In the hallowed halls of cinema’s hypothetical Hall of Fame, there is a special wing dedicated to the greats of film score composition. Here you will find familiar names and faces like Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Hildur Guðnadóttir and of course, James Horner. With more than 150 credits to his name, Horner was an incredibly prolific and talented composer. Best known for his works in big-budget studio films like Titanic, Avatar, Braveheart, Aliens and Jumanji, composers don’t get much more A-List than him.
Despite the undeniable top tier status he achieved in his later years, even this icon of the craft had to start somewhere. While some cut their teeth on student films, indie films or commercial work, Horner’s roots were a bit more interesting. A bit more of a New World experience. Literally. Like so many up and coming filmmakers, Horner was a student at the school of Roger Corman. After a successful job working on Corman’s 1979 film The Lady in Red, Horner was brought back to score a new sci-fi horror film; 1980’s Humanoids From The Deep.
Tagline: FROM THE CAVERNS OF THE DEEP… IT STRIKES!
Scientific experiments backfire and produce horrific mutations: half man, half fish, which terrorize a small fishing village by killing the men and raping the women.
Originally titled Beneath the Darkness, Humanoids From The Deep was Corman’s attempt to return to dangerous, murky waters following 1978’s Piranha. While the similarities between the two films are obvious and many, Humanoids had its very own unique set of problems. Attempting to differentiate the film from typical Corman/New World Pictures fare, original director Barbara Peeters created a much tamer, much more character driven film than Corman had initially mandated. Although the violence was plentiful, the graphic rape and nudity scenes that Corman desired were not. Rather than specifically showing the Humanoids violating countless women, Peeters shot the scenes in shadow and played more with the idea of implied and off-screen assault. While her approach and direct disregard for Corman’s wishes was brave to say the least, Peeters was inevitably removed from the project and replaced with director Jimmy T. Murakami.
Once Murakami was brought in to the fold, Beneath the Darkness officially became Humanoids From The Deep. No longer keeping up the facade of a serious cinematic endeavor, Murakami picked up missing coverage shots, the missing rape and nudity scenes and even added a few brand new action shots to fill out Peeters’ original film. What was once an arguably thoughtful sci-fi horror film infused with an early discussion on GMO’s and industrialization was now nothing more than a certifiably sexy, exploitation film.
More than just interesting bits of trivia, this dramatic shift in on-set leadership highlights the talents of the many skilled folks working behind the scenes who truly managed to pull the film off. Famed editor Mark Goldblatt (and Dead Heat director) was able to miraculously stitch the two disparate films together in a way that somehow made sense. Rob Bottin’s creature designs for the Humanoids still hold up remarkably well. Even the special effects and stunt work executed in Humanoids live up to the Corman standard of ‘Better Than They Have Any Right To Be.’ And for the final pièce de résistance, there is James Horner’s suspenseful, beautiful score.
‘So the film may be schlocky to begin with, but all the craftspeople that would put their layer on I think were all trying really hard to make the story as good as it could be. I think that some people think of those films as more tongue-in-cheek or they’re just horror films, but I think that Roger was expecting me to always score them relatively seriously and relatively well because ultimately, the music was the final piece of clothing on the film.’ – James Horner
Having very little direction from Corman himself, young Horner was allowed the freedom to really experiment, grow and decide for himself which stylistic direction he was going to go with Humanoids. Like many just starting out, Horner opted to infuse inspiration, influence and original ideas into one potent mixture that paid tribute and pushed creative boundaries in equal measure. With works by Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams dominating the late 70s film score scene, it is easy to see why James Horner would turn to them for inspiration on Humanoids From The Deep. To further elaborate on this, let’s take a look at the film’s ‘Main Title‘ track.
From the very first moments, Horner exhibits his skill and knowledge of classic horror score hallmarks. Channeling Bernard Herrmann, we get a varied display of extended string techniques instantly embedding the film with an air of unsettling mystery. Piano, percussion and strings alternate in rapid succession heightening the feeling of suspense and impending danger. And then, a solo muted trumpet enters the equation. It is here with this brass addition that an uncanny resemblance to Jerry Goldsmith’s 1979 Alien score begins to come into focus. There’s a similar atonal nature in the two scores trumpet progressions and structurally, the two mirror each other in remarkable fashion.
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However, Horner was certainly not working with a Goldsmith budget and the difference between the two scores instrumentation quickly becomes evident. Making the most out of what he could afford, Horner stretches out the track’s overarching atmosphere with carefully placed and focused instrumentation choices. Supporting these highlighted moments, Horner uses the power of dynamics to create a swelling, seething momentum literally beneath the surface. Even though the similarities with Alien are marked, with a few simple and practical changes, Horner manages to effectively bring the sound from deep space, to the deep ocean…on a budget.
