(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.)
Only a few weeks after “Annabelle: Creation”, British composer Benjamin Wallfisch serves his next horror-score of 2017.
“IT” is directed by Andrés Muschietti (2013’s “Mama”) and is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name and revolves around a supernatural entity (referred to simply as “It”) which feeds on fear. The creature has no real form and instead manifests as whatever scares its victim the most.
One of these manifestations is the clown Pennywise, who has pretty much become THE mascot of the story, thanks to a 1990 two-part miniseries. In the original book, Pennywise is just one of many things It turns into but said mini-series decided to make him kind of the favorite form of It. That is understandable, however, because if you have Tim Curry dressed as an insane clown on your set, you better use him.
The novel follows a group of people fighting against It and, because the creature comes every 27 years, is divided into two plotlines: One covers the protagonists as kids, when they first encounter It and the other deals with their adult selves, battling It again. The novel switches between those timelines, simultaneously telling both stories, each leading up to a serious confrontation with the monster.
The mini-series decided, to use that structure to its advantage and used one part to tell just the kids’ stories and then the second one for the adults’.
For many people, this mini-series is a cult-classic and Curry’s performance as Pennywise still haunts them to this day. It feeds mostly off of children, since their fears are much easier to exploit and a whole lot of kids watched those two films (although they probably shouldn’t have) and who can blame any child for being terrified by Tim Curry in white makeup with giant teeth?
However, over the years, this original adaptation didn’t seem to hold up very well. While many viewers still appreciate Curry’s take on the popular monster for what it was at that time, the rest of the actors and most of the scares are dated by today’s standards. The second part especially is regarded to be… not very good.
Bringing Pennywise to the big screen
Since the character of Pennywise and the story of It, in general, were still very popular, Warner Bros. strived to bring it all back to the screen. This time, the big one. Initially approached as a single movie back in 2009, the project went through numerous writers and directors, before the studio finally settled down for good with Muschietti. Although this new version was said to be more of a re-adaptation of the bock, rather than a remake, they took two cues from the 1990’s version:
First, they still wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Pennywise, so they made him It’s favorite manifestation as well as the focus of the marketing. Second, they also decided to make two films out of the novel, dividing it the same way: One film for the kids, one for the grown-ups.
The film released on September 8th, 2017 in theatres is thus merely the first time of the story and gets actually labeled as IT: CHAPTER ONE on screen, showing the studio’s confidence in the film.
Fortunately, that confidence turned out to be well deserved and the film has been a huge smash hit at the box-office while also getting extremely positive reactions from nearly everyone who saw it, critics and audiences alike. Bill Skarsgard makes Pennywise his own, instead of recreating what Curry did 27 years ago and the group of child-actors portraying the “losers club” got lauded as well, in particular, young Sophia Lillis as Beverly.
The mini-series had an original score by Richard Bellis and it has its group of fans, while not really being in the same group of classic horror scores like “Alien”, “Hellraiser” or even just “Halloween”. For the 2017 version, the choice fell on Wallfisch who gets more and more prolific as a horror-composer, with two really strong efforts for “Lights Out” (2016) and “The Cure for Wellness” (2017) under his belt while “Anabelle: Creation” was, not bad, but just very workman-like.
A great horror soundtrack
Hopes were high that he was just saving his mojo for this particular gig and good news:He did.
IT is a great horror soundtrack. With some wonderful themes, terrifying scares and even genuine beauty from time to time.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s full soundtrack for “It” below (purchase here):
Creepy, singing children
The album kicks off with “Every 27 Years”, introducing Pennywise’s theme, as well as one of the main features of the score right off the bat:
Creepy, singing children.
In the review for “Annabelle: Creation”, I complained, that the score didn’t have anything to make it stand out. It was simply one horror-score of many. “IT”, however, is its own thing. While singing children is nothing earth-shatteringly new (just think of “Poltergeist”) and a kind of cliché as well, whenever it comes to something innocent being portrayed in a scary fashion, it’s still enough to make this one distinct. Wallfisch didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he still chose a specific wheel instead of the standard one.
The voices are a very nice touch and they aren’t just limited to children singing lullabies. Whenever Wallfisch wants to frighten you, you will sometimes hear distorted voices of all kinds in the mix. The ending of “Georgie, Meet Pennywise” for example has a child crying for help. At least it sounds like it. Whenever the vocals come in, be it for singing the creepy song or shrieking into your ears, it’s always hard to tell what exactly they are saying.
Since this is merely an underscore for scenes in the film, that decision should be applauded, because the focus is supposed to be on whatever’s happening on screen. One can be sure, though, that, whatever the precise words are, they are not just random stuff. It’s an assumption obviously, but horror-composers have a history of hiding things in their vocals for some extra subconscious manipulation. There is the famous “Ki-Ki-Ki Ma-Ma-Ma” chant from “Friday The 13th” by Hanry Manfredini, famously deviated from the line “Kill her, Mommy”. Or James Newton Howard hiding a sample of Donny Wahlberg screaming “Now look at me!” in the score for “The Sixth Sense” (albeit very subtly).
