Spooky season has fully descended upon us. There’s a crispness in the air as all things creepy and haunting float across the breeze. It’s the time of year when horror soundtracks are not only socially acceptable, but celebrated and encouraged. And lucky for us, there’s a horror soundtrack for nearly every spooky occasion. Need a crowd pleaser? Play The Lost Boys. Need a funky dance track? Throw on that New York Ripper theme. Looking for something truly unsettling for your haunted house? There’s always The Witch! And then there’s the score we’ll be focusing on today; It Follows.
The score for It Follows is one that balances darkness and light in equally effective measures. While some tracks could be used for your morning meditation, there are others that are certain to induce near nightmare states. It’s a delicate line to walk, but one that is executed in near expert fashion. And while it’s easy to leave it at just that, there’s much more to this score than initially may meet the eye…or ear. It’s a score that pushes boundaries and is woven into the actual fabric of the story itself.
“The score for It Follows is one that balances darkness and light in equally effective measures. While some tracks could be used for your morning meditation, there are others that are certain to induce near nightmare states.”
A good film score has a lot of responsibility. Not only does the quality of the music itself have to be top-notch, but the score should also be engaging and supportive of what’s happening on screen. While the sound design accounts for much of the external world, a good film score often reflects internal character mindset and emotion. It is through a film’s score that we as the audience journey along with our characters. Guided by auditory cues and techniques, we feel what they feel and connect with their inner dialogue on a subconscious and personal level. This responsibility is huge, crucial and often requires a large amount of technical heavy lifting.
The score for It Follows by Disasterpeace embraces this responsibility while simultaneously building upon it. Not only does the score carry the burden of providing insight into our character’s emotions and mindsets, it becomes a multi-functional score that becomes as entwined in the story as the characters themselves. Coupled with the cinematography and a variety of sonic techniques, the score seamlessly shifts between roles and responsibilities.
The origin of this score is a rather simple story. In all reality, it’s a modern-day fairy tale. Once upon a time, Writer and Director David Robert Mitchell was a fan of the puzzle solving video game Fez. By playing this popular game, Mitchell became introduced to the work of composer Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace. Mitchell was entranced by Vreeland’s talents and when it came time to score his upcoming horror film, he knew just who to call. Once the two connected, it was a match made in cinematic heaven. Mitchell had found his sonic soul mate and Vreeland had found a guide into the world of film scoring.
Having previously done the majority of his work in the video game sector, It Follows would be the first feature length film score for Vreeland, but certainly not his last. As Mitchell was the Writer as well as the Director for It Follows, he definitely had specific ideas and thoughts on what the score for his film should sound like. When Vreeland became involved in the project, Mitchell gave him a temp score that included works from artists like John Cage, John Carpenter and Penderecki. Through these three masters, a sketch was drawn, but it was up to Vreeland to ingest the idea while simultaneously creating something new, unique, engaging and effective.
First, it’s important to understand the basic plot of the film:
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For 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), fall should be about school, boys and weekends out at the lake. But a seemingly innocent physical encounter turns sour and gives her the inescapable sense that someone, or something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her teenage friends must find a way to escape the horror that seems to be only a few steps behind.
From the very moment the film begins, the importance of the score is established. As the track ‘Heels‘ plays, we see a girl running out of her house on a seemingly peaceful street. Her neighbor seems concerned, but as there is no clear sign of danger, she remains calm. While this girl is clearly terrified, of what we are not sure. And while this scene could play out awkward or silly, the score is what defines it.
Low, decisive bass tones reverberate and are quickly joined by higher, strategically placed synth sounds. The slow addition of syncopated sound units builds tension in a truly unsettling way. As these drones oscillate and swirl, Psycho-esque stabs punctuate the fear on a primal level. Through the music, we become aware of danger, despite the fact that nothing threatening has actually occurred. The girl jumps in her car, peels out of her driveway and heads off towards a nearby beach. And just like that, the music is gone. For a time, the score remains silent. It’s not until the score makes it’s second appearance that it’s role is solidified. On top of acting as a traditional film score, Vreeland’s score has the unique responsibility of defining the threat itself.
When you stop and think about this fact, it really makes perfect sense. Here we have a being that inexplicably has the ability to look like anyone. And while this makes it all the more dangerous, it also makes it all the more difficult to define. So, how do you convey a villain that has no definitive shape, no defining sounds, no unique creature design and no special visual cues to tip off audiences to its’ presence? You use the score. By setting the stage with this first scene, we as an audience have already been introduced to It and the associated musical theme.
“As the bass drops and synths swell, we the audience instinctively begin searching the background for a direct threat as we are held captive by sonic anticipation.”
