SoundTreks | Danny Elfman – Music for a Darkened Theatre, Vol. 1

As I mentioned in my SoundTreks rundown on the soundtrack record for The End of the Tour, Danny Elfman seems to have disappeared in recent years. This is not to say that he is hurting for work; the man is constantly composing music for movies, and he wrote the score for one of the most successful films of the year (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and he wrote the music for the Goosebumps movie, which opens this Friday, October 16th. 

But ever since Ang Lee instructed him to write scores that “don’t sound like Danny Elfman” for Hulk way back in 2003, Elfman has diversified and explored to the point of losing the signature sound that made him so popular. These days, many of Danny Elfman’s film scores can be, I’m sad to admit, interchanged with any other composer’s. His film music went from being idiosyncratic and appealingly Gothy to being merely functional. 

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This is, of course, his right as an artist, and I would never impugn his artistic freedom. But I – as do many – miss Elfman’s older sounds. The choirs, the basso profundo, the music-box-from-Hell qualities that he first fostered in Oingo Boingo, and nurtured under the aegis of Tim Burton. He did TV theme songs you could (and still can) hum. He was a wicked, dark-pop, Halloween-ish composer with a talent for “edge.” This is how so many fell in love with Danny Elfman.

I was so in love with Danny Elfman’s movie music back in high school, that I happily purchased – and repeatedly listened to – his first movie compilation record, released in 1994 by MCA records. The full proper title of the record was Music for a Darkened Theatre, volume 1: Film and Television Music, and it included non-chronological samples of just about everything Elfman had worked on from the beginning of his career up until the record’s release. 

This is, in many ways, represents Danny Elfman’s golden era. And since a lot of this is nice spooky music, this article may also serve as a dandy Halloween tie-in (although the sample from The Nightmare Before Christmas wouldn’t appear until Music for a Darkened Theatre, Volume 2). 

Track 1. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – Overture / Breakfast Machine”

1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, based on the character created by Paul Ruebens, was Tim Burton’s first major feature film, and marked the first time the director worked with Elfman. The overture to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a lovely, catchy and tinkly piece that captures the child-like weirdness of Pee-Wee, and it sounds like the work of a rock musician. But the follow-up, “Breakfast Machine,” is more uniquely Elfman. I like it when Elfman is odd and frantic. 

Track 2. “Batman – Batman Theme / Up The Cathedral / Descent Into Mystery”

Elfman’s score to Tim Burton’s 1989 hit Batman is – I’ll just say it – in the running for the best superhero theme of all time. Its only serious competition is John Williams’ score for 1978’s Superman. Elfman and Burton helped redefine Batman for a new generation just through the mood they created around him. Batman lived in a highly stylized world of towering Art-Deco spires, and required a bold, timeless orchestral backing to stand out. Elfman really stepped up to the plate with this one, and his score not only defined this movie, but leaked into future installments of Batman as well. 

Here’s a query: If we live in a world of supra-blockbuster superhero flicks, and dozens of these things appear in theaters every year, why do none of them have a recognizable, hummable theme anymore? You can remember this theme song. You can remember Superman. But who remembers The Avengers music? Or the X-Men theme? Or, ironically, Elfman’s own Spider-Man music? Superheroes used to warrant their own music. Now, the music only supports them. Batman was one of the last great superhero scores. 

Track 3. “Dick Tracy – Main Titles”

Batman was such a hit that Warren Beatty took a lot of his aesthetic cues from it to make his 1991 Dick Tracy adaptation, including Danny Elfman. The sound for Dick Tracy is, however, more boldly heroic. The film is colorful, so Elfman leaves out a lot of his darkness. The result is still pretty great.

Track 4. “Beetlejuice – Main Titles/End Titles”

The title theme for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is not just one of Danny Elfman’s best pieces, but it may be one of my favorite of all movie themes. This is a whirling carnival of cartoon death. It’s a bold, brassy circus. And it’s perfect for the movie. Beetlejuice is a film about a small town milquetoast couple that dies, and, in order to scare away the people who have moved into their house, must hire a crass demon to aid them. This is a really weird premise, and comes from a brief period in the 1980s when really, really weird movies could make it into mainstream theaters. Movies like Freaked, The Dark Backward, Rubin & Ed,  Repo Man, and many other totally bonkers, borderline surreal films made it. I don’t think we’d ever get something like Beetlejuice today. 

Track 5. “Nightbreed – Main Titles / Meat For The Beast / End Titles”

This piece is dark and tribal. It’s primal. Which is fitting, given that Nightbreed is a film about mutated (but sympathetic) monsters who live underneath a cemetery, and only occasionally eat people. Nightbreed is most certainly another film that would ring too strange for most film studios today, but seemed staggeringly common at the time. This film did famously have production troubles, and it was only recently that a “complete” version was released. Luckily, Elfman’s score holds a lot of the movie together. Thanks to him, the flick is dizzying. 

Track 6. “Darkman – Main Titles / Woe The Darkman, Woe”

Sam Raimi’s Darkman has a sizable cult, and a recent re-watching revealed it to be far more stylized than I recall from my initial viewing back in the early 1990s. There was a time – and this was not negative – when superhero movies tended toward the ultra-stylized. Batman led other makers of superhero flicks to create characters, but also create an exaggerated world wherein the superheroes could move comfortably without looking outlandish. It was anti-realism. Elfman’s score highlights that unreality. His score for Darkman is deliberately larger than life. It highlights the film’s expressionistic elements. 

Track 7. “Back To School – Study Montage”

Baffling. Elfman did more than just fantasy films, we see. He also did comedies, and he was capable of making fun, major chord, upbeat melodies for bright comedy films. It’s still good work, and you can hear Elfman’s touch. 

