Revival House: Nine Great Scores From Bad Movies

One thing I’ve noticed about being a soundtrack collector is that I own many film scores from bad and/or long-forgotten movies. I was thinking about this while contributing to Popdose’s recent tribute to film composer Alan Silvestri in which I mentioned that a particularly fun score for me was Judge Dredd (1995), which most people would agree is not the most inspiring of sources. And so for the purposes of this list, it seems like a good place to start.

Judge Dredd (1995, composed by Alan Silvestri). I have to wonder what exactly Silvestri saw in this film to write such impressive music. It makes me wonder what goes on when a composer sits down to write music for what he knows is a bad film. Does the composer latch onto something, anything, about the film that works — in this case perhaps the film’s lavish production design? Or does the composer focus entirely on the things that don’t work, in an effort to bring those elements out more with the right music? Is there perhaps an extra level of pressure because the composer will need to work twice as hard to make the audience feel like they’re watching something incredibly epic? Whatever the answer, all I know is I like to play this cue a lot.
Judge Dredd – Block War

The Swarm (1978, composed by Jerry Goldsmith). While Goldsmith has scored some classic cinema such as Patton (1970) and Chinatown (1974), he’s also lent his talents to quite a few stinkers too — like this one. For Irwin Allen’s big-screen killer bee invasion flick, Goldsmith writes one of the busiest and most exciting scores of his career, while at the same time acknowledging he’s not taking things completely serious by using the notes B E E for one of the main motifs. You’ll hear that motif in this incredible cue, written for a mostly laughable scene in which the bees descend upon the small town of Marysville.
Swarm – The Bees Arrive

Lifeforce (1985, composed by Henry Mancini). I suppose one could argue that Lifeforce isn’t really a “bad” movie because it has it’s share of campy fun and takes the term “gratuitous nudity” to new levels. I watched the restored version a few years back and enjoyed it ever-so-slightly more than the mess I remember seeing in theaters. But it’s still pretty bad. At least the restored version contains more of Mancini’s score, which is definitely a better score than the movie deserves. What kind of world are we living in where Henry Mancini had gone from scoring important films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Days of Wine and Roses in the ’60s to scoring a Cannon film in the ’80s? Whatever the reason, I’m happy it happened because the end result is a score that I’ve played about a hundred times more than either of those more important works. The following cue was written for a scene in which a nude Steve Railsback impales both himself and Mathilda May (who is naked for pretty much the whole movie) with a sword. Enjoy.
Lifeforce – The Web of Destiny Suite Part III

Inchon (1981, composed by Jerry Goldsmith). Laurence Olivier stars as General Douglas MacArthur in this account of the Battle of Inchon during the Korean War. While the film has largely been forgotten, the one memorable aspect was that the production was financed by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. Legend has it that at the recording sessions, Goldsmith was paid for his services in cash from a brown paper bag. I’m not sure what more can be said, except that the composer delivered a score worthy of a much better movie.
Inchon – Main Title

The Postman (1997, composed by James Newton Howard). A post-apocalyptic setting is generally a great opportunity for a composer and here Howard writes a score that at times has understated beauty but also has some epic action music with a stirring main theme. Unfortunately Kevin Costner’s telling of the 1985 science fiction novel by David Brin (loosely adapted by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland) was not at all well-received by either critics or audiences. The film tanked, Howard’s excellent score headed quickly to the cut-out bins, and it was the other postman score that ended up winning an Oscar — Luis Bacalov’s Il Postino (1994) — but that one’s not even in my library. One of the joys of writing this article was rediscovering Howard’s score, an old friend I hadn’t heard from in a while.
Postman – The Restored United States

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992, composed by Cliff Eidelman). Alexander and Ilya Salkind produced this attempt of telling the events that lead to Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. It was a box-office flop that was generally slammed by critics and the troubled production would prove so frustrating that it would be the last film produced by the father and son Salkind team (who are also responsible for the next film on this list). But despite the film’s shortcomings, composer Cliff Eidelman, who received his big break by landing the scoring assignment for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), delivers a sweeping, passionate, epic score.
Christoper Columbus – A Hero’s Welcome (Epilogue)

Supergirl (1984, composed by Jerry Goldsmith). It’s pretty obvious that as a film composer, Goldsmith pretty much never phoned it in — some of my favorite scores of his come from mediocre films. In this example, a tractor somehow comes to life and starts wreaking havoc. I have no memory of how or why this happens and wasn’t about to re-watch any of the movie for this article, but I think it was something to do with Faye Dunaway using magic powers from an amulet. It’s a stupid scene, yet Goldsmith writes a ferocious action cue, which makes me think that writing this kind of busy orchestral music must have simply been fun for him, regardless of the inspiration. Or lack thereof.
Supergirl – The Monster Tractor

