"They don't make 'em like they used to" is a common refrain when it comes to the movies, and nowhere is it used more frequently than with musicals. It's a long road, after all, from "Singin' in the Rain" to "Flashdance," or from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to films designed to sell the latest rock 'n' roll sound track.

Those sentiments are shared by film composer Michael Gore and screen writer Lawrence D. Cohen, who have just signed a two-year production deal with 20th Century-Fox to develop feature musicals. Gore and Cohen say their setup at Fox will be similar to the one producer Arthur Freed had during the heyday of musicals at MGM, when he helped bring to the screen projects like "Singin' in the Rain." They're aiming, Gore told Daily Variety, at "a huge audience waiting and hungering for true musical entertainment in movies."

It all sounds rosy, but at the same time, the track records of those involved indicate that thoughts of a new era for old-style musicals may be a bit premature. Cohen, for example, is a screen writer whose biggest outings have been the horror films "Carrie" and "Ghost Story"; Gore's best-known works as a composer are the score for "Terms of Endearment" and the songs he wrote for the modern-day musical "Fame."

And their first project hardly sounds like a new vehicle for Gene Kelly: It's a big-budget musical version of, believe it or not, Stephen King's "Carrie." Cohen will reprise his part in the original, nonmusical version and write the screenplay, while Gore will supply the music and "Footloose" lyricist Dean Pitchford will write the words. "Screamin' in the Rain," anyone? . . .

The new, tuneful "Carrie" won't be the only Stephen King book making it to the screen before long; as usual, nearly everything the suspense writer pens winds up a film deal, and four other books by King are on the boards. There's "Silver Bullet," a werewolf story starring Gary Busey, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and due in October from Paramount; "The Body," a short story that director Rob Reiner is shooting for Embassy; "Overdrive," another De Laurentiis production adapted from the short story "Trucks" by King, who's directing Emilio Estevez in what is being referred to as a mechanized version of "The Birds," and "The Talisman," the King/Peter Straub collaboration that's been purchased by Steven Spielberg.

That's a lot of activity for a writer whose films have never made much money, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out early this week. "The Shining" had film rentals of nearly $31 million, and the low-budget "Carrie" hit $15 million, but of King's remaining seven films ("Creepshow," "Cujo," "The Dead Zone," "Christine," "Children of the Corn," "Firestarter" and "Cat's Eye"), none made it past the $10 million mark . . .

Acclaimed French director Bertrand Tavernier ("A Day in the Country," "Coup de Tourchon") has come up with a crop of nonactors to star in his upcoming "Around Midnight," the story of a jazz musician in Paris. Starring as the musician is real-life jazz great Dexter Gordon, while director Martin Scorsese is on his way overseas to play a nightclub owner, manager and record producer. Keyboardist Herbie Hancock also has a role . . . Meanwhile, the Brazilian film "Kiss of the Spider Woman" has been so successful in its New York and Boston runs that the Mann Theatres chain has changed its mind about the William Hurt/Raul Julia/Sonia Braga film's commercial possibilities; for its L.A. run, Mann has moved the film to a large Westwood theater that usually shows major commercial prospects -- in the process, reportedly bidding more for what was once presumed to be an art movie than was bid for several upcoming major studio productions . . .

"Back to the Future" stayed atop the box-office charts last weekend, topping the $100 million mark and maintaining a pace that should push it past "Rambo" in a month or so. Of last weekend's new movies, "The Bride" was a major flop; faring better were "Volunteers," "The Return of the Living Dead" and even Michael Cimino's "Year of the Dragon," which survived picket lines and protests of racism by Oriental groups and made a respectable $4.1 million.