Track 8. “Midnight Run – Walsh Gets The Duke / Main Titles / Diner Blues”

Yes, Danny Elfman did the soundtrack for Midnight Run. This is the least characteristic piece on the entire album, sounding like electric blues played in a distant honky-tonk. It sounds like the kind of music Elfman may have badmouthed at Oingo Boingo concerts, until he gets to the trumpets, and then you can hear the Boingo influence. He doesn’t hate bluesy music. In fact, it sounds like Elfman is a more talented musician that we previously thought. In a weird way, Midnight Run was a breakthrough for him. 

Track 9. “Wisdom – Change Of Life / Close Call In Albuquerque”

Elfman’s score may be the most notable thing about Wisdom, an Emilio Estevez film about two financially put-upon youths who go on a benevolent crime spree. You can tell from Elfman’s score that this was meant to be a deathly serious film. And so it is. I recall liking it, but I can point to nothing to support that memory. 

Track 10. “Hot To Trot – Main Titles / Wandering Don”

That fucking talking horse movie? 

That I rented from my local video store on several occasions…? 

Give me a break. I was 9. 

Track 11. “Big Top Pee Wee – Main Titles / Rise ‘N Shine / Pee Wee’s Love Theme”

Odd that none of the music in Big Top Pee-Wee should evoke the first Pee-Wee movie. When Elfman did Batman Returns, he revisited and expanded upon a lot of his original motifs. Here, though, he’s starting from scratch. Of course, as it’s a circus movie, there’s a lot of calliope, and hooty cartoony music. Big Top Pee-Wee is an awful movie, of course, but I appreciate Elfman’s attempt to elevate it. Not sure if he succeeds. 

Track 12. “The Simpsons – Theme”

I think I’ve heard of this.

Track 13. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Jar Suite”

I’ve seen numerous episodes of the original version Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but I’m totally in the dark about the 1985 revival which ran a bafflingly long 76 episodes. I do remember The New Twilight Zone, but this show has, even to this day, evaded my attention. The music sounds paranoid and bizarre. And the episode it goes with seems plenty bizarre. Here’s an oddly-worded description, taken from the Internet Movie Database: 

“A carnival barker sells a jar containing a mysterious, hairy, octopus-like mass to Charlie Hill of Wilder’s Hollow for $12.25. He shows it to his wife Thedy, who hates it. Soon everyone from miles around comes to look at the jar and wonder what is inside. Trudy and her paramour, Tom Carmody, conspire with Jahdoo, paying him $1 to steal the jar and shatter it at Heron Swamp. Charlie hurries to the swamp, but gets trapped in quicksand. Jahdoo speculates on the contents of the jar before rescuing Charlie and returning the jar. When Charlie gets home, Thedy tries to break the jar with a spoon. Charlie grabs the spoon and nearly attacks Thedy with it, so she runs away. When she comes back, she says that she visited the carnival, and the carny boss told her the jar is full of junk–wire, clay, paper, cotton, yarn, inner tube, doll’s eyes, and silk. Thedy says she will tell everyone, but Charlie likes his new popularity.”


Track 14. “Tales From The Crypt – Theme”

I’m still debating whether this is the best horror TV theme song of all time, or if that honor still belongs to The Munsters. Either way, this is a unequivocally awesome piece of music that somehow evokes every haunted house you’ve ever visited. The harpsichord, the bass notes, the deep drums, the xylophone. To me, I have trouble separating this theme song from horror in general. Danny Elfman has, with one 90-second piece, defined all horror for me. My prejudice is too strong. I cannot look at this one objectively. 

Track 15. “Face Like A Frog – Suite”

Watch this short. It’s amazing. 

The film’s director, Sally Cruikshank is a cartoonist and animator who produced numerous animated music videos for movies and TV shows, and who happened to be friends with Elfman in 1987, who wrote the music for a surrealist short she was working on. Indeed, Elfman wrote a song for the short called “Don’t Go in the Basement.” Why the song is omitted here is beyond me. Maybe it was just so Elfman could showcase his music purely. 

The music from Face Like a Frog is pure, wonderful absurdism. It’s like Frank Zappa, but clean and listenable. Elfman pulls out all the stops, and comes as close as he ever has to what may be considered “the Elfman sound.” I would say this suite is the height of what Elfman is capable of when it comes to fantastical, silly, comedic music writing. This is unbound weirdness, and it takes a special talent to do it so well. 

Track 16. “Forbidden Zone – Love Theme”

This gentle piano piece is uncharacteristic of Forbidden Zone, a low-budget cult musical directed by Danny’s brother, Richard Elfman. This music appears when the king and queen of the 6th dimension have a dinner together. It’s an evocative piece, but outside of the film’s general mood, which is a wonderfully scummy sex carnival, full of freaks and unpleasant weirdos. I love Forbidden Zone, and I appreciate that Elfman can be quiet amidst the peril. I kind of wish that this record had bothered to include the movie’s title song, even sans lyrics, as it was the first example of what Oingo Boingo (then The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) were going to become. 

Track 17. “Scrooged – Main Titles / Showtime At IBC / Elliot Gives Blood”

As you can tell by the score, Scrooged – a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray in the Scrooge role – was intended to be a much darker film. I think Elfman was assigned a horror movie, but a producer balked, turned it into something a little more lighthearted (even though the film is still plenty dark), and elected to keep the scary music in tact. I think if Elfman knew that this was supposed to be a horror comedy, he would have cracked out with a weirder, more Elfman-esque sound. It would have been more Beetlejuice than real death. 

Top image: MCA

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.