‘You didn’t work for Roger Corman to make a living, you worked for him for the experience of film making and learning your craft. A lot of film makers started off with Roger Corman because he was making so many movies, but most of them were grisly horror movies and of not very high quality, however it was a great place to start.’ – James Horner
Another beautiful example of influence inciting inspiration comes in the track ‘Night Swim.’ While the film was under construction, there was the need for a temp score to be utilized. Not surprisingly, the production used John Williams’ score for Jaws as place-holder while Horner worked on his own creation. More than just a film with similar underwater danger lurking about, John Williams was (and is) a master in the field of composing whose influence has left permanent ripples in his wake. Outside of just influencing editing and shot direction, Jaws also managed to sink its teeth into Horner as well. Beautiful harp and piano glint and gleam off the soundscape like light scattering through sea water. This combination of instrumentation prevalent throughout Jaws was also co-opted by Horner to convey the intrigue and other worldliness of the murky depths.
As a rhythmic and repetitive piano keeps time, reverberating bass tones send out low and subtle sonic shock waves. Similar to Jaws, these repeating patterns create and hold suspense, building in strength, volume and intensity. And then, like a creature breaking the surface, the momentum changes. Suddenly the track leaves its mysterious ambiance behind and becomes more melodic and emotionally driven. Simple, repeating synchronized note runs that once laid back in the mix now take center stage. By bringing these simple melodic runs to the forefront, Horner mirrors the Humanoids transition for deep sea dweller to surface level lurker. Through this simple act of shifting the dynamic focus and anchoring the runs with low percussion and strings, the danger that was once hidden beneath the waves officially becomes too close for comfort.
Even though Horner’s influences are on clear display throughout Humanoids score, his young and developing talent is undeniable. Near the end of the film we get the fabulous track, ‘Final Confrontation.’ It’s a loud, intense ride that adeptly supports the chaos unfolding on screen. Using every possible tool at his disposal, Horner creates a sound much larger than his small New World budget should have allowed for. By pulling strings and thinking outside the box, Horner managed to convince a group of skilled union players to record the entire score at an ex-lumber yard in Venice…at night and for non-union wages. Here, each and every one of these talented professionals are utilized and on full display.
Layers upon layers of strings act as a visceral fear response, beautifully balancing frantic energy with creeping terror. Unique and interesting pieces of percussion grab attention with their unearthly and haunting sounds. Energy and emotion mix with the shifting sonic focus to create a perfectly executed feeling of absolute chaos. This purposeful blend of structure and off-the-rails atmosphere shines a light on Horner’s ability and natural understanding of film composition. Creating chaos is one thing, but knowing how to reel it back in is quite another. Seamlessly, Horner transitions the track from a swirling mess of sound to a momentum fueled melodic high point. Just like the ocean surrounding the unfortunate fishing village, Horner’s score ebbs and flows with beauty, strength and terror in equal measure.
When compared to many of Horner’s later works, Humanoids From The Deep tends to get the short end of the stick. Sure, it’s no Aliens or Apollo 13. But what Humanoids From The Deep offers is an intimate snapshot of a strong and evolving talent. Horner once said, ‘I think Roger was very talented at picking people who were very passionate about what they do.‘ While Horner was likely talking about the many other talented individuals he worked with during his time with Roger Corman, the statement certainly holds true for himself as well. In a way, Corman’s hands off and limited budget approach to his film scores forced Horner to find his footing and his own unique sonic identity. There are many beautiful, emotional moments throughout Humanoids’ score that give little sneak peeks at the composer that Horner would become. Known for his intensely touching and emotionally resonant scores, these small productions likely allowed Horner to develop his composing chops in an organic and practical way.
Following Humanoids From The Deep, Horner would go on to score one more film for Corman; 1980’s Battle Beyond The Stars. Although the film was an obvious cash grab attempting to capitalize on that hot Star Wars money, it was here that James Horner made some important and life-changing connections. Due to his ‘better than it should be’ score for the film, Horner’s work made big impressions. For one, it was because of Battle Beyond the Stars that Horner was hired to score another science fiction film; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Horner’s Battle score also made an impression on an up and coming filmmaker who was working as a model builder on the production. That young man was none other than James Cameron. Six years later, when the time finally came for Cameron to look for a composer for his film Aliens, he remembered Horner, hired him for the film and the rest is history.
“Just like the ocean surrounding the unfortunate fishing village, Horner’s score ebbs and flows with beauty, strength and terror in equal measure.”
There’s a certain beauty in digging deep into a composer’s catalog. Just like watching a director’s first few films or reading a writer’s first book, listening to a composer’s early works allows a fuller picture of their creative journey develop. Through Humanoids From The Deep, Horner’s love and appreciation for those who inspired him shines through as clearly as his own unique and developing voice. It marks a pivotal point in his long and storied career and for fans of his work, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Despite having such a huge name attached to it, Humanoids has remained a release that has gotten very little attention over the years. Initially released in 1981 on Cerberus Records, the score has sadly never been reissued. While copies aren’t exactly expensive, they are a bit tricky to find out in the wild. Even on CD, it wasn’t until 2001 that the score got a release from GNP Crescendo. It’s a shame really as Humanoids From The Deep stands as a true testament to Horner. Like the Humanoids themselves bred in the murky B-movie depths, Horner evolved, and crawled ashore…all the way to glorious A-list heights.
What are some of your favorite James Horner scores? Want more scores? Check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month! Talk all things Humanoid with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!