Jerry Goldsmith’s “Poltergeist” (1982) is another famous score of this composer, another score of my all-time favourites and another example what film music can achieve if you have a such gifted composer such as Jerry Goldsmith. I will not mention the remake and also not mention Marc Streitenfeld’s music in this review and also not on my website. “Poltergeist” is Jerry’s movie, and we should just think of “Poltergeist” as one of his best scores.
“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper, the director of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), one of the most influential horror movies. Because of the splatter context of this movie, it is hard to believe that “Poltergeist” is a Tobe Hooper movie. The producer was Steven Spielberg and because he had a clause in his contract preventing him from directing another movie while he made “E.T.” (1982), Hooper was selected. I do not want to mention the creative credit argument more here, this is not the place to talk about this. Here is the trailer:
The movie was so successful that other movies in the “Poltergeist”-franchise were produced. For the second one, Jerry also wrote the music, but I will concentrate on the first one here. The film was a major critical and commercial success, achieving in being the eighth highest-grossing film of 1982. There is also this weird story about a Poltergeist curse because of the death of several people associated with the film, but I also think this is just a similar story such as “The Omen” curse.
“Poltergeist” is for sure a great movie for every composer, but it was perfect for Jerry. The plot gave the composer a lot of chances for his composing style that “Poltergeist” shows you the whole variety of Goldsmith’s ability to write music. You have lovely tracks, but also the typical atonal and modern music Goldsmith is famous for. It is really astonishing how Goldsmith develops his material, guides the audience on this musical journey and scares the hell out of audience in the horror scene. A great example for this is the track “Rebirth” for one of the best scenes. This track is one of the best tracks Goldsmith ever composed and stunning in his dramaturgical structure.
The main theme is a lullaby called “Carol Anne’s Theme”, a lovely main theme to represent the quiet and peaceful life in this suburban area. Carol Ann is also the name of the little girl who get the first connection with the ghost and get sucked into the ghost world later. This main theme was a part in the movie theme suite, Goldsmith conducted during his concert tours and it is one of the most beautiful love theme he composed.
Despite of this lovely theme, Goldsmith created a lot of dissonant and atonal music for the horror scenes. It is astonishing how Goldsmith succeeds in this switch between the more lyrical parts of the movie and the terror parts which need a score that increases the horror parts. Because John Williams was tied in “E.T.”, Spielberg turned to Goldsmith, and we can be really glad that these two movies were prepared at the same time. Otherwise, Goldsmith might not be hired to compose the score for “Poltergeist”.
The score undertakes the same journey as the audience in the movie. First, we start with the lyrical and quieter part of the music, then it transfers to richer orchestrated part of the score with a motif that some critics describe as the “religious theme” and which you can hear in the already mentioned “Rebirth”, and in the end we have the scary parts of the score for the horror scenes and which are not an easy-listening part of the score. There are some similarities between these parts and the mystic parts of the first “Indiana Jones”, especially the temple scenes. Perhaps Spielberg asked Goldsmith to compose the music in a similar style?
“Escape from Suburbia" is a good example for these atonal and dissonant horror tracks. After the horror is over and the family is safe in a motel – the TV set will not stay in this room…, Goldsmith returns to the more lyrical times with a reprise of the Carol Ann’s theme, but he puts some children laughs in the end. This sounds weird and is unexpected. Is this a musical statement for the madness that still might be there?
Goldsmith did not use any synthesizers or electronic effects in the score. Instead and like in “Planet Of The Apes”, he used traditional instruments but also a lot of other instruments such a musical saw, a rub rod, whistles and special drums to create the unknown in music. Even though this music is really not an easy listening music and people might skip these tracks, you have to admire Goldsmith’s ability to transform the scary scene into music that is still outstanding.
These qualities make “Poltergeist” special and one of the best soundtracks ever: You have the lovely tracks, but also the musical horror tracks which scare you like hell with their unusual orchestration. Goldsmith shows that he is a master in this field of horror.
After being unreleased for nearly fifteen years, “Poltergeist” received its first soundtrack album in 1997 by Rhino Movie Music. In 2010, a two-disc soundtrack album followed by Film Score Monthly featuring additional source and alternate material.
It is really sad that Goldsmith and Spielberg did not work more together because the genius of Spielberg in visual storytelling matches perfect with Goldsmith’s genius of musical storytelling. “Poltergeist” is not only a great score, it also shows that film music can be really contemporary music that can be played in a concert hall without any chance.
Here is another live performance of the main theme, but with the End Credits from "The Swarm", Irwin Allen Bees-Thriller before, really worth lisenting:
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