So, who knows what vile things lurk in the depth of Wallfisch’s recording sessions.
The only thing that one might point out, regarding the vocals is a problem, that many people also had with the score to “Dunkirk” earlier this year (on which Wallfisch also worked): What sense does it make to put sounds into the music you are already hearing in the film?
“Dunkirk” had the sounds of fighting planes put under sequences of fighting planes. The sequences will already be full of engines, guns, and what-not, so what good does it make to put the same sounds into the score?
The same thing can be asked about “IT”: Whenever the clown scares the children, the children will obviously scream in terror, so, won’t the screams of the score get lost under the screams of the actual actors?
It’s a tricky subject regarding the finished film. On the album, however, the screams are a macabre joy to behold for any adrenaline junkie.
Needless to say, that the listener should be into this genre in the first place. As said in the “Annabelle: Creation” review, horror-scoring requires a certain lack of listenability. Pleasant melodies and harmonies won’t scare you, so the composer has to unpack his dissonances.
But believe it or not, some people really enjoy this kind of writing and for them, this score is a blessing.
Effective horror scoring…
Almost every one of the 38 tracks will scare you in some way or another. And while that might get old quick, Wallfisch, fortunately, didn’t just settle for one kind of technique. There are the screaming voices, then there are the traditional aleatoric, harsh string-writing, roaring horns and synthetic pulses and buzzes. How the composer mingles those things is just awesome and effective.
“You’ll Float Too” for example has a great train of terror: It starts with a short pulsating buzz suddenly interrupted by unleashed, distorted screams that will shatter your eardrums. Then it gets a bit quieter for a second as the electronics buzz only to get followed by shrieking strings.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “You’ll Float Too” below:
Then you have “Deadlights” which combines a punchy pulse with a Ligety-esque choir:
…that still tells a story
But IT doesn’t rely simply on scares. Just like the film, it doesn’t forget to tell a story.
I already mentioned Pennywise’s theme, which has its inception in the first track and also gets some workout in later tracks. “Pennywise’s Tower” features a subtle cameo of the dance-like melody in the strings while “Hockstetter Attack” has the singing children back for a few seconds in midst of all kinds of avant-garde mayhem. “Time To Float” however is a real highlight, though also short.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Time to Float” below:
Evil synths for otherworldly terror…
As mentioned, Pennywise is just one form of the evil creature and Wallfisch cleverly uses the theme only for the clown. Since It has no real form, it also doesn’t get a true melodic theme. The main representation of the entity happens through the synths. It lacks a body, so the music for it lacks a body as well, the melody. Its pulses and buzzes and weird sounds that don’t belong into the orchestral soundscape, just like the monster doesn’t belong in our world.
When It manifests as the clown, Wallfisch adds the theme to the electronic manipulation, but that theme is not the main representation of the monster.
… and disturbing voices for everpresent fear
The last sonic idea for the villain is, again the voices. They are not only an effective tactic to scare the listener and not only fitting for Pennywise, at least when it’s the children singing, but whenever the children are screaming, not singing or when the adult voices come in and as well, they are representative of the idea of fear itself.
Fear is one of the main themes of the novel and the film goes to great lengths to stay true to that. Each kid has their own set of fears and phobias It can benefit from and what easier, yet more effective is there, to showcase fear, musically, than with people letting out their terror with their voice?
It’s almost like you hear past victims of It screaming for help from the afterlife, begging for release (which makes their use alongside the actual sound effects in the film much more justified than assumed at first glance).
Listen below to “Come Join the Clowns, Ed” for a great combination of taunting voices repeatedly screaming “ED!”, wild electronics and a squeaky performance of the clown’s theme:
Sometimes there is even actual carnival-music to be found, just take a listen to “Time To Float”, “29 Neibolt Street” and “Transformation”. It’s very similar to the main Pennywise-theme, though, so it probably shouldn’t be viewed as a whole new theme.
Gorgeous themes for the little heroes
So, we have around three-four identities for the bad things in the movie. But what about our heroes?
Well, they get themes as well, but since It is a dreadful story, one shouldn’t expect too many moments of melodic pleasantness.
The most notable, actually melodic theme would be the one for Georgie, the little boy whose demise triggers the events of the story. “Paper Boat”, which is one of the most gorgeous tracks on the whole album, introduces his theme and builds on it with piano, strings, and flutes to something so beautiful you wouldn’t expect it in this kind of film. It’s a perfect fit for the imagery of a small boy playing with his paper boat in the flooding rain.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Paper Boat” below:
“Georgie, Meet Pennywise”, the following track, then features great thematic interplay, starting with restrained variations of Georgie’s theme, before the soothing voices of Pennywise’s theme sneak in. The dissonant crescendos, swirling horns, and distorted screams tell the listener everything he needs to know about the outcome of this sequence.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Georgie, Meet Pennywise” below:
The sampled whispers are a nice touch, too, though a tad reminiscent of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” by Atli Örvarsson.
