Horror is a genre that’s especially subject to no end of deaths and unholy rebirths. But staying professionally alive in a field that’s always starving for new blood takes uniquely creative survival skills, an eerie energy that Christopher Young has demonstrated in spades with a chilling-centric scoring career begun with the 1982 slasher “The Dorm That Dripped Blood.” Scraping together an impressive orchestral sound given the small budgets of “The Power,” “A Nightmare On Elm Street 2” and “Torment,” Young’s music became the stuff of bloodily orchestral legend with 1987’s “Hellraiser,” his score turning Clive Barker’s torture loving Cenobites into bringers of romantically waltzing rapture.
Young has remained a musically inventive presence over the decades since in horror scoring with “Drag Me To Hell,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” while showing his equally impressive talent for subjects that didn’t involve corpses and creatures with such diverse works as “The Shipping News,” “Beauty Shop,” “The Man Who Knew Too Little” and “Sleepwalking.” But for a composer with a major league Halloween pumpkin collecting addiction, there’s no bigger desire than to always be pulled back into a malefic playing ground, even if its one that’s become increasingly forbidding to melody over pure shock effect – let alone old blood. But thankfully the “Starry Eyes” directing team of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have heard Young’s siren call when trodding upon their first major Hollywood picture for a new visit to the “Pet Sematary.” Where filmmaker Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaption of one of horror maestro Stephen King’s ghastliest stories still stands tall as perhaps the most transgressive studio movie ever with its sight of a boy tyke biting open Fred Gwynne’s throat, this new, exceptionally well made and acted “Sematary” has scares to spare, even if it more acceptably as such transfers the resurrected rage to an adolescent girl.
Where the original “Sematary” announced the shape of experimental scores to come from a studio debuting Elliot Goldenthal, this return to sour ground allows Young to tread two worlds. One is the eerily sympathetic piano picture of a family becoming undone, and the other the nightmarishly sampled feeling of clawing through cursed Native American ground. Far afield from the operatically symphonic terror of “Hellraiser,” Young’s electronic spin on “Pet Sematary” is almost shocking in its subtlety, shape-shifting from harmony to haunting percussion to help the film conjure a mood straight outta classic Universal Horror until it becomes one of the most enjoyably lunatic undead ‘roid rages this side of “Re-Animator.” Leaving that audience participation thrill ride for the movie itself, Young’s inventive score stands tall as a haunting tone poem of spectral voices, growling samples and floor dragging, pipe hitting percussion that weaves an indelibly freaky mood with capturing parental desperation. Better yet, its uncanny music shows a composer whose enthusiasm, and most importantly ability to uniquely scare with his enduring voice is in no danger of being buried in a “Pet Sematary.”
“Pet Sematary” is your first major studio horror film since “Deliver us from Evil.” What’s it like to be in that position, and what do you think attracted the “Sematary” directors to you?
I think it was I’d scored a lot of the films that they loved when they grew up. Perhaps dreamed of working with me, because of the good vibes they got from those movies. I know they are big Sam Raimi fans, so that connection may have helped solidify things. They’re pretty young guys and it was wonderful being an old school guy getting asked to come in and join this team.
Tell us about your collaboration with Kevin and Dennis, especially as you’re dealing with two directors. Were they always of one mind, or did they have different opinions on how the score should go?
They were pretty much one minded, of course, there’s going to be differences of opinion but it’s not like they were at opposite ends of the extreme. They were pretty unified and had a clear vision of the direction the “Pet Sematary” score should go in. But the music still went through an incredible evolution over the many months I was on board. We were thinking at first of an approach that was more orchestral. But slowly and surely that morphed into what was primarily an electronic score. I think that happened once the team at Paramount got involved. It was felt that this was the kind of score the picture really needed. Most of the gatherings included quite a lot of people from Paramount and they voiced their opinions, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Verheiden, Randy Spendlove and even the head of film production. At times there were up to eight people whose opinions I had to take in mind. Being back at Paramount was ecstasy. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was heaven on earth being able to be back on the lot to be a part of that team. I loved working on this movie, I adore the directors, I adore the movie, but equally so it was wonderful reuniting with a studio that gave me my first big legit studio break 26 years ago with “Jennifer 8”. That marked the beginning of me being really taken seriously by the major studios. It’d been a while since I’d done a Paramount movie after “The Core” and “Wonder Boys.” Paramount always treated me like family, which was remarkable. Now I’m old enough to realize the value of having the opportunity to come back into that fold. So I wanted to make sure everybody was very happy and to try to deliver the best score I could. And it was a miracle that everyone seemed to be pretty pleased about the way this score turned out.
It’s also been many, many years since you’ve scored a Stephen King movie, that last one being George Romero’s excellent adaptation of “The Dark Half” in 1993. What does Stephen King’s work mean to you, especially when it comes to all of the scores his writing have inspired?
