Despite opening to truly ghoulish reviews in summer 1995, Casper, an adaptation of the long-running children’s comic of the same name, went on to a healthy box-office gross and spawned a series of low budget direct to video sequels. With ghosts aplenty, an enormous Escher-esque haunted house, and several moments of twisted humor, Casper seemed like a project tailor-made for Danny Elfman. The assignment went to James Horner instead, which may seem like a strange choice today but wasn’t surprising given Horner’s extensive work with children’s films in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
1995 would actually see the end of Horner’s involvement with kids’ movies: Casper, along with the concurrent Balto, represented Horner’s effective swan song in the genre (though 2000’s The Grinch would see him make a brief return to it). Horner anchors the score with two main themes and a bevy of smaller incidental motifs. The first is a jazzy ostinato representing the three malevolent spooks that’s put through a number of variations throughout the first half of the album, occasionally augmented with a light choir or theremin. It’s a fun tune, and effective at creating a feeling of goofy horror.
The real gem of the score, though, is the theme that Horner creates for Casper himself. It’s first heard as counterpoint in the first few tracks, very faint and all but overwhelmed by jazzy bluster. The theme is given center stage in “The Lighthouse” and is the centerpiece of the gorgeous “Casper’s Lullaby” track (which has become a favorite on Horner compilation albums) and dominates the latter half of the score. Heartfelt woodwinds and strings, backed by piano and a full children’s chorus create a sad, longing atmosphere that still brims with magic. Casper’s theme is one of Horner’s most effective compositions, even if its melancholy is somewhat incongruous in the rather lightweight film, and is worth the price of the album on its own.
Though Elfman wasn’t involved with the film, several of the haunting sequences bear a resemblance to his work on Beetlejuice, especially in the rollicking piano chords that underlie the slapstick action in “No Sign of Ghosts” and “First Haunting.” There is some faux-Korngoldian brass in “The Swordfight” as well, and Horner adapts some of his own material into the mix with echoes of We’re Back in the action cues and allusions to Something Wicked This Way Comes in “Descent to Lazarus.” It’s important to note, though, that most of these allusions are constructed as parodies, and are effective despite (or perhaps because of) their pedigrees.
Ironically, the scariest moments of Casper are the two pop songs tacked onto the end of he album; “Remember Me This Way” is a standard junk-pop ballad, and Little Richard’s performance of “Casper the Friendly Ghost” falls in the “what were they thinking?” category. James Horner’s music, though, is undeniably effective–darting nimbly from theme to theme and from comic to melodramatic without skipping a beat. Casper is one of Horner’s most overlooked albums (not surprising when one considers that he wrote Apollo 13 and Braveheart that same year), and a real treat. Recommended for those looking for one of James’ Horner’s best and most heartfelt themes, combined with a healthy dose of quirky, Elfmanesque comedy.