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HOUSE OF WAX – John Ottman

houseofwaxOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I realize the statement I’m about to make is a very sweeping generalization, but I’m finding that I don’t “get” John Ottman. When he first burst onto the scene back in 1995 with his score for The Usual Suspects, I was one among many who considered him to be a truly fresh and original talent in film music. Subsequent scores such as Incognito, Snow White, Apt Pupil and Goodbye Lover maintained the high standards, but recently I have been finding myself growing more and more disinterested in his music, and I can’t quite out my finger on the reason why. X-Men 2 was OK, and Gothika and Hide and Seek were competent but little more, but his music of late has been developing a disturbing “samey” quality that continues from project to project. While it’s important to have a voice of your own, it’s also important to have the compositional ability to switch genres effectively, and I still find it amazing how Ottman continues get himself attached to massive franchises like X-Men, Fantastic Four and the upcoming Superman Returns without really (in my opinion) showing himself to have a great deal of range.

Nevertheless, he continues to find high-quality work in Hollywood, although whether House of Wax can be legitimately classified as “high-quality work” is open for debate. A remake of the classic 1953 Vincent Price chiller, House of Wax is directed by Spanish advertising specialist Jaume Serra and stars Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray and Paris Hilton as three members of a group of friends who accidentally stumble across a disused wax museum in a small backwoods town after getting lost during a road trip. Naturally, there are nasty things going on in the waxworks, and before long the friends are being picked off one by one by a homicidal maniac intent on adding some more realistic mannequins to his collection.

Other than seeing the talentless Paris Hilton getting her comeuppance by way of a well-placed javelin, most critics have dismissed House of Wax as being of little interest, so it comes as quite a surprise to find John Ottman lending his talents to such comparatively lowbrow fare. Varèse Sarabande’s album features 13 tracks of Ottman’s score, most of which is of the “frenetic orchestral” variety, and has a great deal of harsh choral work laid over the top, much of which is quite similar to that which Don Davis wrote for another classic horror remake, House on Haunted Hill, in 1999.

Ottman’s intent is obviously to unnerve the listener, and to this end he employs all manner of orchestral stingers and shock tactics to keep the tension factor high. His main theme, first heard in “Opening/Tantrum” is a peculiar la-la music box melody that actually sounds more like something Danny Elfman might have written in his 1980s heyday, albeit with the now well-used cliché of a twisted child-like melody to indicate horror rather than innocence. A secondary, more energetic action motif first appears in the first half of the second cue, “Ritual”, and continues in other cues such as “Brotherly Love” and the misleadingly gentle “Three Sons”.

The rest of the album is made up mainly of a series of action/suspense/horror cues, all twisted string work and low-end brasses, with relentless percussion to keep the whole thing moving at a decent pace. “Up in Flames”, “Sealed Lips” and “Hanging with Baby Jane” are especially notable for their angry-sounding stylistics, while “Paris Gets It” features some particularly striking high-pitched string squeaking overlaid with ominous vocals.

“Curiosity Kills” seems to want to break out into something more grand and powerful, and contains an intriguing synth effect which for all the world sounds like a mischievous cackle. “Bringing Down the House” proves to be a satisfying finale, and makes great use of a number of outlandish orchestral effects, including some stupendous flutter-tonguing in the brass section, wonderfully suggestive “melting” horns, and a number of a big, dark crescendos. The final cue, “Endless Service”, sees Ottman himself recapitulate the main theme on a Gothic-sounding church organ – a nice nod to the legacy of Camille Saint-Saëns and his Danse Macabre.

Ultimately, though, House of Wax is a pretty standard horror score, typical of its genre with nothing especially different to make it stand out from the dozens of other orchestral horror scores penned each year. It’s competent enough, well performed by the Seattle orchestra, and undoubtedly works well in underscoring the thrills and chills called for by the screenplay. It’s just nothing special: not bad, but not great.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Opening/Tantrum (3:28)
  • Ritual/Escape from Church (4:15)
  • Story of the Town (1:39)
  • Up in Flames (3:43)
  • They Look So Real (2:16)
  • Sealed Lips (3:56)
  • Brotherly Love (2:28)
  • Hanging with Baby Jane (3:36)
  • Paris Gets It (3:07)
  • Curiosity Kills (2:33)
  • Bringing Down the House (5:08)
  • Three Sons (2:28)
  • Endless Service (3:45)

Running Time: 41 minutes 51 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6652 (2005)

Music composed by John Ottman. Conducted by Bruce Harvey. Orchestrations by John Ottman. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by Amanda Goodpaster. Mastered by Erick Labson. Album produced by John Ottman.

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