I keep trying to figure out why this Drive-In classic narrative doesn’t really work, and I just can’t figure it out. I’m trying NOT to look at it from a modern perspective of more sophisticated special effects, better cinematography, etc. It’s not any of that which doesn’t work for me. I seriously watched this movie four times and fell asleep the first three times. I know that’s not glowing praise, but once I was able to make it through to the end, I realized it wasn’t the movie.
It’s a cute little gangster meets monster flick that doesn’t try to be anything more than that. The soundtrack is at times horrible with the cliché organ music whaling every time the creature comes near to being onscreen. This use of leitmotif is what I’d like to talk about because in this movie…it’s what failed, not because it’s that terrible, but because modern soundtrack composers have gotten so much better at deploying it.
Leitmotif comes from the world of classical music, specifically from Richard Wagner. It’s the use of a specific musical melody repeated so that listeners are programmed to associate with a specific character of narrative element. Think of the screeching strings every time Norman kills in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Composer John Williams remains the king of the leitmotif. We all hear that march in our heads every time we see Indiana Jones. Who can swim in the ocean without a friend sneaking up behind them with a deep “Buh dum! Buh dum!” imitating the cellos from the Jaws soundtrack? We all know who’s coming in when we hear the three notes marking Darth Vader’s entrance. Think of Hand Zimmer’s The Dark Knight leitmotif!
They connect us emotionally to what may or may not be in the frame onscreen. Composers can use them to trick us or lead us emotionally where the film dictates we need to go. It’s a useful tool in that it denotes character as well as connotes emotion. So even though the organ music for the creature in this film is obnoxiously corny, it works in that sense of ratcheting up our emotions.