I’m a big collector of fantasy literature. I have a major obsession with classic, primarily English and early American ghost stories. And of course, Stephen King is an author I have a tremendous admiration for, like everybody else on the planet. So there’s no better way to see how I’ve evolved as a composer than to return to a Stephen King film. There’s a major difference between these two scores. “The Dark Half” is entirely orchestral, whereas “Pet Sematary” is entirely electronic. Doing an electronic score for George just wouldn’t have come up because he wanted me to do an orchestral score, as most people did back then because of “Hellraiser” being a symphonic horror score. Being given the opportunity to try to continue to try to reinvent myself thru this electronic world is exciting. I suppose if it had been an orchestral score, my question would have been ‘Can I do it again? What can I do with the orchestra that I haven’t already done?’ The pure electronic thing in horror movies is new and exciting. If I’d been doing nothing but electronic scores my entire career, then maybe this score would have been less exciting for me.
At the time that the first “Pet Sematary” movie came out in 1989, you were actually making a name for yourself with very richly melodic orchestral horror scores, like “Hellraiser”, “The Fly II” and “The Hider in the House” with music that hearkened back to the likes of Bernard Herrmann and James Bernard. Now, What did you think of the first “Pet Sematary” film and Elliot Goldenthal’s score for it?
I have a confession to make. I never saw the original “Pet Sematary” back then. I’m a tremendous fan of Elliot Goldenthal’s music for sure, though I had never heard the “Pet Sematary” score, I knew his later music – not only his film stuff but his concert music. Now, along comes the opportunity to have an interview for the current “Pet Sematary.” The first order of business was to read the script, which I did. The script was exploding in my head along with my ideas of what I thought the score needed accomplish for it. I then thought ‘before I have the interview it might behoove me to finally look at the original movie.” I started watching the original “Pet Sematary” and I said, “I’m going to stop, because this is actually doing more harm than good.” So guess what? I’ve never gotten through the whole original “Pet Sematary.” So I’m not the person to be able to answer any questions about it or its score.
All that I have heard from people who know both films, is that this new one is pretty rockin’. It’s a great, updated take on that story and so I don’t think it’s going to let anyone down who is very much attached to the original one. I think they’re going to find merit in this new one for sure. As far as A/B-ing the scores, of course, Elliot’s score from what little didn’t sound like a very big orchestral. As for me, I’m always trying every time I get up to bat on another horror movie to make sure that I’m trying to outdo myself. Whether I succeed or not, I’m not the one to say. I’ve been doing cues for horror movies for 35 years, I still get as worried with each cue as I did when I did my very first horror movie “The Dorm that Dripped Blood.” I’m always in a state of anxiety as I ask myself “What can I do better? What can I do to improve myself?
One of the big changes in the film is switching the undead killer from a small boy into an adolescent girl. What is the trick of scoring a “bad seed” once an innocent kid turns evil?
The age-old thing that seems to work is doing some kind of a lullaby to capture the child “bad seed” in a way that reflects the youthful innocence they once had. Lullabies have been around since the beginning of time and thusly I did the same. Because as trodden as that road has become, it really works in communicating in innocence in an immediate way, and at the same time has the ability to get messed up as we get further with Ellie down her dark path. Ellie and her family have the only two themes in the movie that you can actually trace developing over the course of the picture.
Given that animals really don’t “act” as such, how did you want to convey Ellie’s sweet cat Church similarly becoming a demonic figure?
While Church doesn’t have a theme as such, I did give him these “sonic blobs” that represent it. There’s bass bending, like a vomiting bass section sound. It’s there somewhat consistently with the cat once it goes evil. Also there’s this manipulated cello modified scream that comes from cello, and it has this horrid kind of “waaaahhh” like a cat scream.
How do you want to reflect the Native American nature of this burial ground?
It’s storyline is about the Wendigo that lives in the forest, this evil spirit that is somehow connected to this ancient burial ground where all of these bad things happen once a deceased body, either animal or human, is buried within it. Because of this ancient Native American aspect of the storyline, that became a part of the sonority of the score. Reflecting that ancient Native American kind of attitude was definitely encouraged by both the directors and producers. It’s done in a subtle way with these deep drums that are supposed to be like Native American tom-toms. Then there are wood flutes that I played and messed around with at my studio to sound like a Native American flute. There are whispers, there’s bells, little metallic wind chimes that also help deliver that feeling of being in the forest where there’s this deathly Native American attitude vibe happening.
You make particularly eerie use of voice in “Pet Sematary” which ranges from moaning to panting.
I used samples to create voices, which I thought was the perfect way to describe Rachel’s memories of her disabled sister. I focused on vocal clusters that could be pitched, hummed, or whispered that could communicate the sense of varying levels of uneasiness to outright terror. I’ve been a big fan of that cluster stuff that always works well in horror movies. There are some moments that are exclusively voices and that’s kind of fun and twisted. I love using the stereo spectrum to have things move around in a way that one could never be done with live musicians, which makes these moments even more effective in the score.
You’ve certainly done outré electronic and sample-based scores going from your unused one for “Invaders from Mars” to the absolute insanity of “Sinister,” “Wilson’s Heart” and now “Pet Sematary.” How do you brainstorm just how weird you can get?
