(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.)
People love to get scared in the cinema. Studios love to get money. So, horror films are beloved to both. Most general audiences are happy with a chain of jump scares to get their adrenaline boost, while studios know that you can make a horror film without too much money (no big stars required, no lighting necessary, no big effects needed and sets can be kept small and limited) so every single ticket sold already is good money made.
Unsurprisingly, most horror films are not very good. Characters, story, and themes get tossed out for quick scares. Then there are the deep, psychologically challenging films, which please critics but bore audiences. And THEN there are those rare instances, where both seem to be pretty happy.
Enter THE CONJURING, one of the weirdest franchises, the genre has to offer. The original 2013 film was a smash hit, financially and critically. The film, directed by James Wan (creator of the immensely successful SAW-series), was praised for its intriguing characters and its way of using jumps-cares effectively without them becoming an overused trick. Then the inevitable happened and a prequel got unleashed on the world, centered around the creepy puppet that terrorized people in THE CONJURING. Named after its porcelain subject matter, ANNABELLE hit theatres in 2014 and was basically everything THE CONJURING wisely avoided of being. A horror film like millions of others. Audiences still watched it.
It seemed like the franchise was following the same road most horror-franchises go: A great first film that destroys its legacy through horrible sequels/prequels/whateverquels.
But then James Wan returned with THE CONJURING 2 in 2016 and while it didn’t get the same raving reviews as the original film, the reception was still astoundingly positive.
Then someone at Lionsgate had the brilliant idea to make a prequel to a prequel! Since ANNABELLE got lambasted by critics, ANNABELLE: CREATION will be even better!
Understandably, people were scared. No. Not in the way someone wants to be scared of a horror film.
Curiously, the unthinkable happened. ANNABELLE: CREATION was released in 2017 and similar to THE CONJURING 2, the reaction wasn’t euphoric, but positive nonetheless. Apparently, instead of the usual horror series with one good film in a bunch of genericness, we got a series with one bad one in a bunch of good ones. What a time to be alive!
The mixed bag of horror film scores
Despite its popularity at the box office, horror is a mixed bag for film music fans. On the one hand, we have gotten some great scores in that genre by composers like Marco Beltrami, Jerry Goldsmith and, probably most important of all, Christopher Young. Yet on the other hand… even at its best, it’s a difficult genre to “enjoy”. Full of dissonance, sudden shifts in volume and an obvious vibe of general unpleasantness, it’s totally understandable when anyone just can’t really get into this kind of music.
It also happens, that horror scores are some of the hardest to make sound distinct. Yes, every genre has its bag of clichés, but something like big, orchestral fantasy lends itself easier to variety, even when using the same stylistic choices as another one. Horror scores can very easily sound totally similar. After all, how exactly will you make rising, dissonant strings leading up to a jump scare sound unique, when it’s something you have in practically every horror score. You’ll even see repetitions of it on the same soundtrack.
It certainly doesn’t help that, since horror films are among the cheapest to produce, each year we get countless of horror scores thrown into the ring.
Sure, some films have a distinct characteristic, that lends itself to include something special in the soundscape: 80s-synths and cat-screams for GREMLINS (Goldsmith), a minimalistic, repetitive keyboard-melody for HALLOWEEN (Carpenter), baroque-inspired chamber-music for HANNIBAL (Zimmer) or the shrieking violins from PSYCHO (Hermann).
Unfortunately, not every horror-film has some unique aspect like that and even if it has, most things seem to have been done by now.
Therefore, in modern times, most horror-scores either are traditional orchestral works with unsettling string passages and loud, dissonant brass/string hits, which tend to get labeled as “generic” or weird electronic experiments, which more often are just experiments for experiment’s sake and don’t sound very different from most other electronic experiments.
Benjamin Wallfisch meets Annabelle
The scoring duties for ANNABELLE: CREATION fell to Benjamin Wallfisch, which seems a bit strange at first, since the other 3 films in the franchise went to frequent Wan-collaborator Joseph Bishara, even though Wan didn’t direct ANNABELLE.
On a second glance, though, the choice still makes sense, since Wallfisch has made a bit of a name for himself in the genre, with LIGHTS OUT in 2016 (which is produced by James Wan) and A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) under his belt and also having the upcoming IT-Remake released soon. Outside of horror, the composer is best known for his contributions to various Hans Zimmer scores as an additional composer, like BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) or DUNKIRK (2017).
Organic jump scares and effective tension scoring…
Wallfisch went for a traditional orchestral sound, with very few synthetic enhancements. There are some nice flavors in there with the distortion of the piano (right in the middle of the first track, “Creation”, for example), giving these tracks a welcome, otherworldly vibe (while also reminiscent of some tracks from Atli Örvarsson’s HANSEL&GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS).
