Inventory: 14 Movies From Two Ages Of Theremin Music
1. The Lost Weekend (1945)
By the 1950s, the theremin—that weird electronic instrument that musicians play by waving their hands in the air around it—had become the signature sound for science-fiction film and television, thanks to its eerie keening effect, which sounds like it originated on a distant and probably unpleasant planet. But a theremin-heavy score didn't always imply the presence of robots and aliens: One of the first and best-known American movies to extensively feature the instrument on its soundtrack was Billy Wilder's multi-Oscar winner The Lost Weekend. Composer Miklós Rózsa used theremin strains throughout to make viewers feel as unsettled and headachy as protagonist Ray Milland, an alcoholic writer on a self-annihilating multi-day bender.
2. Spellbound (1945)
The same year, Rózsa took a similar tack with the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound, this time trying to let the audience experience the alienating effects of psychosis—and of dealing with psychotics. Ingrid Bergman stars as the psychiatrist addressing the delusions of Gregory Peck, who may be a paranoid schizophrenic, a murderer, or just a victim. The score mirrors her uncertainty about what's real and what's delusion. (Incidentally, the film's title was picked up by the podcast/Internet radio show Spellbound, which features two hours of theremin music a week at spellbound.purplenote.com.)
3. The Thing From Another World (1951)
John Carpenter's 1982 version of this science-fiction classic stuck closer to the source material, but the original version was more a reflection of its time: The alien invader of the title, a soulless but efficient predator out to reproduce itself by spreading spores across the planet, was widely taken as a metaphor for communism. Once again, theremin music equals isolation and unnerving uncertainty, as a group of Arctic scientists try to ascertain the nature of the unknown invader so they can somehow contain or resist it.
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
One of the films most directly responsible for identifying the theremin with otherworldly activity, the science-fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still pairs creepy music with creepy alien activity, as a human-looking alien lands on Earth with a lumbering robot enforcer named Gort, and demands to speak to all the world's leaders. Humanity reacts with predictable paranoia and stubbornness, and things degenerate from there; the theremin music could be indicating how alienating "normal" people can be as much as it's signaling out-of-this-world activity.
5. The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953)
In Dr. Seuss' live-action oddity The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T, the theremin indicates a state of unrelieved nightmare. Lassie's Tommy Rettig stars as a put-upon kid whose disgust with piano lessons leads him into a fantasyland where his piano teacher (the invariably wonderful Hans Conried) is engaged in a dastardly scheme involving 500 boys and the world's longest piano. The Seuss-inspired sets and dramatic art direction add to the dreamlike quality of the whole endeavor.
6. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Possibly the most significant theremin outing of the '50s combines the nightmare aspects of 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T and the science-fiction aspects of The Day The Earth Stood Still. An outer-space version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Forbidden Planet features a young Leslie Nielsen as a spaceship captain who discovers Walter Pidgeon and his daughter Anne Francis as the only survivors of a lost Earth colony. The film also features the first all-electronic film score, created by married couple Louis and Bebe Barron, a pair of avant-garde composers who reportedly got into the film business for the money (having not made much as pioneering electronic-music artists), and rapidly got out again after being denied musical credits or Oscar consideration, all due to a union question over whether their contributions to the film were actually "music."
7. The Ten Commandments (1956)
While not associated with the theremin nearly so much as the decade's panoply of outer-space horror movies, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments does use the instrument to disturbing effect as Moses brings down plagues on the Egyptians. In a recent Guardian interview, Ten Commandments composer Elmer Bernstein shrugged off the possible overuse of theremin music in film as "horses for courses. You use whatever is appropriate."
8. The Delicate Delinquent (1957)
One of the few movies to actually use a theremin in a comic light, The Delicate Delinquent features a scene where dippy janitor Jerry Lewis runs across one accidentally, and naturally starts flailing at it to see what it does. Surprisingly, he somehow produces a credible version of "Swanee River" and some 12-bar blues; he briefly rock 'n' rolls out to the latter before the theremin's angry owner arrives to stop the fun.
9. Ed Wood (1994)
After the '50s, the theremin largely disappeared from movie soundtracks, possibly due to overuse over a short time period, possibly because the novelty had faded, and possibly because it was extremely difficult to play, and few theremin performers were available. But the 1994 movie Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey has been credited with renewing interest in the instrument, resulting in a whole new age of theremin soundtracks. Still, director Steven M. Martin can't take credit for Tim Burton's Ed Wood, which uses theremin music to flash back to the '50s, when the titular schlockmeister was at the peak of his goofy game.
10. Batman Forever (1995)
A recurring theremin theme in Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever similarly seems to be trying to evoke the '50s by associating Jim Carrey's loonball take on Edward Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler) with spooky mad-scientist music. Nygma's off-kilter theremin motif howls to a crescendo on a track subtitled "An Ode To Science," no doubt indicating that he's mad, mad I tell you, muah ha ha ha ha.
11. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Like his Ed Wood, Burton's sloppy, endearing spoof Mars Attacks! uses the theremin as a shorthand for '50s-style sci-fi cheese. In this case, the spooky music is somewhere between a conscious cliché and a deliberately ironic choice, as it contrasts with the not particularly spooky antics of a group of invading Martians gleefully disintegrating Earthlings right and left.
12. eXistenZ (1999)
David Cronenberg's eXistenZ makes far less playful use of the theremin in a film that hearkens back to Hitchcock's use of such music to indicate nightmare and psychosis. Operating inside and out of a virtual-reality game that's as unpleasant as its fleshy organic game-controllers, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law go on a typically Cronenbergian adventure, all visceral flesh and psychological upheaval. The theremin music is almost comforting by comparison.
13. Bartleby (2001)
Jonathan Parker takes a highly campy approach to Herman Melville's classic short story about a man who simply opts out of society. From the stunt casting of Crispin Glover as the eponymous oddball to the strikingly dark, strange visual design to, yes, the theremin soundtrack, Bartleby the film is appropriately as peculiar and disturbing as Bartleby the character. Parker seems to be trying too hard to sell the film on fundamental weirdness, though, possibly since the story itself isn't dynamic enough to keep viewers involved.
14. The Machinist (2004)
In the same vein, director Brad Anderson doesn't have a whole lot to work with in the basic plot of The Machinist. The final twist isn't particularly twisty—it's just a confirmation of things the movie has repeatedly implied—which largely leaves the film to rest on the emaciated shoulders of Christian Bale, who lost a stunning amount of his normal bulk in order to play the harrowed protagonist of this film. Once again, the theremin music is all about the descent into nightmare and psychosis, as Bale deals with his demons and with dreamlike shifts in the reality around him. Even after 60 years in the movies, theremin music is still considered rare and weird enough that just the sound of those whining tones is meant to raise the question "Is this real, or just a horrible dream?"