The music of TARANTULA

As many film music fans know, Tarantula sported an early Henry Mancini score, Mancini received one of his first screen credits for this work, and his music attracted the attention of Hollywood film makers and helped propel the composer to a lifetime of fortune, fame, and awards.  Unfortunately, none of this is true, except for Mancini’s career accomplishments, all of which he achieved with little help from this giant spider film. 

For whatever reason, practically every writer who ever set pen to paper about Tarantula’s music has gotten it wrong.  Even people reading the 4,129 words written about the music in the liner notes of the More Monstrous Movie Music CD.  First, Tarantula was not an early Mancini score, as he had been composing for Universal since 1952, and in the years prior to Tarantula Mancini had already written cues for dozens and dozens of pictures, among them:  Abbott And Costello Go To Mars, City Beneath The Sea, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Drums Across The River, East Of Sumatra, Four Guns To The Border, Horizons West, It Came From Outer Space, Johnny Dark, Lost In Alaska, Naked Alibi, The Raiders, The Revenge Of The Creature, Tanganyika, This Island Earth, and Veils Of Bagdad.  In fact, many cues from Mancini’s prior films were tracked into Tarantula.

As far as Mancini’s screen credit is concerned, the only music credit in the film is “Music Supervision by Joseph Gershenson,” which was the most common music credit from this era of collaborative scores.  Besides the fact that composers rarely received individual screen credits for composite scores (exceptions being Salter’s and Skinner’s Sign Of The Pagan and The Rawhide Years), the other reason Mancini didn't get a Tarantula screen credit is quite simple:  he wrote only 38 seconds of original music for the picture.

Part of all this confusion is due to Mancini himself, who seldom talked about and tended to dismiss this part of his career.  Henry both underestimated the long-term appeal of these films as well as the high quality of his compositional skills even at this early phase of his movie career.  These pictures show that Mancini’s musical-dramatic talents were well-intact from the start, and it’s ironic that these early programmers sometimes show off these skills better than his more popular song-oriented scores of his later, more acclaimed years.  After being bombarded by crazed sci-fi fans for a long time, Henry finally offered a short suite from Tarantula on his superbly-recorded 1990 “Mancini In Surround” CD.  That suite consisted of various cues tracked into Tarantula, including “Harper’s Enemy” from Smoke Signal, “Claim Jumpers Stopped” from The Far Country, “Deadly Ore, Pt. 2” from Yellow Mountain, and “Amorous Mutant” from This Island Earth.

Also contributing to Tarantula’s musical inaccuracies was the first recording of some of the film's music, which appeared on the Dick Jacobs’ Themes From Horror Movies album of the late 1950s.  That record offered a Mancini cut that was in reality two cues from other films that were tracked into Tarantula. When Themes From Horror Movies was reissued in the late ’70s, the album claimed this track was Tarantula’s “Main Title,” something it quite obviously was not.  The music on the Jacobs’ album appears near the end of Tarantula, when the spider reduces Professor Deemer’s house to rubble.  This music combines part of a cue called “Hot Fight” from East Of Sumatra with parts of both “Amorous Mutant” and “Metaluna Catastrophe, Part 2” from This Island Earth.  This latter cue can be heard toward the end of that space fantasy as our heroes escape to the flying saucer so they can return to Earth.  This means that everyone who has interpreted Mancini’s Tarantula “theme” as being perfectly suggestive of a giant spider has been reading into what they’ve heard, as the music was actually written for scenes showing a half-naked island king fighting a mining engineer and scientists fleeing a hostile planet. 

So, who in fact did write the music for Tarantula?  In the mostly-tracked 39:10 score, 23:33 came from the pen of Herman Stein, and the remaining 15:37 of the score was written by Mancini.  Of the new music written specifically for Tarantula, Stein contributed 22 cues totaling 6:30, with Mancini writing only two new pieces totaling 38 seconds.  A lot of Tarantula’s cues are brief, and of the 91 individual cues heard in the film, 39 of them are 20 seconds or less, with only seven being longer than a minute. 

The films supplying most of the music heard in Tarantula were repeatedly used for tracking music into other ’50s Universal films, creating an aura of familiarity similar to the 1940s, when music from Son Of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and other horror films was endlessly recycled in subsequent pictures.  Part of the fun of watching these movies is recognizing familiar musical cues, which pop up from time to time like old friends.  Tarantula was tracked from twenty different Universal films made in the early-to-mid 1950s, the majority being westerns and other science-fiction films.  And much as Creature From The Black Lagoon was tracked with music from other films that pertained to water (City Beneath The Sea, Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid), the southwestern-situated Tarantula was stocked with music from a dozen westerns, including Drums Across The River, The Man From Bitter Ridge, and Ride Clear Of Diablo. The sounds of the old West fit the new West equally well. 

The most cues were supplied by It Came From Outer Space (23), This Island Earth (8), Six Bridges To Cross (7), Dawn At Socorro (4), Four Guns To The Border (4), and Smoke Signal (3).  Other Universal films tracked with many of the same cues used in Tarantula are Monster On The Campus, Running Wild, The Saga Of Hemp Brown, Showdown At Abilene, and The Thing That Couldn’t Die.

With all these snippets of new and old music pasted together, why does Tarantula’s score flow so seamlessly?  If you look at many of the sections Herman Stein worked on, you can see that after he chose which tracked cues would be used in the score, he wrote original music transitions to bridge those previously-written cues.  Because most of these tracked and original cues were orchestrated by David Tamkin, newly-performed by the same orchestra, and conducted by Gershenson, those served as further unifying forces.  For some reason, Mancini’s sections were handled differently, as only two of his thirty-eight cues were written for Tarantula, meaning that many of the transitions between those pieces were merely sustains, rhythm changes, or short phrases.  Whether or not Mancini even worked on these sequences is not known.

While the term “tracking” does not sound very creative, in fact it was both an exacting science as well as a musical challenge.  Whether the cues to be tracked were selected by the music director, his assistants, or in the case of many Universal films, by the composers themselves, the cues chosen for a particular sequence often needed to be reworked in terms of orchestration, tempo, phrasing, and dynamics, and they often required compositional alterations as well.  Regardless of all the changes, the finished cue almost always retained the title and credited composer of its original source.  Therefore, drawing definitive conclusions about who wrote what for these films is nearly impossible without having access to the composers’ original sketches, Universal’s conductor scores, and the cue sheets, which are unfortunately replete with errors.  It’s much easier to just sit back and enjoy the movie in all its musical splendor!


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