Georgie’s theme looms over the rest of the score, showing, how his death affects the psyche of his family and the Losers Club. “This Is Not A Dream”, “He Didn’t Stutter Once” and later “Yellow Raincoat” all interweave his theme in some kind or the other.
The next theme is the one for Beverly, which gets introduced in the second half of “Every 27 Years”, then slightly foreshadowed in “Derry” before getting a solo-treatment in “Beverly”. It’s a sweet, vulnerable little waltz, mostly performed by piano and followed by an arpeggio-motif. Beverly is probably the most important character of the loser’s club and most responsible for the bonding and friendship between the kids while having it very hard at home. Wallfisch couldn’t have found a better identity for the character.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Beverly” below:
A finale full of highlights
The arpeggio gets very subtly reprised in the opening string-movement of “Saving Beverly”, though the best comes in the two tracks “Blood Oath” and “Kiss”. There are no overly obvious statements of her theme, which is fitting because her theme developed just as she did in the story, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Her thematic ideas get merged with a sort of love theme. Heard first in “January Embers” it’s more of a harmonic progression, than a fully-fledged melody, sounding very modern. That’s due to the glass harmonica textures and especially the electric guitar from “Blood Oath”, which plays a mixture of Beverly’s arpeggio and the love theme, while a variation of her main theme is performed by the flute.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Blood Oath” below:
If the modern-day sound doesn’t distract you (the film is set in the 80’s), you will have much joy with this track, because it’s easily one of the biggest highlights.
The whole finale, in general, is full of highlights.
One of the main complaints directed at “Annabelle: Creation” was the lack of a climax. The score just ended, with absolutely no sense of finality.
“IT” doesn’t make that mistake. After a couple of build-up tracks, underscoring the groups search for the monster (and some sad, though not full-on tragic, variations of Georgie’s theme in “Georgie Found”) we get to the trifecta of “Transformation”, “Feed On Your Fear” and “Welcome To The Losers Club” which tells the story of the final (for now) battle against It.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Feed On Your Fear”:
It’s horror/action-writing at its finest. “Alien”-like fluttering flutes, sawing strings, roaring brass… it’s all there! Where most of the “scare tracks”, are typical build-up–>jump scare tracks (albeit excellent ones) with these three you immediately know, that it’s not just another random scary scene. This is the real thing and it’s going down!
Some of the carnival stuff gets brilliantly integrated into the avant-garde soundscape through xylophones and then the strings get epic. The last portion of “Feed On Your Fear” has the obligatory “false relief”: Piano chords lead you to believe that it’s all over, but, in typical horror-fashion, “Welcome To The Losers Club” starts off reminding you, that there is always the next step.
A string ostinato (not unlike the string work in McCreary’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”) leads into amazing brass and apocalyptic choir over rapid string movements. Then it gets quiet for some time (but never boring, thanks to the great tension created by strings and woodwinds). The creature seems to be defeated before the final synthetic screech marks It’s demise (at least until the sequel).
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Welcome To The Loser’s Club” below:
SPOILER ALERT: After that follows, the already mentioned emotional climax: The friends accept Georgie’s death (“Yellow Raincoat”) and then bond in friendship (“Blood Oath”) and love (“Kiss”):
The album then closes with a piano solo titled “Every 27 Years (Reprise)” and “Epilogue – The Pennywise’s Dance”. The former starts out very nice and positive with Beverly’s Theme, seemingly leaving out Pennywise’s theme, saying, that he is defeated, before deep heavy chords foreshadow It’s return slowly until it ends in scary distortion and sound design.
The latter is full-on circus music: the famous “Entry Of The Gladiators” gets a small cameo before the music goes off into the clown-theme performed by Calliope. It’s heavily layered with effects to make it sound like an ancient recording and then gets distorted beyond recognition.
Listen to Benjamin Wallfisch’s “The Pennywise Dance” below:
One of the best scores of the year
It’s a perfect ending to the journey the listener took and makes you immediately excited for the sequel. This is what horror soundtracks should be like. Obviously, it’s not the most pleasant listening experience in the world, but this shouldn’t lead to “It” being overlooked. It really is one of the best scores of the year and Wallfisch makes some serious cases for being one of, if not THE composer of the year. One can only hope that he gets to score the sequel as well, to expand on his themes and create new ones, but whatever Wallfisch cooks up next, it should be on your radar!
It (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Benjamin Wallfisch is out now everywhere and you can purchase it via WaterTower Music.