Surround Sound: Action & Angst (The Unborn/The Uninvited/Street Fighter/Underworld 3)

As we’ve stated before (yes, we know you’re sick of it by now) action and horror get a bum rap, mostly for some very wrong, very narrow-minded reasons. Like a gut-busting comedy, critics like to believe that both are dead easy. They also believe they have been rendered unexceptional, by filmmakers who don’t really give a damn, or actually don’t know how to. They point to the endless string of shoddy productions, mangy motion pictures that put the last two words in that phrase up for debate and make their asinine assertion. The truth is, terror and thrills are perhaps the most difficult cinematic responses to come by, and that’s because, like humor what scares someone or pushes them right to the edge of their seat is a completely personal and subjective ideal. What horrifies one might make another laugh, and visa versa. Still, the studios keep trying, and by doing so, fulfill the pundit’s prophecy in ways only a cash hungry conglomerate can achieve. Desperate to keep their moneymaker in the public eye, they will literally do anything to drum up publicity.

Perhaps this explains the exploding editorial mailbox recently. As these films come and go from the Cineplex at an alarming speedy pace, SE&L and Surround Sound have been inundated with soundtracks – lots and lots of soundtracks. In the last few weeks alone we’ve received over 20, and many of them have been for efforts that were marginal media sensations at best. One has to wonder what studios see in releasing the scores for such sonic non-issues as The Unborn, The Uninvited, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (not once, but in two DIFFERENT versions). Sure, last installment’s Watchmen double hit made sense since Warners clearly thought it had a mega-hit on its hands. Now, with the Zack Synder triumph underperforming, it’s clear that contractual obligations, not a realistic view on a soundtrack’s substantive qualities, dictate the pressing of a promotional disc. And such legalese is clearly the case here. There is no other reason these marginal musical offerings should see the CD light of day, beginning with:

The Unborn – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Some ideas seem stupid from the get go. Others take their time in revealing their ridiculousness. For writer/director David S. Goyer, there seems to be a clear distinction between the merely banal and completely braindead. As a scribe, he’s lucked into some decent affairs (Dark City, Batman Begins, Blade II). As a director, he’s helmed some of the worst hackneyed garbage this side of a Charles Band production (oddly enough, Goyer worked for the schlockmeister during the ’80s). Zigzag was tired, Blade III literally killed off the franchise, and The Invisible was like Ferris Bueller’s Unfunny Undead Day Off. Still, trailers for the recent The Unborn seemed to indicate a change in Goyer’s filmmaking fortunes. Part Jacob’s Ladder, part demon child spine tingler, it took the promise of a tired premise (the evil unborn twin) and tweaked it for a CG-13 demo. Sadly, the results only reaffirmed the man’s well-meaning mediocrity. Even with a star studded cast, Goyer just couldn’t get his gruesome groove on. The score for The Unborn indicates the hopeless hit or miss reasons why.

It all begins with a very X-Files-like title track, a bunch of odd electronic beats providing the backdrop to a combination of synthesizer squawks and symphonic cues. As the tune moves along on a set of staccato melody mounds, we’re not sure if we’re in for a fright flick, or a potboiling political thriller. Luckily, the next three tracks – “The Glove, “Jumby Wants to Be Born Now”, and “Twins” take us where we need to go. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s modus operandi seems to be a combination of the lax and the overly loud. Tracks like “Possessed” will start out with slow, subtle signatures only to explode near the end with abrasive, abrupt orchestrations. There’s lots of nods to the composer’s broadcast past (Djawadi is responsible for scoring the entire run of FOX’s Prison Break), and you can even hear a bit of Batman Begins and Pirates of the Caribbean in the mix (the man was responsible for additional music for both films, among others). By “Bug” we anticipate the tracks overwhelming cacophony of atonal terrors. But then The Unborn slips back into sinister lullaby mode, mixing small note piano lines with eerie sonic washes. Still, “Sefer Ha-Morot” is wild enough to wake-up even the drowsiest dread denizen – and not necessarily in a good way.

The Uninvited – Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

Critics love to complain that horror films are formulaic and derivative. If you’ve seen one, you’ve basically seen them all. That makes a fright flick remake doubly desperate. Not only is it representative of an already stereotyped genre, but it’s repeating an idea already done – and typically, a lot better. Still, when it was announced that American fans would finally see a Western take on the unfathomably popular Korean chiller A Tale of Two Sister (good, but not as great as some have indicated) there was reason to be both wildly excited and wary – especially with the Guard Brothers behind the lens. Sadly, the movie didn’t make much of an impression on reviewers or the audience. While it had the standard strong opening weekend, it soon faded off the cultural landscape to make way for more terror tales like remakes of Friday the 13th and The Last House on the Left. For composer Christopher Young, the lack of success is not that unusual. As the musician responsible for the sonic backdrop to solid shivers like Hellraiser, Species, and The Grudge, he can only be responsible for the aural aspects of fear. Unfortunately, he’s hooked up with some really subpar cinematics – especially this time around.