Time and time again as the story unfolds, these established tones and themes come back in varied, but recognizable ways. As scenes progress, we begin to develop a near Pavlovian response to the appearance of these sounds. As the bass drops and synths swell, we the audience instinctively begin searching the background for a direct threat as we are held captive by sonic anticipation. Think about the Friday the 13th films. Similar to It Follows, the score and Jason‘s iconic theme were used in a way to tip off (or even mislead) audiences to his stalking presence. However, unlike Jason, It has no mask or hulking figure to helps us recognize its presence. It‘s lack of unique defined features makes the sonic cues all the more important and crucially tied to the successful execution of the entire film.
In direct correlation with this idea, there’s a lot of open space in terms of when the score is actually present. This sparseness is fully intentional and further emphasizes the score’s direct connection to the mystery being, it’s presence, and it’s emotional effect on our main characters. There’s another layer to this score utilization technique as well. This time, it comes in the more direct form of the actual sounds and music itself versus how it’s used. When Vreeland is using the score as a direct tie to It, the music comes to take on an otherworldly persona. It’s as if a primitive AI system or alien being was asked to create a song. Vreeland’s chosen medium of synthetic sounds fit this idea perfectly and comes off almost as interpretations of what music is. This deliberately cold and digital approach adds another subtle dimension to It and a further level of creepiness and terror.
The best example of this idea comes near the end during the pool scene. With the track ‘Father‘ we get shifting melodic notes, blown-out tones, syncopated and rhythmic beats, all at the same time. Every bit and piece of the score and it’s sound is being used in this one moment, all at the same time. The amalgamation of sounds creates an unpredictable, unsettling and powerful moment. Our brains naturally want to make sense of what is sonically happening, but the arrangement of sounds make it nearly impossible. On a subconscious level, this track comes off as uncomfortable and threatening.
Similar to the way themes and sounds are combined here, it not only mirrors the being itself, but the inner distress our character’s are all simultaneously experiencing. There’s no longer any doubts, any question for this group of friends; It is real and It is determined. So in a weird twist of events, what seemingly sounds completely random, unpredictable and confusing, actually makes perfect, effective and efficient technical sense.
“The amalgamation of sounds creates an unpredictable, unsettling and powerful moment […] On a subconscious level, this track comes off as uncomfortable and threatening”
Lest you begin to think the score is all terror all the time, Vreeland’s score also has moments of true beauty and is also used in a more traditional fashion. For example, let’s talk about the track ‘Jay’. Early on in the film we are introduced to the character of Jay as she prepares for a date. The music is subtle, simple and peaceful. There’s a melancholy and relatable beauty to the melody as it slowly meanders about. Mirroring the soft lighting, there’s a natural and grounded feel about the track and it reflects Jay‘s relaxed and natural state. We are clued into her psychological mindset and there’s a reflected beauty in the seemingly mundane scene at her house.
Jay is a character that appreciates the little, simple things and this is the first, but not last time, we see this reflected in the music as well as the cinematography. Several times throughout the film, we are shown focused, POV shots from Jay‘s perspective as she plucks blades of grass or caresses a flower. All the while, the score is there connecting her internal emotions to the visuals set before us. While there are certainly tracks that convey Jay‘s sheer terror, paranoia and fear, it’s these simpler and more intimate tracks that really tell us the most about her.
Wrapping up the film in a nice, dark, synth-wavey bow we get a version of the ‘Title‘ track. Here in this track we see Vreeland’s video game roots really shine as it’s easy to picture pixelated heroes and mythical beings wandering about to it. It’s also a perfect combination of everything that he has created throughout the film. It solidifies his knack for subtlety and reaffirms his impeccable use of space. There’s an optimism present in the track as the focused and simple melody ends on higher note than it begins. And yet, there’s still a droning bass tone lurking just beneath the surface that leaves a subtle and haunting residue. Is that person walking up the sidewalk behind them friend or foe? This final track leaves the question unanswered in subtle and satisfying way.
Overall, the score for It Follows is one that is forever and intimately tied to the film it was made for. While it stands alone as a haunting and interesting listen, it is most effective when coupled with the film itself. Although it’s a score that is relatively new on the scene (the film was released in 2014), it has most certainly already solidified itself as a horror score classic. Released by Milan records in 2015, there are 8 different versions of the score available for your listening pleasure. With 3 CD releases, 1 cassette and 4 different colored LP’s there’s certainly a version for everyone and a variety of price points to choose from. Give it a spin this Halloween and put your home stereo to the test. While your neighbors might not like you for it, it’ll most certainly garner you some spooky street cred with your friendly neighborhood fiends.
What are some of your favorite recent horror soundtracks? What are you spinning this spooky season? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!