Friday, June 15, 2012

The Sound of Gothic: The Music of Robert (Bob) Cobert

One of the often overlooked elements of film and television is the musical score. In the world of gothic and horror films, can you imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins or Vertigo without the lush, romantic score? Or what about David Lynch’s ground breaking drama, Twin Peaks, without Angelo Badalamenti’s quirky jazz?

I can’t imagine Dark Shadows without the music of Robert Cobert. Outside of the Dark Shadows fan base, Bob Cobert may not be as well known as Herrmann and other status film composers, but when it comes to horror film music, his oeuvre is one of the strongest and most recognizable.

Aside from the fact that the opening theme from Dark Shadows with its octave jumping Theremin warble ranks with the Twilight Zone, Addams Family, and The Munsters as one of the most well known TV themes of all time, his work on all 1,225 episodes has been collected in four volumes by theme, and an exhaustive six CD set of cues, The Complete Dark Shadows Soundtrack Music Collection.

But wait, there’s more. Cobert also scored other TV shows throughout the 1970s, most notably The Night Stalker, as well as movies. As much as I love the music from Dark Shadows, his score to1976’s Burnt Offerings is, in my opinion, his masterwork, combining all the sounds, styles, and motifs he developed over five years of working on the daytime serial.

When I write, I mostly listen to film scores as well as 20th Century classical music, and Robert Cobert CDs are always in the top of the stack. While the four volume set is a collection of themes by character (you get the moody themes Dr. Julia Hoffman, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and David Collins alongside the lighter themes for Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters) and setting (The Old House, Eagle Hill Cemetery, Windcliff Sanitarium), what I have noticed is that the music often puts me in a state of high anxiety. If you’ve read my gothic stories, you know that my characters exist in an almost constant state of tension. Music of this sort is a great boon to creativity!

Like Herrmann’s Psycho, Cobert uses steady pulsing strings to produce these tension filled moments, while other themes are performed in the bass register with bassoons and cellos showcasing the weighty oppressiveness that life at Collinwood produces.

Some of the themes from the show are well known melodies, such as Josette’s Music Box, and Quentin’s Theme (aka Shadows of the Night), which was a popular piece on AM radio in the 1960s and early 1970s. I still have my 45 RPM tucked away in a box of old records.

Cobert improved and expanded on the music box motif with his score for Burnt Offerings. The theme is much more plaintive and melancholy this time around, and was better integrated into the rest of the film’s music. Anyone who has seen this movie will never forget the nightmarish sequences with The Chauffeur; the character’s theme presented here is one of the standout tracks.

Burnt Offerings was released in a limited edition of 1,000 in 2011, but can still be found at a hefty price on eBay. The Original Music From Dark Shadows (aka Volume One) is still in print and is an excellent starting point for beginners, featuring specially arranged instrumental tracks, as well as others with voiceovers by actors David Shelby and the late Jonathan Frid. The subsequent three volumes are rarer, but I was able to get them at decent prices after some patient hunting, so other avid collectors should be able to as well.

Another favorite which recently went out of print is the Rhino Records release of the score to the theatrical films House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. House has many of the familiar themes from the show pumped up with a full orchestra, while Night recreates some of the music from Cobert’s earlier score for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Dan Curtis’ 1968 British television film). The 70s love themes (the theme for Joanna on the show reworked as the Love Theme for the movie) are schmaltzy by today’s standards, but Cobert outdid himself with some truly innovative tracks built around wild percussion motifs for scenes such as Angelique’s Attack and The Chase.

Bob Cobert scored other gothic collaborations with Dan Curtis, among them The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973), Dracula, and The Turn of the Screw (both 1974), as well as the cult favorite Trilogy of Terror(1975) which features the unforgettable scene with an African voodoo fetish chasing Karen Black around her apartment. Many of these themes are collected in The Night Stalker and Other Classic Chillers (out of print).

One of the (many) shortcomings of Tim Burton’s 2012 remake of Dark Shadows was the noticeable absence of Cobert’s original theme. Producer Dan Curtis may have died in 2006, but hopefully someone will grab Cobert for one last scoring of a great, gothic film. In the meantime, there’s always YouTube.  

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