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Psycho II
  • Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Intrada / 2014 / 74m

Alfred Hitchcock shocked the movie world in 1960 with Psycho, his iconic horror movie that broke all sorts of new ground.  It led to a raft of imitators and eventually a slew of slashers growing ever more popular (though not ever more good) through the 1970s.  After the legendary director’s death in 1980, Universal decided to press ahead with a sequel.  Robert Bloch had actually written a sequel to his novel but the studio went with an original script instead, seeing Norman Bates on his release from a psychiatric hospital getting into all sorts of new mother-related problems.

Of all of Psycho‘s very famous components, perhaps the one that now stands above all the rest is its score by Bernard Herrmann.  Even people who have never seen the film know the shower scene and its accompanying music; John Williams and his shark motif are probably the only thing that could run it close in terms of movie music recognition from the public.  And of course the rest of the score – famously composed for strings and only strings – was brilliant too.  It would take a brave composer to make any attempt to step into those shoes and not come away with a damaged reputation.  Step forward Jerry Goldsmith.

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

Trying to identify purple patches in Goldsmith’s career is a pretty futile exercise, since it was essentially one long purple patch; but even within the context of his uniquely brilliant body of work, I’ve always felt that the late 1970s and early 1980s saw him at the peak of his creative powers, writing an astonishing array of music across the whole range of film genres.  Within that came quite a few genuinely brilliant horror scores, all of completely unique character – the three Omen scores, Poltergeist and so on.  Anyone else may have been left with egg on his face; but Goldsmith, to nobody’s great surprise, managed to follow Herrmann in some style.

Of course, Jerry Goldsmith was an incredibly distinctive composer and was never going to make any attempt to ape the past master.  The film and the soundtrack album open with “The Murder” from the first film but after that, it’s pure Goldsmith.  Interestingly, the composer didn’t go down the full orchestra route – the strings are joined by piano, keyboards and greatly reduced wind and brass sections.  From that ensemble the composer created an interesting palette of ideas and most interesting of all is the musical representation of Norman Bates, presented by the film and supported by Goldsmith as a sympathetic figure with a kind of tragic innocence to him.

After a couple of bars of darkness to open the score, that theme for Bates is presented in a gossamer-thin arrangement in the main titles cue highlighting initially piano before the strings and clarinets take over.  It’s not at all what you expect to hear in the main title of Psycho II – a beautiful, moving piece of music.  Then comes a spooky feel in “The House”, cold and unsettling, before the main theme emerges once again both in that piece and then in a particularly sweeping arrangement in “Mother’s Hand” which develops into the score’s first real “horror music”, dissonant brass phrases offering some chilling hints at what is to come.  The best arrangement of all of the main theme is saved for the end titles, Goldsmith bringing proper resolution to the score and film with a superbly haunting rendition of his theme.

Electronics are featured prominently in the score and one interesting thing is a kind of slashing knife effect Goldsmith uses frequently – sometimes quite subtly, such as in their introduction in “Cheese Sandwich” – the point being of course that the knife being used to cut said sandwich may well be playing a prominent role later on in the film.  This reaches its zenith in the spectacular “The Cellar” where it is used particularly aggressively; it’s impossible not to think of you-know-what.  Other uses of the electronics are fascinating too – there’s an unmistakably ghostly feel to them at times, impressively hewn (not entirely dissimilar to how he used synths in Poltergeist II).  The way the composer develops a distinct feeling of unease through the score is its greatest feature – the small orchestra is used so well, the electronics make a perfect complement.

The original half-hour album was very impressive; Intrada’s new release however renders it completely redundant.  Hearing the way the score develops over an extended period allows a whole new appreciation of the care Goldsmith took to create an atmosphere.  The contrast between the stark chills and the innocence of the main theme is masterfully done.  Of course, the score suffers in comparison – not just with Herrmann but with some of Goldsmith’s other scores around the time – it is a work of depth that needs time to explore and appreciate.  The obvious frames of reference would be the more low-key moments of the Poltergeist scores and certain aspects of Magic.  Psycho II is unlikely to appear on many people’s list of favourite Jerry Goldsmith scores, but it’s a fine work and shines in a whole new light on this new album.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. ghostof82 (Reply) on Tuesday 29 April, 2014 at 18:51

    Received my copy a few weeks ago but haven’t really had chance to listen to it much other than one play-through. I love the Goldsmith ‘sound’ from those days, before the electronics really started to take over too much, and this is a very effective score. I remember some of it turning up in Legend, of all places- weird that, considering how wonderful Legend’s own score is. Goldsmith must have been wondering what he had to do to get Ridley Scott to stop interfering with his scores!

    Great review.

  2. Wallis (Reply) on Wednesday 23 July, 2014 at 05:11

    Sorry, but this score is horribly overrated.