Krull (1983, composed by James Horner). Long before he won his Oscar for Titanic (1997), Horner wrote what I consider to be the most exciting adventure score of his career for a very bad fantasy film that (poorly) attempts to combine swords with some kind of laser weapons. When a composer is just starting out, getting a gig like this — a fantasy film with a music budget big enough for a large orchestra and chorus — is a pretty big deal. No matter how bad the film is, it’s an opportunity to show people what you can do. But you’re sure not going to get any Oscar nominations. The music cue here is written for a scene in which our heroes ride Fire Mares, horses that are so fast they leave a fire trail behind them on the ground. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that kind of works — until the horses inexplicably take flight and the fire trail somehow follows them into the air. Whatever, dudes.
Krull – Ride Of The Firemares

Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985, composed by Jerry Goldsmith). At the risk of having this list be a tad Goldsmith-heavy, I’ll leave you with an amazing action cue from this Disney flop about a family of brontosaurs discovered in Africa. It’s an interesting premise marred by bad everything — except, of course, the music. It’s hard to believe this was produced by Roger Spottiswoode, the director of Under Fire (1983, which was also scored by Goldsmith). The composer’s usual shifting time signatures are at work here, punctuated by an awesome moment where the orchestra drops out completely and the percussion takes over for a couple of measures.
Baby – The Rescue

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  • Jrwt

    What about the Prince Of Persia. Harry Gregson Williams thought he was writing music for an epic moving, but he got only a so so movie. Too bade.

  • http://www.moviecriticassassins.com Oh very nice….

    Fantastic list, “Dredd,” remains one of my all time favorites, I would also add the score to “Cutthroat Island,” to this list. Fantastic music.

  • Lila10

    holy crap I so agree! Love the movie, DESPISE the score

  • MatthewMikell

    Of course, Jerry Goldsmith’s rejected theme for “Judge Dredd” is a masterpiece too. …Rejected? Goldsmith? Those words should NEVER appear in the same sentence unless separated by “in favor of.”

    Michael Kamen’s work for “Venom” (1981) is outstanding. The movie itself is underrated; with a fantastic cast and plenty of suspense and terror, if it had Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the credits instead of Piers Haggard it’d be regarded as a minor classic.

    Nick Glennie-Smith’s theme from the end of “A Sound of Thunder” is a personal favorite from an astonishingly stupid film with a completely shameful history (see Wikipedia for that).

    Other personal faves are J. Peter Robinson’s score for Howie Long’s moronic “Firestorm” and John Cacavas’ work for “Airport 1975″ and “Airport ’77.”

    Russell Mulcahy’s 1994 “The Shadow” isn’t a really awful film, but it is a miserable bastardization of its source. And once again, AGAIN, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is far and away the most redeeming quality of the entire production. See also: “Deep Rising,” “Chain Reaction,” “Congo,” “Leviathan,” “Runaway (1984),” “The Cassandra Crossing,” and any number of other wet stinkers. Other posters have already listed many more examples. Why the hell can’t we get a complete OST of “Damnation Alley”?!?

    Jerry has given me so many hours of pure joy, I would’ve given my life to buy him another couple of years. And I would’ve called it a bargain.

  • lewis

    Candyman!!! Philip Glass genius score, average film (the more honest of us would admit it is infact awful).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Hoyt/1002684066 Andrew Hoyt

    Waterworld should be foremost on this list, a great score from James Newton Howard. Also, Disney’s Dinosaur comes to mind, also from Howard. I’m glad to see Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend on here, I haven’t thought about that movie in some time. Loved it as a child, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Hoyt/1002684066 Andrew Hoyt

    Good one, I totally agree.

  • Kaitain

    Not a truly bad movie, though. Low-budget, frequently derivative and cheesy, yes, but with many nice things in it. (Screenplay was by John Sayles, ferchrissakes.)

  • Kaitain

    Whaaaaat? I love Kamen’s score from that movie! It sounds a little cheap at times, and some of the action cues are so-so, but the primary theme (‘Training MacLeod’) is awesome, as are lots of the little guitar-based pieces in it (such as ‘A Perfect Way To Die’).

    And…I mean, you can’t be dissing Queen’s songs, surely..?

  • Kaitain

    I’d nominate “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone”. Okay, not a truly awful movie, but a pretty downmarket one, yet with a terrific score by Elmer Bernstein.

  • Kaitain

    92% on RT.