha.


Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes! My favorite part is “An Ancient Awakening”.

And you really need to play the game in the arena to understand why.

I’ll try to transcribe it though: When this cue starts, you’re already in the game for a little while and managed to advance to an ancient grave chamber.

You solved the riddle in this level and then the wind machines of the VR arena start, the scent dispensers are activated and in the game, you see a lot of beautiful particles flying around in the environment that slowly materialize into an ancient Mayan ghost in front of you. This ghost is the first NPC character you meet in the experience and since you’re inside the VR environment, he really is about as tall as you and your teammates.

I also carefully sound designed his voice and sound effects. He carries I think 5-7 individual binaural SFX sources in his prefab, which blend in with the music.

When I tested the game, I always liked to stand pretty close to his animation.

Little fun fact: The ghosts’ animation is a motion capture of the lead developer Mischa Geiser himself. They recorded this full sequence while repeatedly playing my music mockup on speakers in the VR arena and performing the movements to the music.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Soundtrack News: Lamb’ Soundtrack Available Now from Milan Records

Milan Records has released LAMB (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK) an album of music composed by Icelandic composer and guitarist TÓTI GUÐNASON for A24’s newest folk thriller. Available everywhere now, the album features score music written by Guðnason for the terrifying debut feature from writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson set in the Icelandic wilds.

Having worked alongside his sister Hildur Guðnadóttir on her Oscar®-winning original score for Joker and with Ólafur Arnalds on his BAFTA-winning soundtrack to Broadchurch, Tóti Guðnason makes his debut as lead composer with Lamb. A dark and unnatural folktale for the ages, Lamb is available in theaters now from A24.

Lamb was initially intended to be completely without a score, and I feel that is a humbling starting point for a composer,” says Tóti Guðnason of his work on the film. “Growing up in the north of Iceland I’m very familiar with the feeling of rural silence. That feeling is extraordinarily well portrayed by Valdimar Jóhannsson in Lamb and I did my best to play into it while respecting it. My responsibility was to create something more fitting than silence, and silence can be the greatest of sounds.” 

LAMB (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK)

TRACKLISTING –

  1. Prelude
  2. The Lambing
  3. Searching for Ada
  4. Return Home 
  5. Mothers
  6. Reflection
  7. Hrútur
  8. Uncle Pétur
  9. Herding
  10. Ada
  11. Hrútmenni
  12. DÝRIÐ

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