Wallfisch’s talent also allows him to make the dissonant brass-clusters for the jump scares his own, due to some very interesting avant-garde techniques. Instead of the usual loud sounds we get from most uninspired horror scores, his passages have some kind of organic feel to it.
40 seconds into “Your Soul”, for example, the horns and trumpets sound more like some kind of demonic entity, screeching out of your speakers. It’s not easy to stomach, but it’s very effective. The same cue also has some synthetic backing in the bass region of those moments, adding extra punch. Whatever happens in that scene, it’s not nice.
Tracks like “Shadows And Sheets”, “Samuel’s Death” and “Transformation” showcase Wallfisch’s ability to write tension with more investment than many other composers. Just like with his jump scare brass-clusters, it’s not a re-invention of the wheel, but it’s a more accomplished wheel than the usual approach. The way he painstakingly increases the volume in the strings is not too different from the Joker-material from Zimmer’s THE DARK KNIGHT but the underlying harsh electronic effects give it enough distinction, to be Wallfisch’s creation, not Zimmer’s.
…but not groundbreaking, and interchangeable
However, while this is all nice and good, the problem is, that 50% of the score is just that: Short tracks (around 90 seconds to 2 minutes long, mostly) with unsettling, low strings and light percussive effects (stemming from the string section hitting their instruments with their bows), rising moments of tension and loud release of said tension in the brass section.
And while, as explained above, Wallfisch’s avant-garde sensibilities give all three of those aspects a nice edge, it’s still nothing we haven’t heard before from Young, Goldsmith or Goldenthal before.
The other 50% of the score is more calm pieces, for the scenes of the characters getting introduced, bonding and so on. Since the film takes place in a shelter for young girls, those tracks focus on innocence and a feel of false warmth. They are all very pleasing, featuring nice strings and fragile solo-piano, with “Bee’s Room”, “Avatars” or “The House Is Blessed” being good examples, but just like the horror material, they all just blend together. “A New Hoom” stands a bit out, due to a beautiful little cello passage, but that’s it.
One gets the feeling that all of the tracks could be switched around at will. It’s unclear whether the album has its track in the right order but there is no way of having a feel for that. One would expect to have a finality of some sorts, but neither the horror-portions nor the quieter sections have that. There is no track telling you, that everything went to hell, but also none of which offers an emotional resolution, yet titles like “Demonquake” and “Adoption” or the aforementioned “That House Is Blessed” would make you think that they are exactly that.
Yes, ANNABELLE: CREATION has a main theme and it’s not a bad one (though a bit similar to Djawadi’s motif for the good magic from WARCRAFT) but it doesn’t get much of a workout. It gets introduced in “Creation” right at the start and appears here and there throughout the whole thing, sometimes peaceful, sometimes dark and menacing but there is no sense of overarching narrative. The album closes as it opens. Every track feels like the last. Competent and certainly not bad, especially when compared to most horror writing these days, but there is never a moment in which you will ask yourself what might be happening right now on screen. It’s either a scary scene or a talkie scene. So, it goes for the whole thing. Scary, talkie, scary, talkie, scary, talkie and suddenly it ends.
Maybe the problem was the film itself. Or maybe it does have a finale, but it’s unscored or the music didn’t get released. Maybe the director wanted it to get underscored. Of course, no one expects a film about a haunted doll terrorizing a group of children to have some overblown apocalyptic finale that raises all hell. Subtle and understated is well appreciated these days. But to have no sense of finality in the end of your album? Having each track sound almost the same? That’s a bummer, especially if what we got has no true distinct edge itself, despite its more accomplished writing.
Well-done horror, yet unremarkable
Wallfisch is a very good horror composer. No question there. But his score for ANNABELLE: CREATION is pretty workmanlike. Someone should give him a horror film with a truly unique aspect. Imagine what he would do with something like 2015’s KRAMPUS: A horror comedy set around Christmas. Just like Douglas Pipes, Wallfisch would probably do wonderful things with a similar film. Maybe Andy Muschietti’s IT has offered him exactly this opportunity. But alas, ANNABELLE: CREATION is nothing too special that lends itself to wild experiments. And one should probably applaud Wallfisch for NOT doing weird, unfitting experiments just to be different.
ANNABELLE: CREATION just is what it is: A well-done horror score which will entertain genre fans with its approx. 45 minutes of competent, yet ultimately pretty unremarkable horror-writing that may not sit with the all-time genre greats, but is still better than what most other composers would have done for a film like this.