The Dunwich Horror – Les Baxter
Baxter’s score veers between kitschy lounge grooves and lush, melodic otherworldliness. Lovecraft never sounded so groovy.
Published on November 1, 2013 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
The Dunwich Horror

Despite his formidable legacy, film adaptations of the work of HP Lovecraft are not exactly rife, and his macabre stories of madness and monsters have been notoriously difficult to translate to the screen. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror (1970) was his second stab at bringing the author’s brand of cosmic horror to the screen, after Die Monster Die (loosely based on The Colour Out of Space) in 1965. It tells the queasy tale of Wilbur Whateley, the son of a half-witted albino woman and ‘unknown father’, and his attempts to summon forth the Old Ones; ancient entities slumbering in another dimension, waiting until the stars are right so they can return to earth. And mate. The film sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of Lovecraft’s story, though when it deviates it does so wildly, and Haller imbues much of it with weird, trippy visuals and psychedelic effects resulting in an often uneven and ludicrous tone. Enhancing the weirdness is a beautifully orchestrated score, courtesy of Les Baxter, which veers between kitschy lounge grooves and lush, melodic otherworldliness. In other words, a fairly typical Les Baxter score.

Born in Texas in 1922, Baxter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory and Pepperdine College in Los Angeles before he began to compose for a variety of swing bands throughout the 40s and 50s. He is perhaps best known as the progenitor of exotica – a popular easy-listening musical trend throughout the 50s and 60s that drew upon and glorified the sounds of Polynesia, Southeast Asia, and Hawaii. With his experimental approach to composing, Baxter also pioneered the use of the theremin, and with albums such as Music Out of the Moon, was a harbinger of space-age pop (sometimes called bachelor pad music), groovy lounge music that incorporates string orchestrations, Latin percussion, keyboards and electronic instruments such as the theremin. Wired magazine journalist David Toop once described Baxter’s sultry and provocative sound as offering “package tours in sound, selling tickets to sedentary tourists who wanted to stroll around some taboo emotions before lunch, view a pagan ceremony, go wild in the sun or conjure a demon, all without leaving home hi-fi comforts in the white suburbs.”

The Dunwich Horror

Baxter has scored over 100 films, but he is perhaps best known for his quirky and moody horror film soundtracks for American International Pictures. Taking his lead from the prolific Roger Corman, Baxter often worked with a limited budget and composed his atmospheric scores in a mere day or two; or in one alleged instance, a matter of hours. His score for The Dunwich Horror features electric piano, theramin, a modular Moog synthesizer, percussion, creepy woodwind, bells and all manner of spacey sound effects. The main theme is repeated throughout, with variations in pace and instrumentation and the use of electronic instruments such as the theremin imbue proceedings with a quasi-sci-fi feel. Tracks such as Black Mass utilise organs to atmospheric effect and wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Mario Bava’s gothic nightmares (Baxter would actually provide alternative scores for several of Bava’s films when they were released in the States). Elsewhere the likes of Devil’s Witchcraft is very much a product of its time – blasting horns, snappy percussion and pounding piano – the perfect accompaniment to Dean Stockwell’s sinisterly suave attempts to summon the Older Ones, while the piano led Strange Sleep and the eerie Sensual Hallucinations take the pace down a notch and up the moodiness. Cult Party features rattling percussion and hypnotic rhythms which foreshadow the jazzy percussion and blasting brass of Devil’s Cult, with its irregular and discordant moments heightening onscreen occult action. Lovecraft never sounded so groovy.

I’ll leave you with the main title. Just remember, Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Stacey E. Lemmon

    We did see an updated version… on the Sci-Fi Channel….A couple of years back….

  • Goodkind

    Nice writeup. I wasn’t a big fan of the film, it’s horror was too subdued for my 80’s tastes, but Baxter’s score is awesome.