Last week, I was witness to some small magic. Or perhaps it was a minor kind of miracle. Let me explain…
Some of us at Murfie HQ were sitting around one afternoon, discussing the music of old movies we loved as kids. Films like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were brought up, of course. I immediately thought of Escape to Witch Mountain, and we started reminiscing about the utterly creepy theme by Johnny Mandel that opens the film, with protagonists Tia and Tony running in silhouette from viciously barking dogs.
That opening scene scared me when I was younger, so I’d hit fast forward on our VHS player. I always thought it was an odd contrast to the whimsical scenes of Tia communicating telepathically with cats, or Tony using his harmonica to telekinetically control marionettes. But that’s what Escape to Witch Mountain is; it’s what you get when you put Hammer horror director John Hough at the helm of a novel adaptation for Disney. Kid’s movies in the ’70s weren’t afraid of scaring you (e.g. How creepy was almost everything in Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory?).
While we chatted, I did what I always do in these situations—I looked for the soundtrack. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t find it. Nor could I find very many releases of Johnny Mandel’s work in general. Digging deeper, I was saddened to learn that the only released version of any music from Escape to Witch Mountain was on an obscure Disneyland Records illustrated storybook LP narrated by Eddie Albert (who plays Jason O’Day). This news was particularly shocking since Escape to Witch Mountain was—at the time—one of Disney’s most successful live action films.
I was beginning to lose hope that I could show my colleagues this wonderful music from my childhood without lugging in my parents’ VCR. I loved Escape to Witch Mountain so much that I learned Tony’s melodic riffs by ear during my brief stint taking harmonica lessons. It is, to this day, some of my favorite movie music.
But then the magic happened. A bit further down the search results, I stumbled upon a recent post on the INTRADA forums. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because they’ve released literally hundreds of film and video game soundtracks, both new and old. Imagine my surprise when, upon reading the post, I learned that not only was INTRADA releasing the Escape to Witch Mountain soundtrack, but it was out that very day! That’s right—40 years after the film’s release, on a day that I just happened to be wishing for a soundtrack, INTRADA was delivering with their full, limited edition Special Collection Volume 309 release.
Johnny Mandel—who is perhaps best known for “Suicide Is Painless” from M*A*S*H—was absolutely ahead of his time with Escape to Witch Mountain. Mandel’s deceptively simple themes were performed with a massive 50-odd-member orchestra, but with the addition of harmonica and eerie drones from the Moog synthesizer. The outcome feels like an alien adaptation of 1970s Disney fanfares. Playful tunes like “The Flying Camper” would be equally at home in any Disney film from the era, but Mandel’s biggest successes come when he subverts those expectations. There are ideas continually introduced throughout the film’s score which are later echoed via synthesizers that sound equally otherworldly 40 years later.
Not only has INTRADA teamed up with Disney to make this soundtrack finally available, but they’ve done so with more detail than could have been anticipated. The main themes are here, but so are all of the film’s musical cues and then some. For their limited CD release of the soundtrack, INTRADA (with producer Douglass Fake) have put together just about everything they could salvage from Disney’s long-term storage tapes ca. 1975.
The main score itself clocks in at just over 36 minutes, cues included. INTRADA has done a nice job of weaving together the more traditional soundtrack-type pieces and cues in a way that makes narrative sense within the context of the movie. The CD starts with Mandel’s “Main Title”—creepy dogs and all—and continues from there. While it may sound like overkill on paper, the cues are unique enough that they make sense tagging along. As mentioned in the liner notes (which are extensive and appreciated), many of these cues introduce motifs that reappear in future scored pieces.
It is worth noting that the thoroughness of this CD means you will likely hear many repeated themes throughout its duration, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, a score is not put together with the intention that you listen to it apart from the film, but to Mandel’s credit, the included cues combine their own voices to tell the story. While Tony’s telekinesis may be signaled by a theme for harmonica (in reality, master Tommy Morgan), Tia’s telepathy is portrayed by an accompanying swell of Moog synthesizers (played by jazz musician Paul Beaver). Furthermore, the emotional state of the characters changes how the themes are executed.
The aforementioned soundtrack and cues would be enough to satisfy a fan of the film, right? Not for INTRADA. When I said they released every piece of material they could find, I wasn’t exaggerating. After the main score, they’ve included ten extra tracks. Thanks to the diligence of some forward-thinking folks at Disney, the recording sessions were stored in a way that allowed INTRADA to re-assemble orchestral pieces without harmonica or synthesizer cues. The result is seven previously unheard arrangements of more traditional orchestration.
INTRADA has also included three outtakes that were completely unused in the film, and perhaps never intended for use. First is a longer, complete take of the “Flashback” theme, which the liner notes indicate could have been originally intended for some other release or for Mandel’s enjoyment. Similarly, there is an unused stinger for Tony’s harmonica cue. The last extra is a 2+ minute harmonica improvisation by Tommy Morgan, which is interesting if only to hear how much of a beast Morgan can be. If you don’t know who Tommy Morgan is, you have heard him in everything from The Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds album, to movies like Ratatouille and Dances with Wolves, to video games like Red Dead Redemption and Starcraft II. He’s been in the music industry since 1950 (with over 7200 recording sessions under his belt), and it’s a great service that INTRADA has provided this little nugget that would otherwise go unheard.
For all of the good INTRADA has done on this release, there are unfortunately some issues with the mastering. Most notably, some of the most energetic pieces, including “Escape From Xanthus” and “Spooking the Sheriff and Broom Sequence,” have an unforgivable amount of distortion. This is particularly evident in bass-heavy spots, or when horns reach their peak levels. While it’s not completely known if this is INTRADA’s fault or the result of bad master storage before INTRADA got their hands on them, it is nevertheless a distraction from some of the most impressive of Mandel’s work here. As a side note, it seems a bit less evident on the bonus orchestral mixes, but the distortion is still there. Your results may vary, and it may not be an issue to you.
It is also apparent that some transfers are a bit cleaner than others. In a few more intimate moments, you can hear some tape hiss. Additionally, some of the harder pans in the mix were annoying to me personally. I’ve always had an issue with instruments fully panned to one ear or the other, but I understand it doesn’t bother everyone. A lot of early stereo recordings were bigger offenders than this score, and it is not that much of a problem on Escape to Witch Mountain.
While the distortion was my biggest issue, I must be clear that most of the album does indeed sound great. Better, in fact, than I had expected it would. INTRADA’s dedication to doing right by their source material is plainly evident in this release, and others that I’ve run into from their catalog as well. By all logic, this CD could have only been ten or so tracks—if we got it at all. Instead, we’ve been provided everything a completionist could want. Little touches like reversible album art, extensive liner notes and all the bonus tracks mentioned above are proof that INTRADA has gone out of their way to make this release special for nostalgic fans like me.
If you’re at all interested in this classic movie or Johnny Mandel‘s incredible scoring, grab a copy as soon as possible! Escape to Witch Mountain is part of INTRADA’s Special Collection, which is made up of exclusive, limited edition releases. This soundtrack was a long time coming, and you may not have a very big window to get it.
John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.