From the very beginning, Young seems lost in a homage-heavy backdrop. There are hints at his previous stints with the Cenobites, references to Stanley Kubrick and his ethereal 2001 score, as well as the typical electronic throb one associates with John Carpenter. Soon, the entire soundtrack has a thematic clarity that clashes with these recognizable references. Young is obviously going for the small and simple juxtaposed against the symphonic in scope. The title track is all low whispers and single key strokes. By the time we get to “Christmas Corpse”, the obvious elements are in place – banshee like female trills, single instrument droning, the regular chug of a sparse orchestra. In between, “Twice Told Tales” has a nice piano clarity, and “Terror on the Water” is big and brash with lots of ambience. Still, if there is one thing you can count in with a horror film, it’s derivativeness, and Young’s work here definitely fits that pattern. The Uninvited may have been a cinematic disappointment for the scary movie maven. The score does little to bring anything new or novel to the mix.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]

Of all the videogame titles sitting out there waiting for a big screen adaptation, bringing back a beloved golden oldie from the early ’90s seems foolhardy, especially when the mortal combat console effort was already the subject of one shoddy film. Yet the producers of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li must have felt strongly enough about the material to give the failed franchise a second chance. Without Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia around to mess things up, director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Doom) had a chance to make his own mark on the material. Sadly, the film underperformed so badly that many in the demo didn’t even know that there was a new Street Fighter movie in theaters (it’s still playing in some markets, believe it or not). Of course, once you hear the tired soundtrack submitted by Stephen Endelman, all questions about this offering’s inefficiency are easily answered. If the film is anything like the strangled, stunted score, a series of skyscraper like banners couldn’t earn the fanbase’s attention – or appreciation.

Endelman, who actually received a Grammy nomination for his work on 2004’s De-Lovely, is what you would call a film industry fringe dweller. He’s been involved in numerous projects, both noted (Flirting with Disaster) and nominal (Phat Girlz), but nothing that would distinguish him from a dozen similar soundtrack composers. His work on Street Fighter feels like a marginal movie fan’s idea of what a Hong Kong martial arts epic would sound like. There’s lots of rhythmic drumbeats and random bell noises. The orchestra wanders around the tribal tones, offering recognizable riffs before switching over into boring, bombastic mode. We are supposed to see our heroes in flashy fisticuffs while “Chun-Li vs. Bison” and “Bathroom Fight” careen out of control. But Endelman also wants to go for the emotional, with tracks like “The Montage” and “Reunited with Father” failing to provide much of said sentiment. With the howling hip-hop happenstance of “Arriving in Bangkok” (the city should sue), and slinky salsa like stumbles of “Following Balrog”, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is all over the map. The only locale it doesn’t locate is somewhere memorable.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – Original Score [rating: 5]

Here’s an interesting question – how does a composer compete with a studio set on making their latest movie a backdrop for a bunch of unsigned indie idols? Put another way, does someone like Paul Haslinger, a musician responsible for b-movie bedlam in such titles as Death Race, Crank, and the stellar Shoot ‘Em Up (he was also a member of seminal synth act Tangerine Dream from 1986 to 1990) really mind that his score comes second to a bunch of nu-metal nonsense. A few weeks back, Surround Sound took on the pop hit oriented version of the Underworld 3 marketing machine, and were not too impressed. The remix heavy hackwork, replete with bands whose names read like discontinued titles in the Anton LeVay Self-Help Collection, was definitely not worth remembering. It would be nice to say that Mr. Haslinger redeems the project by bringing his classically trained musicianship to what is basically a horror film with outsized action epic pretensions. Unfortunately, except for a track here and there, this score is as silly and near irredeemable as the movie it is meant to supplement.

Granted, there are times when Haslinger gets its right. “The Most Precious Thing to My Heart” has a wonderfully evocative ambient quality, and “Court Battle Suite” is as sonically silly and over the top as it sounds. It’s also a gratuitous guilty listening pleasure. But for the most part, Rise of the Lycans believes in that “blast, and then boredom” ideal that is supposed to invoke movement and power and yet ends up sounding like someone fell asleep on the ‘volume’ switch. Tracks like “The Arrow Attack”, “The Wolves Den”, and “Storming the Castle” all huff and puff like a formerly retired stuntman, while others meander around in a haze of half-realized electronic drones. Haslinger does indeed evoke emotion and mood with his work. We can sense the menace throughout. But there is so little actual melody here, no matter if it’s buried in “Lucian and Sonja’s Love Theme” or “Sonja’s Trial and Execution” (talk about spoilers!) that it’s hard to appreciate the effort. Only the last piece, a remix of the title track, does anything truly interesting or involving with the material. Oddly enough, it accomplishes this by taking Haslinger’s bravado down several sizable notches.

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