Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Creepy Places II: That Sinking Feeling

On Saturday, I said that I enjoyed torturing myself by playing music I found frightening. Of course, it was frightening only when I was alone, so I generally reserved my creepy songs for such times. In the case of today's two recordings, I often had company when they came on, but I still found them unnerving. One of them seems fairly tame these days, while the other one works its magic even now.

The reason other people were around when the songs came on was that they accompanied television shows. One was a song from a Disney film, and the other became the theme for a television show. I'll take them one at a time.

I discussed earlier in the year my subscription to the Disneyland LP series. The soundtracks of a number of Disney films wound up on these records, and the LPs I discussed, Peter and the Wolf, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Mother Goose, appeared in the collection as well. I think I remember having an LP of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but I could be wrong. I know for sure that I owned Babes in Toyland, because the scary song was on that disc.

That LP went the way of the glaciers in the Great Vinyl Meltdown, but for the sake of this post, I found the track I wanted on iTunes. "Slowly He Sank into the Sea" does not strike me as an ominous piece now, but boy, three-year-old caithiseach made a hasty exit, the track still playing, every time he played Side 1 of the Babes soundtrack.

The song is a report of the faked death of Tom, a character in the story. With music by Victor Herbert and a book originally by Glen MacDonough, the operetta was lighthearted to begin with, and in the hands of Disney, it didn't gain any great level of menace. The minor key and the subject matter of this song, a drowning in the depths of the ocean, nevertheless filled me with dread.

A rational look at the situation should have eased my mind immediately. For one thing, Tom didn't drown. These two guys were lying to his fiancée. Unfortunately, I didn't figure that out until about a year ago.

I also didn't realize who two of the characters in the film were. As a huge fan of the Zorro television show and The Wizard of Oz, I should have recognized Sergeant García (Henry Calvin) as one of the two lying scoundrels, and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) as the man Mary was supposed to marry instead of Tom. That would have served as some comfort. But when I saw the portly, mustachioed guy going on about the death of poor Tom, it freaked me out on TV when I was watching the film with my parents, and it was that much worse on the LP, when I was alone with the song and my imagination. The film was billed as “The happiest, most delightful musical comedy of your lifetime!” Well, OK . . .

Playing "Slowly He Sank into the Sea" so I could write the blog, I detected the camp, the falsehood and the amusing attempt at sincerity of Sergeant García. That's one more childhood fear, put in its place and buried. But it sure was a good one for a while.

The second song is one I never owned; I just heard it on TV. In most every city in the 1970s, I imagine there was at least one independent TV station that filled its late-night Saturday slot with horror films. This was the pre-Halloween era, so pretty much any black-and-white B flick could be shown on TV, and by the time the program started, when I was ten, I was basically immune to any long-term effects from the shambling mummies and stumbling Frankensteins.

The music that accompanied Creature Features on Chicago's WGN, channel 9, was another matter. Other cities may have called their show by that name, but the intro I knew was produced in Chicago. Another Chicago station, WFLD, channel 32, had a cheesy guy named Svengoolie hosting a horror-film show. Creature Features, to the best of my memory, had only the dread-inspiring music and a ghastly recitation of horrifying imagery.

That music was the appropriately titled "Experiment in Terror" by Henry Mancini. Sure, he scored The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany's and Romeo and Juliet, but he came up with some seriously creepy notes for the film Experiment in Terror, directed by Blake Edwards. I didn't see the film as a kid, but I didn't have to. I can tell now that the experiment was to see if you could write music so laden with fearful chords and instruments that even adults would shy away from it.

That's what happened around my house when Creature Features came on. The song started the show, then, at each commercial break, it was the outro and the intro for each piece of the film being shown. Accompanied by a still of a Grim Reaper type with a goblin's face and lettering in an unhappy-looking font, that intro almost made you want to change the channel to PBS.

On some occasions, I watched Creature Features with one of my babysitters, Carla. Carla and I were fine during the film, but when the commercials came and went, we would start singing an atonal "la-la-la" to drown out the Mancini masterpiece. Carla was eighteen, which means that she was an adult, and she certainly did find the music unnerving. I was really glad that she shared my opinion of the song and didn't force me to be quiet while it was playing.

An odd thing about the music is that no one knew the name or the composer of the piece. For lots of kids, it was the "Creature Features song." And we all hated what it did to us. At long last, when I was (most likely) a junior in high school, my friend Tom called me and told me to turn on a radio station in Beecher, Illinois that played whatever the nighttime DJ wanted to play. At this moment, he had fielded a request for "Experiment in Terror" by Henry Mancini. At last, I knew the name and the artist.

A week later, I had forgotten both.

A search for Creature Features a couple of years ago enlightened me again, and this time, it stuck. The music, designed to make adult bladders weak, still has an effect on my knees, if not my bladder. Try putting it on your stereo when kids come trick-or-treating, and see how much candy you have left over. Word will get around: "That house is playing scary music. Go somewhere else."

You're welcome to send me a portion of the chocolate you don't have to give to costumed fairies, Mutant Turtles and Gumbys. You can email me for an address.

After the songs is a meticulously recreated 1971 opening for Creature Features, as with all of the sounds and sights in this series, a dark room is the only suitable spot for experiencing the magic of creepiness.

Next time, I'll bring you a scary song that has a sonic connection to "Experiment in Terror" and a lyrical connection to a mule. See you Saturday!

Babes in Toyland, Slowly He Sank into the Sea

Creature Features, Experiment in Terror

1 comment:

former lurker said...

The Toyland song is silly. But without downloading it, I know that "Experiment in Terror" gives me the heebie jeebies. My (then) boyfriend and I were driving home at about 1 am after watching The Exorcist at a friend's house (farm) in the middle of nowhere. As we drove down a bumpy dirt road through the pitch dark, about 10 km from our tiny hometown, I decided to play a CD of Henry Mancini songs to lighten the mood. All was well for a while, and then "Experiment in Terror" came on. I froze, and the boyfriend silently reached and skipped to "Moon River".

Six years later, we still listen to that Henry Mancini CD in the car, and we still skip that song. :)