Latest reviews of new albums:
The Thing
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • Quartet / 50m

Now looked upon as a classic, The Thing was laughed out of cinemas when it was released (on the same day as E.T.) in 1982. John Carpenter’s brilliant study of paranoia set in an Antarctic research base sees a life form taking on the appearance of the things (including people) it kills – and the group of American scientists doesn’t know who they can trust and who they can’t.

Working with by far the biggest budget of his career, director Carpenter hired another composer to score one of his films for the first time, rather than doing it himself. It wasn’t just any old composer, either – he went to the great Ennio Morricone, flying to Rome to beg him to score the film. The composer later recalled that he didn’t hear from Carpenter again until he was in Los Angeles preparing for the scoring sessions, having received no instruction and not even seen a full cut of the film, so he had prepared various pieces with the intention of the director just placing them in the film as he wished. Famously, Carpenter didn’t really use that much of it (one piece is repeated several times) and flushed out the score with some simple electronics of his own.

Morricone and Carpenter

One can view the soundtrack album as something of a concept album then – the concept being cold, stark horror and Reagan-era paranoia. It’s a series of ten well-developed pieces exploring that theme, almost uniformly unsettling in some way but rarely actually abrasive.

It opens with the stark “Humanity (Part 1)”, which is absolutely ice-cold as a repeating figure on violins (ostensibly the main theme) just keeps prodding and poking you; “Shape” introduces a piano to that mix and is similarly structured, though with a different motif running through it. The brief “Contamination” is something very different – an assault of plucked strings, decidedly creepy.

“Bestiality” opens with a highly memorable motif heard initially on the basses before cellos and finally the higher strings join in. It’s brilliantly intense, my favourite piece on the album (and famously used by Morricone and Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight, after which it received a rather improbable new lease of life as a standard inclusion on the composer’s concert setlists).

Rarely has a piece of film music lived up to its title as well as “Solitude” – swirling string figures seem to approach from all sides creating an enveloping feeling of claustrophobia. In the exceptional “Eternity” synths play their first prominent role – Morricone deliberately going closer towards the sound of Carpenter’s own music – again with a constantly-repeating motif gradually made larger and larger as more sounds join in, eventually including an organ. That organ coupled with a heartbeat-style percussive pulse is a brilliant tension-building device which rightly gets praised to the hilt when people talk about this album, but when the composer repeated it in Mission to Mars (easily the closest thing he ever wrote to this score) the critical response was rather less favourable.

Muted brass open “Wait” but before long those famous Morricone layered strings are the centre of attention – interestingly there is a real sense of violence to this piece, despite there being no real musical fireworks – it’s so brilliantly suggestive of a kind of internal violence.

The piece featured most prominently in the film is “Humanity (Part 2)”, which Carpenter tracks at several points. While based on the same theme as Part 1, it’s very different – much more electronic, again getting more towards Carpenter’s own sound – a heartbeat pulse opens the track and runs through much of it, which steadily rises from almost unbearable tension which eventually explodes as the main theme blares out on that synth organ again in truly frenzied style, with a cavernous sound this time for by far the album’s most unsubtle sequence. (Ironically I’ve read several commentators saying they understand why Carpenter didn’t use much of the music, because it was “too big” for the film – but the one part he used several times is the biggest of all.)

“Sterilisation” continues the more synth-heavy sound of the album’s second half, conjuring up a kind of kaleidoscopic trip. The final piece is “Despair”, and here Morricone just for a couple of moments lets the brass burst out – it comes across (magnificently) as a kind of attempt to escape from the brutal cold – but the strings swirl around again and bring you straight back in. There is no escape, that’s what the composer’s so cleverly signalling.

I’ve written about hundreds of Morricone albums over the years and am no stranger to giving them my highest rating. The Thing is different though – perhaps the only time I’ve given that rating to one of his scores that doesn’t feature either a lot of astonishingly beautiful melodies or great big expansive ideas. What makes this score different from his other suspense-dominated ones is that it remains resolutely tonal – you won’t be humming the themes but he left his natural experimental tendency towards the atonal behind and concentrated on creating the coldest, most unsettling score he could while remaining mostly within the tonal world. He succeeded – this is one of the great horror scores, obviously not an easy listen but a truly essential one. Quartet’s new album doesn’t add any additional Morricone music – for the entirely-understandable reason that there isn’t any, the old album featured everything he recorded – it does bring a remaster but most importantly it’s just great to have a classic album back in print again for those who may not have had chance to buy the previous release.

Rating: ***** | |

Tags: , ,

  1. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Saturday 27 June, 2020 at 16:07

    Amazingly this score got nominated for a Raspberry Award. I get the impression that film scores often got nominated for “Razzies” because they were for films that were critically panned upon release, rather than because of the merits of the music itself. Ennio Morricone also got nominated for a Razzie for Butterfly, which in my opinion is relatively weak by his high standards but still far from worthy of a Razzie.

    My favourite track on this album is “Shape” – I love the somewhat unconventional chords near the end of this track, and then the dark piano/string segment at the very end.

  2. Crusty Shackelford (Reply) on Monday 29 June, 2020 at 21:33

    Even more likely, the raspberry “critics” probably did not go the actual trouble of listening to the score.

  3. ghostof82 (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2020 at 16:25

    Funny, just listened to this again today. Its more of a concept album than a ‘proper’ soundtrack, really, but the music is so strong and moody. The new (well, original really as it graced the original 1982 vinyl) cover really suits the music, really dark and cold and moody.

  4. Rory (Reply) on Thursday 2 July, 2020 at 08:12

    I haven’t visited the site for a bit, so imagine my utter shock and delight when I see one of my all-time favorites front-and-center on the site list…

    I will never, ever get tired of listening to this score. Your description of a fear-driven concept album is very accurate, but I alway marvel at how much of it manages to beautiful as well– I stand firm in my belief that “Humanity, Part I” is one of the most hauntingly gorgeous themes ever written– as well as quirky and even sort of fun in its own way with “Eternity” and “Sterilization”.

    I’ll clamor just as loudly as I always have for Carpenter’s additions (some of his most overlooked and chilling work) to get their own official release someday, as well the film edits of Morricone’s score, but it doesn’t diminish my love for this album.

  5. dominique (Reply) on Saturday 4 July, 2020 at 10:19

    thanks for your great review of this great and remarkable score by the genius ennio morricone, james!
    this work is outstanding and „humanity I“ is one of the best themes ever written for a movie!

    • Rory (Reply) on Sunday 5 July, 2020 at 18:06

      Amen to that. 🙂

  6. Ulrich (Reply) on Saturday 1 August, 2020 at 00:19

    I just listened to The Thing from Marco Beltrami and enjoyed it. I think both soundtracks are good.