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LABEL Varese Sarabande
RUNNING TIME 71 Minutes
AVAILABLE ON VINYL? No
Rejoice, listeners, for we are in a horror score renaissance. Composers like Nathan Barr (Hostel), Joseph Bishara (Insidious), David Julyan (The Descent, The Cabin in The Woods) and Roque Baños (Evil Dead) are re-exploring the old avenues of horror. They’re still employing the shrieking strings of classic horror scores, but they’re doing it in ways that keep me listening. Ethnic instruments, experimental minimalism, and stirring emotional cues are just a few of the many ways these composers are innovating to elevate horror music beyond just an accompaniment for jump scares. Then, there’s guys like Brian Reitzell (Hannibal) who are using synths and recording bizarre, disturbing musical sounds, then arranging them into cleverly arranged symphonies of electronic groans and frightening noise. That’s the bleeding edge.
While not on the bleeding edge, composers Andy and Taylor Newton (no relation to the author) are riding this new wave of amazing horror scores, and their work on Mike Flanagan’s Oculus shows that they’re keen on using the methods listed above to leave their mark on the horror scene.
Their music for Oculus, while not as boldly experimental as Bishara or Reitzell’s work, is quite understated, creating an ambiance of extreme unease and suspense. While I haven’t yet seen the film, I can tell you with absolute confidence that it’s an atmosphere piece, based on the score alone. There are no “cat jumps out of garbage can” scares here. There are lots of “freaky shit in the mirror” moments, though, because the movie’s all about a very bad mirror.
The mirror itself, known as the Lasser Glass, is represented musically by a low, rumbling synth pulse, a minimalistic motif that you’ll hear often throughout the score. The tone they chose for the mirror motif stands out beautifully against the string sections, which were thankfully recorded for real. You’ll hear a fantastic example of this in the disc’s second track, The Auction, where the strings create a very human emotional element, which is then creepily overshadowed by the mirror motif. Though extraordinarily simple, the electronic throbbing of the mirror creates a sense of sinister intelligence, turning an inanimate object into a monster.
We hear more of that human element in You Promised Me, where a haunting bed of synths is combined with sympathetic string chords. There are no sappy cello solos or Elfman-esque choral passages to be found here. Everything remains dead simple, which is one of the score’s biggest assets. It’s never too busy, and never overwhelmed by any one element. There’s also a deep melancholy heard in the music of Oculus, calling back to the core family dynamic of the film. Exemplified in tracks like Memories Surface and A Mother’s Embrace, chords from string section evoke a tender sadness, picking the scab that covers the central family tragedy.
All of that aside, Oculus is a horror film. The score has to be scary. Does it deliver? Thankfully, yes. The score is genuinely creepy, especially in the tracks Fingernails, Staring Eyes, and I’ve Seen the Devil and He is Me. The more horrific cues remind me tangentially of Hans Zimmer’s work on The Ring, but the quieter, dread-building cues are what really define the sonic nature of Oculus.
If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that music isn’t taking many risks. It lacks some variety, but on the other side of the coin, one could say it finds its footing early and sticks with it. Nevertheless, I get the sense that The Newton Brothers are writing firmly inside their comfort zone. I think a bit of experimentation in meter and tonality, and the inclusion of more instruments could have made this score a bit more musically satisfying, but as an accompaniment to the film, I think it will work very, very well. Based on their work here, The Newton Brothers are showing a lot of promise in the horror genre, and Oculus director Mike Flanagan must feel the same way, because they’re going to work on his next film, too.
Oculus: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack will be released on April 8 in digital format, and will see a CD release on April 22. The film hits US theaters next Friday, April 11. From what I’m hearing, horror fans shouldn’t miss it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
• The Auction
• You Promised Me
• Fuzzy-Trace Theory
• The Reveal
• A Mother’s Embrace