The beauty of a good film score is the mutualistic symbiotic relationship that develops between the music and the film itself. Much like a healthy human relationship, a positive film and score connection is one where both are elevated and benefit from their shared association. This working bond can take many forms and the scale for measuring an alliance as successful can range widely. Maybe it’s a movie like Atomic Blonde, where every single insert song is perfect and killer. Maybe it’s a film like Suspiria (1977) where the score is not only perfect for the film, but can also stand alone as an incredible piece of Italian prog-rock. Or maybe it’s piece of cinema like Robert Eggers’ 2015 folk-horror masterpiece, The Witch.
In regards to the film score, The Witch really excels in the way it brings an audience a unique and complex film-to-score relationship experience. The two are not simply existing in the same time and space, they are one combined and intimate unit. Much like the family in the film, if you were to take one away from the other, both would suffer and become weaker because of their disjointedness. Director Robert Eggers has always been open about his specific, focused and unique vision for how The Witch would play out. This clear direction bled over into the realm of the film’s music and it would take a special talent to embrace, understand and ultimately realize Eggers’ vision.
“…the music takes on the role of playing The Witch as much as any of the actual actors do. Where a physical presence of evil is lacking, the sonic presence takes it’s place.”
The composer who embodied these special talents and more was Toronto based composer, Mark Korven. Before The Witch, Korven also garnered attention for his score to 1997 cult classic, Cube. What Korven created with his score for The Witch is an immersive and terrifying experience. A true partner to Eggers’ film, Korven’s score supports, embraces and melds with the film in an integral way that few films can match. This integrated partnership is by no means an accident and is a fascinating exploration into the nature of film scoring. Let’s take a look at some of the ways Korven’s score benefits by both contributing and participating in this modern horror classic.
First up, a quick synopsis of The Witch:
In 1630 New England, panic and despair envelops a farmer, his wife and their children when youngest son Samuel suddenly vanishes. The family blames Thomasin, the oldest daughter who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, twin siblings Mercy and Jonas suspect Thomasin of witchcraft, testing the clan’s faith, loyalty and love to one another. ‘The Witch‘ is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own sins, leaving them prey for an inconceivable evil.
From the moment we are introduced to William and Katherine‘s family, they are outcasts. Firm in his beliefs, William is willing to sacrifice not only his family’s comforts and safety, but the benefits of living a communal lifestyle in a rural and difficult landscape. As the establishing plot is laid for the family’s isolation, we are quickly introduced to the sonic landscape that will unfold throughout the film. And while you would think that this landscape would begin with music, it’s William‘s voice that really sets the tone.
Ralph Ineson (who plays William) has a deep, rich, textured timbre to his voice that wraps around you like a warm, but scratchy wool blanket. The very nature of his voice is unique and transportive and it places us firmly in the time and place. While William addresses a church full of fellow pilgrims, the music is simple and traditional in melody. However, the moment the family begins to leave the plantation this all begins to change. Long, sustained drone notes punctuated by unfamiliar glimpses of sound wash over us as they travel to their new parcel of land. Bordering on the edge of a forest, the drone becomes host to a choir of voices as if the forest itself is letting the family know that they are not alone in this wild space.
From this point on, Korven’s score takes on just as crucial a role as the dialogue, lighting, or the lack thereof. To dissect this a little bit, let’s first take a look at the track, A Witch Stole Sam. As suggested by the title, this track takes place when the youngest member of the family is mysteriously kidnapped from right underneath young Thomasin‘s nose. Prefaced by nothing but dialogue and sound design, the track begins to play the moment that our field of vision is engulfed in the forest. A slow build of drones and swirling sustained notes builds anxiety in an incredibly effective way.
Next; Primal, rhythmic and percussive sounds share the stage with a variety of voices and unidentifiable sonic guests. The lack of a melody combined with unfamiliar and otherworldly sounds becomes the poster child for what tension sounds like. By using the score in this manner and in this specific way, the score becomes more than simply backing music; it becomes a crucial character. The responsibility of the score in The Witch is not only to convey the emotions of the characters and situations, but to portray the evil itself. As we only catch glimpses here and there of the evil lurking in and around the family, the music takes on the role of playing The Witch as much as any of the actual actors do. Where a physical presence of evil is lacking, the sonic presence takes it’s place.
“[These] unfamiliar and otherworldly sounds becomes the poster child for what tension sounds like”
The powerfully unsettling score that accompanies the family through their ordeal becomes more of a presence as the evil slowly seeps into their lives. Creeping from the depths of the forest, the frequency of the score’s appearance gradually increases along with the family’s paranoia. As the internal tension between the family members grows, so does the music. Like a slowly approaching fog, the dissonance and layers of sound float over the film engulfing it and saturating it with reverberating effect. One of the techniques used to accomplish this slow burn is the simple use of volume variation. Utilizing the power of the drone, a simple crescendo and subsequent decrescendo pulls the viewer in on an emotional level. In companion, alongside the powerful wall of sounds, come the power of silence.