I’ve taken that approach even further for the album of “Pet Sematary” than what you hear in the film itself – which I don’t even think the film could have allowed! But that’s the one thing I love doing when we get to the record, or the movie – those moments where I do get to be malfunctioned in the head. To me, the fun stuff as I’m getting older is always trying to figure out a way to bring something to the table that I haven’t quite heard in movie scores yet. If I succeeded in doing that in “Pet Sematary,” then I’m thrilled. You mentioned “Invaders from Mars,” which was one of the earlier attempts of going off the deep end and trying to create sonorities that you just didn’t hear in movies. It was “music concrete” that actually didn’t use many digital electronic sounds, but was all basically recorded with acoustic instruments that were messed around with. “Sinister,” “Wilson’s Heart” and this movie are all extensions of my desire to try to keep whacking out the sonority world.
As it moves between haunting melody and abstract effects for a killer, “Pet Sematary” particularly recalls your score for “Jennifer 8” that you mentioned before. It’s an approach that stands out when so many horror scores are dissonant from beginning to end.
CY: I appreciate that. It’s extremely rewarding working in scary movies. As a composer who happens to love crazy 20th century concert stuff, it’s the place to be able to explore that world and so I’m very thankful. But there’s this side of me that also lusts to write long melodies, I haven’t done a romantic movie in a long time, nor a drama. But that side of me always is sitting inside of everything. So every time I’m trying to scare you there’s this person who finds an equal amount of joy in writing in music that makes you weep. So of course, whenever there is an opportunity to introduce something melodic or tonal that addresses a different level of the emotional experience in a scary movie, I’m all there.
A lot of horror films are not held together by melodies. But they never really have been. However, some really catchy motifs and some great tunes have been written for scary movies. For me, the best composers for that genre realize the value of using melody and chords and triads as a way to take you to a place that clusters could just never take you to. When I was doing films like “Jennifer 8,” “The Fly II” and certainly “Hellraiser” was that these were tragedies as much as they were horror films. I owe it all to “Hellraiser” at the end of the day for giving me the first opportunity to express what precisely you and I are talking about here. There is more to horror films than just scaring the audience. Great horror films have to sympathize with someone. If it’s a monster movie, then we actually care about the monsters. They’re not just vicious mad men, (although slasher films are) but they are characters with an inherit tragedy. And if a composer is doing his job right, then that feeling will be there. I mean, the score for “The Bride of Frankenstein” wouldn’t be what it was if there wasn’t a romantic element to Franz Waxman’s work. And on and on it goes.
In that way, do you think that “Pet Sematary” is as much about a family tragedy as much as a killer kid coming back from the dead?
That’s what the story is about, for sure. You’ll notice the score really doesn’t play the tragedy. But if I had done “Pet Sematary” around the same time I did “Hellraiser” the music probably would have been more inclined to speak of those tragic emotions in a much more recognizable way. But it’s much more subtle in this movie because times have changed. The music can’t be as open and extraverted emotionally today as one used to be able to be in the 1980s, let alone in the 1940s. The tricky thing is that I had to dial this emotion down, even though the story’s tragedy is what I caught on to. Because I’m a father myself, the part of the story that knocked me solidly out was about what the father goes through for his daughter. I thought about what I would do if I were that father, and I was given the opportunity to bring my daughter back to life. What would I do? Would I sign on the dotted line and bury her up there in that ancient burial ground and have her come back regardless of being told what the consequences might be? I don’t know, but that gives the film this heavy tragedy, which I still didn’t hit too hard. But that was the smart thing to do. The way the score turned out in the movie is exactly the way it should have been I think. It had to do with the excellent direction I got, not only from the two directors, but as well from the entire Paramount team. They directed me perfectly in order to deliver a score that seems to be the right one for this movie.
How do you remain an elder statesman of the genre while keeping it fresh enough to still be viable to still get studio movies like “Pet Sematary?”
Well, first of all, fortunately, even though I’ve done as many horror films as I have. I have had the opportunities throughout my career to work on films that are not horror. I know that’s what I’m best remembered for, but I have had the opportunity to move away from horror films on occasion. So that when I come back to them, it’s not like that’s all I’ve been doing. But because of that I’m not burned out by them. What does burnout mean? Does that mean you stop being able to think anymore? The musical part of your brain is burnt to a crisp and it’s no longer functioning? No. I still have that all very much in my head, I still think of music of the time, all day long. So, I move away from it, I’m not exclusively a horror guy. And when I’m not working on movies, the things I do on my own are not horror-based. So when I return, fortunately, there’s this youthful enthusiasm that’s still there. So it’s the combination of having the youthful enthusiasm for a genre that I have not burnt out on, coupled with the fear of failing, you know? That keeps me on my toes and trying always to outdo myself, always trying on each cue to make it the best that I’m able to make it within the confine of working in a business where perfection is not possible. It’s not possible if you have write two minutes a day to write perfect music, But you can try your best and the composers who I like the most are ones who consistently always try their best, who never stop evolving. Who are always taking each and every note that they commit to tape or to paper very seriously. They got my vote, whether they get awards or not. They’re my favorites.
Find Christopher Young’s soundtracks HERE
Visit Christopher Young’s web site HERE
Special thanks to Max Blomgren, Mackenzie Kirk, Vee Noriega and to Sabrina Hutchison for her interview transcription