It’s no secret that Stephen King loves a good comeback story. Both literally and figuratively, many of King’s creations embody, embrace and execute cyclical behavior in one way or another. In the Dead Zone, Johnny Smith suffers from multiple accidents, only to recover in powerful and unusual ways. In Pet Sematary, the dead come back (different) after spending a cold, stony night in the mysterious Micmac burial ground. Werewolves exhibit lunar related behavior in Cycle of the Werewolf and Jack Torrance was always the Overlook’s caretaker. Even King himself came back from his addiction issues and famously getting hit by a van while out walking. However, perhaps no return in King’s dominion is as poetically self-fulfilling as Andy Muschietti’s 2017 remake of It. As it is The Return Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, it’s the perfect time to dive into the big budget remake and Benjamin Wallfisch’s incredibly effective score.
Originally published in 1986, It recounts the tale of seven young friends lovingly dubbed The Losers’ Club. On the cusp of adolescence, the group of misfits find themselves at odds with a shapeshifting entity that feeds off the fear of young children. Resurfacing every 27 years, It becomes a powerful force that bonds and unites the Losers throughout their life. Incredibly cinematic in nature and one of King’s most beloved and terrifying tales, it was no surprise that the story would end up getting the movie treatment.
In 1990, Halloween III director Tommy Lee Wallace tackled the tome as a TV miniseries with Tim Curry starring as the entity’s preferred form, Pennywise the clown. Riding the wave of 80s new wave and synthetic dreams, composer Richard Bellis was brought on to score the spooky tone of Derry, Maine. Expansive and engaging, Bellis’ unique mix of orchestral and electronic elements wound up snagging him a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a miniseries. However, 27 years later, Muschietti’s version of It not only needed a fresh new face for Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), but an updated sonic palette as well. Gigantic on every conceivable scale, this timely and hugely anticipated return to Derry needed a soundscape that matched the production’s scope and all-important emotional tone. Here enters British composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
Incredibly prolific and extremely active, Wallfisch’s otherworldly ability to turn out beautiful, effective scores quickly garnered him major Hollywood attention. In a mere two year timespan, Wallfisch composed scores for It, George Mendeluk’s Bitter Harvest, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, Annabelle: Creation, Hidden Figures and Blade Runner 2049 (along with Hans Zimmer). With his keen ear for emotional subtly and intimate understanding of the visual/sonic relationship dynamic, it’s no surprise Muschietti came knocking for It. In the liner notes of Watertower Music’s 2017 vinyl release of the score, Muschietti had this to say about working with Wallfisch:
The complexity of scoring IT is that it’s much more than a horror movie. It’s a character driven horror drama. You have to check a lot of boxes including not only tension and horror, but also emotion and humor: dealing with at least eight different main characters, and yet achieve an esthetic consistency. Ben understood this challenge and created a masterful score that elevated the story in a sublime way. When the music exalts these emotions beyond the expectations, then you have an understanding of the genius behind the composition.
As a lifelong Constant Reader, Wallfisch understood the weight and gravity that a new It production would come with. He also understood that It is no ordinary horror film. Rich with characters and steeped in nostalgia, the horror elements would inevitably take a backseat to the complex emotional journey that the Losers embark on. This early grasp on what resides at the heart of It‘s story proved to be not just important, but a crucial element in establishing the film’s sonic foundation. Rather than approaching the film with horror and scares at the forefront, Wallfisch took a cue from the greats of cinema past. In a 2019 interview with Michael Roffman on The Losers’ Club Podcast, Wallfisch elaborated on this idea saying:
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I grew up in the 80s at the peak of the Spielberg/Williams collaboration and I was utterly obsessed with Star Wars, E.T., and Back to the Future and these films where the score is so much a character in the narrative. I always find that magical and Andy’s filmmaking style is so powerful, visceral and virtuosic and his emphasis on emotion and emotional narrative is always at the forefront. Ultimately, this movie just demands it. There’s so much depth to the story and without theme it’s so hard to live up to that musically. So when there’s moments of horror, it’s always in the context of a story point where you’re so interested in the outcome of that moment because you’re so connected to those characters.
Wasting no time establishing this formative groundwork, Wallfisch delivers a beautiful piece of music for the film’s opening scene. Incredibly important narratively (and for viewer expectations), the track ‘Every 27 Years‘ welcomes audiences into the world of Pennywise, Derry, and The Losers. Utilizing an old English nursery rhyme called ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ the track opens with a solo child’s voice echoing and panning from left to right. Underneath, a foreboding hum grows as the vocals distort due to unknown circumstances. Unsettling and eerie, this blend of childlike innocence and lurking danger gives way to a more traditional piano led melody. Melancholic and lilting, soft strings support the pensive nature of the tune. Carefully placed minor chord transitions imbue the otherwise pleasant tune with a subconscious air of mystery and anxiety. Much like the lyrics of the nursery rhyme itself (Google em’ if you dare), there are hidden meanings and dark dangers laying just beneath the surface.
