Music in the movies: Mark Isham

In this week's Music In The Movies, Glen looks at the work of versatile composer, Mark Isham, whose music has graced films such as The Mechanic, Timecop and Blade...

Mark Isham is a composer I’ve admired for some time, through his works on a number of genre films as well as more mainstream fair. He’s not, perhaps, the most grand of composers, but his brand of understated pieces often provide the perfect accompaniment for the films they were composed for, whilst not being the type of score that you would necessarily expect.

Isham’s jazz background often shines through in his pieces for film and television, but there’s also a fair amount of experimentation, and he’s not a composer who resorts to recycling passages from film to film.

He’s been nominated for the Academy Award once, for his work on A River Runs Through It, but lost out to Alan Menkin’s score for Aladdin. His most recent work for The Mechanic joins a list of other action films, as well as the horror genre and dramatic movie scores, as detailed below…  

The Hitcher

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Isham’s score to the original Hitcher really is quite remarkable. Going into the project, he was given the task of creating a Williams Jaws clone, but what he ended up creating was a far more original and intelligent piece than the producers could have hoped for and one that would go on to influence many a horror score over the years.

It’s astonishing that such a bold and creative piece was created so early on in Isham’s career. The score uses electronic samples and synths heavily, which sets the score as a work of its time, but also makes it incredibly unsettling.

In many ways his work here would set the blueprint for many of his other compositions in the horror genre throughout his career.

Of Mice And Men

The score to this solid adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella is a slight departure from the electronics of his previous works, but still, the approach to composing remains largely unchanged.

His use of gradual builds and silence are masterful here and he avoids the temptation of having the orchestra at his disposal act as the centrepiece. They take a back seat, as the simple piano melodies and woodwind are the main focus, giving this score a feel of the depression era setting of film.

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This example is perhaps not the most obvious source for one of the finest action scores of the 90s. The film itself is a bit of a mess, but Isham’s score attempts to bring some order to the proceedings by making a change from his normal approach and going into all-out action mode.

This sees the composer at his most relentless, as he barrages listeners and viewers with a series of high octane action cues. His build of suspense is present at times, but this is far from subtle. Even with that being the case, this is a quite brilliant score that can easily get overlooked because of the film it accompanies.


Nell‘s a film that may not be strongest in terms of story, but features some excellent performances from a great cast and has an incredibly strong score courtesy of Isham, who evokes the setting of the film wonderfully here with use of grand orchestral passages alongside more considered pieces.

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A lot of the score features effective use of the flute, which adds an air of sweetness to what is otherwise a fairly melancholic affair. Like with Of Mice And Men, this is a score that demonstrates the composer’s versatility, by creating an emotive score outside of the action and horror genres that stand as one of the highlights of a long and successful career.


By all accounts, this is exactly the type of material Isham is comfortable with, so should have produced another classic that would, hopefully, blend together the creepiness of The Hitcher and the action-packed score for Timecop. Sadly, though, the score for Blade is all over the place, particularly when listened to in isolation from the film.

It contains plenty of great ideas and the elements are there, but nothing works together. Admittedly, this is an action-packed and energetic score, but that’s not enough to save this from being a rare misstep in the composer’s catalogue.


I have a few issues with the film itself, but I still return to Isham’s score for it from time to time. It works fantastically well when accompanying the film, but for me, it’s at its best when listened to away from the source.

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Unlike the film, it doesn’t overtly convey the moods it’s looking to elicit from audience members, instead subtlety introducing them to the viewer and listener.

There are scores of Isham’s that I return to more often than this, but it’s still an incredibly strong effort.

The Mist

The Mist is a film I have to admit I was wrong about. After first viewing, I was unimpressed, and even wrote about it on this very site as part of a communal feature about films where we don’t understand the fuss (linked below). But even with that being the case, I decided to revisit the film recently when I was sofa bound following a sporting injury, and I was blown away.

Since that viewing I have watched it again in the black-and-white version, which was even better. I don’t understand why I didn’t like it on first viewing and can only put it down to me being an idiot.

Repeat viewings have also enabled me to appreciate Isham’s creative, challenging and unsettling score that delivers the requisite levels of terror and suspense. Not afraid of silence, Isham uses the lulls in the score as effectively as any of the instruments and techniques at his disposal. It’s one of the finest horror scores of recent times.

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The Crazies

This is another score in the horror, genre that perfectly demonstrates Isham’s effective use of silence to create an air of tension and foreboding, adding to the atmosphere of the film it accompanies.

The majority of the score is devoted to slow and deliberate build-ups leading effective scares. There are times when the tension is almost unbearable which goes some way to show the quality of the piece as a whole.

I know the film has its detractors, as will any remake of a Romero property, but for me The Crazies was a damn fine and thoroughly entertaining horror movie.

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