Strategically placed and expertly executed, moments of silence wield just as much power as a well timed sting cue. Placed in just the right places at just the right time, these moments of silence act as emotional triggers. The lack of score and minimal sound design in just the right scenario allows the viewer to literally sit with the emotion and the weight of what has just transpired. By eliminating outside distractions, the lack of sound imbues more tension than any music could.
What makes the music of The Witch so effective in it’s general creepiness can really be boiled down to the instrumentation and lack of melody. Eggers was hyper-vigilant when it came to making his film as period correct as possible. Dialogue was pulled directly from court records, documents and literature. The clothing for the characters was period correct and fitting. Even the lighting was done to mirror the true lighting that would have been present in the family’s simple home.
This attention to detail did not end at just the visuals of the film. Eggers’ and Korven paid the same attention and applied the same historical lens to the music. Rather than using modern technology and electric representations of acoustic sounds, the entire film score was recorded using acoustic instruments. While the instrument selection was a bit more open minded than other areas of the film, they remained acoustic nonetheless. Due to the fact that all instruments were indeed played by a human player, imperfections and variations were inherently present. Rather than correcting, eliminating or adjusting these, variations were left in adding to the emotional connection between score and audience. In a Bloody Disgusting article from 2016, Korven elaborated on the instrument selection process:
Robert didn’t want any traditional harmony or melody in the score, but he wanted it to still fit within the family’s world. So it came down to the instrument selection. The backbone of the score was actually a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. It’s a medieval keyed violin and when Rob first heard it he said, “That’s it, that’s the sound of the score”. It was unique, but felt like it was of that time. So no, we weren’t really slaves to the period at all and our ears were are only guide. Which made it I think, the only exception in the entire film, since its attention to period detail is extremely O.C.D.! The water phone was used a lot as well, and that’s a 20th century experimental instrument.
On top of the interesting choices of nyckelharpa and waterphone, Korven commissioned an instrument all his own. Appropriately titled, “The Apprehension Engine,” Korven called upon the skills of guitar maker Tony Duggan-Smith to create an instrument solely for the purpose of scoring horror films. A Frankenstein-like contraption, the instrument houses a multitude of possibilities, all capable of creating intensely creepy soundscapes. Features include segments like rulers, springs, wires, strings and metal coils that can all be plucked, bowed, flicked, bent and more. This experimental contraption brought forth many of the otherworldly and skin-crawling sounds that are present throughout The Witch. Curious what this invention looks like? Check out this fabulous video demonstrating the various facets and history of the machine.
Due to the unfamiliar nature of the sounds created by Korven using less traditional instruments, there is an inherent atmosphere of apprehension present in them. Yes, the sounds are unsettling, but where the really interesting part lies is in why. There is a comfort and acceptance of sounds we are familiar with. Even the creepiest sounding violin is still just that; a violin. Countless movies have called upon such familiar instruments and manipulated their sounds in a multitude of ways. However creepy these sounds still are naturally, the novelty of these sounds and tones have of course lost a bit of their power over time due to their overuse and their prevalence. Therefore, by using a less familiar instrument such as the nyckelharpa, we as an audience are set on edge on the most primal, subconscious level.
It is for all these reasons that Korven’s score for The Witch is in a unique category of film scores. While The Witch was always considered to be a solid film upon it’s release, it’s fair to say that it’s incredible box office success far surpassed anyone’s expectations. The unnerving score coupled with the near perfect story and performances transported audiences and unsettled them in a way few recent films have. And although the score is clearly incredibly effective, crucial and intertwined with the film itself…it’s not really all that fun to listen to by itself.
“…we as an audience are set on edge on the most primal, subconscious level.”
Separated from the New England countryside where it resides, the score provides an uncomfortable and claustrophobic listen. Alongside that sentiment, the film is also stronger with this unique score in it. There’s no arguing that The Witch is a slow burn of a film. As we follow the family through this fascinating and treacherous well of paranoia, the music acts as our guide and whispers in our ears of the evil surrounding them. The score saturates the film with a depth and momentum that doesn’t necessarily get conveyed in another way. By successfully integrating the two segments in a seamless fashion, The Witch has become a powerful example of what happens when a director and a composer connect to a shared, focused vision.
Despite the score’s nightmarish qualities, if you are looking to pick up a copy, they are readily available. In 2016, Milan Entertainment issued both CD and vinyl versions of the score. Neither one are out of reach in regards to price and odds are you can still find a copy at your local record store. Digital versions of the score are also available on all major streaming services.
Where would you play The Witch score? Seance? Creepy dinner party? Calling the 4 corners? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Terror On The Turntable for more killer horror scores!