Along with these tonal emotional cues, there is information to be gleaned from the track’s instrumentation. There’s an innocence and beauty to Wallfisch’s utilization of the piano. Played tenderly and simply, a childlike association is easy to make. Outside of the melody’s execution, there’s also the Western cultural connection that the piano has as a ‘family instrument.’ A large and expensive purchase no matter what brand or style, a piano is often a prominent and heirloom piece for families lucky enough to have one. This layered association with a traditional family unit further emphasizes the brotherly bond between Georgie and Bill as they build the ill-fated S.S. Georgie. Extrapolating this idea further, Wallfisch cleverly and carefully sprinkles pieces of this theme throughout the film to draw further emotional connections to Georgie and Bill, as well as Bill and the rest of the Losers. Never overdone and always in service to the story, Wallfisch strategically places the melody to maximize its emotional impact in relation to events unfolding on screen.
Once Pennywise enters the picture, sound begins to get used in increasingly interesting and targeted ways. As the Losers begin to piece together the Pennywise puzzle, they each experience personalized events created to extract the most fear. Stanley‘s algorithm produces a horrific flute playing painting come to life. Hence, flute appears in his solo terror scene. Ben gets a distorted music box sound to accompany his dark Derry history lesson in the library. Beverly (whose fear is much more real, specific and targeted) gets voices calling out to her for help. But in the end, it is Eddie who ends up getting the most revealing and illuminating Pennywise soundscape.
A long, terrifying scene, Eddie encounters Pennywise while walking past the Neibolt house. More than just an eerie abandoned house, the Neibolt house holds a special association with Pennywise. Along with this fact comes Eddie himself. Encouraged by his over-protective mom, Eddie has a heightened fear of germs, injury, potential infections and medical reactions. Not only does this aspect of Eddie result in Pennywise presenting as a oozy, horrifying leper, it also affects the sound of Eddie‘s track, ‘Come Join the Clown, Eds.’ Swells of twittering strings rise and fall like anxiety laced breaths, punctuated by heavy, glitchy bursts of electronic sounds and distorted vocals. Then, the volume breaks for a moment, only to be replaced by an eerie, warped interpretation of the now familiar nursery rhyme.
“When a film and score unite in true cohesion with story, movie magic results—and that’s exactly what you get with Wallfisch’s It score.“
Even though electronic elements are found throughout the score, this particular scene carries a higher percentage than most for good reason. For one, Eddie‘s outlook on the world is very different than that of his fellow Losers. Hyper aware of the every day dangers that exist in the mundane, the additional synthetic elements fits Eddie‘s personality and headspace. On top of that, there’s Pennywise himself. Presenting to Eddie not only as a leper, Pennywise makes an elongated and memorable appearance in his preferred clown form. A strange and mysterious being, Pennywise does not quite belong in this world. Fluid, dynamic, terrifying and definitely not human, Wallfisch’s use of synths here further support Pennywise‘s supernatural detachment from humanity.
There’s a couple other Pennywise hallmark sounds that Eddie gets the displeasure of experiencing. Like many of the other Losers, there’s the subtle use of voices. Singing and calling to Eddie, there’s a relationship that can be drawn to The Losers age and Pennywise‘s appetite for children. Like fear, sound is an intangible thing. It can be measured sure. It can be felt of course. But it cannot be grasped, weighed or easily visualized. Following this idea further, teens and adolescents have a special relationship to sound. Capable of hearing higher frequencies than adults due to younger, more prevalent ear cells, this sonic call that Pennywise makes to kids seems to be one only they can recognize. As the adults in Derry fail to see (or hear) the danger preying on their young, the children get the unfortunate task of experiencing it. As Pennywise feeds on Derry’s youth every 27 years, they become an intimate part of him and ultimately present as part of his sound.
Finally, there’s Wallfisch’s potent use of tonal direction. Found frequently throughout the score, quickly rising string lines are countered with low, droning bass drops. Like a Shepard’s tone that creates an auditory illusion of never-ending pitch, these divergent directions of sound play on natural human sound relationships to great effect. As The Losers’ fear and anxiety rises in tandem with these high pitched climbing strings, Pennywise pulls them further into his world with visceral, distorted descending tones. Eventually leading into the Neibolt house, down the well and into the recesses of his hibernation dungeon, this one-two punch of sonic texture beautifully strengthens both the viewer experience and narrative simultaneously.
When a film and score unite in true cohesion with story, movie magic results—and that’s exactly what you get with Wallfisch’s It score. More than just terrifying, more than simply beautiful, the very essence of Pennywise, Georgie, Derry and the rest of the Losers is engrained in every note and chord. It would have been so easy for the production to push a wall-to-wall soundscape of heavy chase scenes and misguiding stings, but thankfully, both Wallfisch and Muschietti had more respect for the source material than that. By deliberately choosing to treat It as a character driven piece, Wallfisch and Muschietti reiterate what Stephen King fans have always known—beneath the horror, beneath the fear, there are emotional truths that bind and connect us all.
Other track highlights to check out: Beverly, Welcome to the Losers’ Club, Egg Boy and Paper Boat
What are your thoughts on It? Are you a fan of the remakes? Stan of Tommy Lee Wallace’s OG version? Talk all things It with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! For more score talk, check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!