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DRAG ME TO HELL – Christopher Young

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Drag Me To Hell is the best pure horror score I have heard in probably a decade – at least since Brian Tyler’s Darkness Falls in 2003, and probably since a great deal before then. It’s also one of the best scores of Christopher Young’s entire career – and that’s saying something for the man who wrote such stellar scores as Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Murder in the First. So, now that I have made these two potentially outrageous statements, let me clarify why I think this is the case.

Drag Me To Hell is Sam Raimi’s return to his roots. A clever, gory, and occasionally very funny horror story in the Evil Dead tradition, Drag Me To Hell stars Alison Lohman as Christine Brown, a New York loan officer with a decent job and a warm, loving boyfriend (Justin Long). However, when she is asked to foreclose and evict an old gypsy woman named Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) from her apartment, Christine finds her life unraveling: she becomes the recipient of an ancient curse which will, quite literally, take her to hell if she does not find a cure in three days. And so, as Christine desperately seeks answers from a psychic, she finds herself beset on all sides by all manner of demons and evil spirits, all of whom are waiting eagerly to claim her soul.

So: the score. Try to imagine an entire score composed of the enormous gothic orchestral forces of the opening cue from Hellraiser II, combined with the string-based soaring beauty of Murder in the First, the phenomenally complicated musique concrete orchestrations of scores like Invaders from Mars, and the choral inventiveness of, say, Bless the Child, and you are some way to understanding what Drag Me To Hell sounds like. The entire album plays like a compilation of all that is good about Christopher Young’s music, but one which never resorts to self-reference. Everything is heightened, bettered, and taken to the next step, always fresh and inventive.

The opening cue, entitled “Drag Me To Hell”, presents the score’s core idea: a huge, throbbing orchestra and portentous choir, overlaid with a solo violin theme of such grace and clarity and beauty you almost can’t believe it. It’s like Joshua Bell stepped into the recording studio and played one of his trademark virtuoso parts; the classicism inherent in the performance raises the music to a whole other level. The solo string motif re-occurs with regularity throughout the score, ensuring that the work has a thematic center.

The choral work throughout the score is simply superb. In “Mexican Devil Disaster” and “Ordeal By Corpse” it is ethereal and chilly, breathing seductively in your ear, like a siren-song calling you to your doom. In “Lamia” it grows into an ear-splitting cacophony of spooky chattering that will give the unwary listener nightmares, while in “Black Rainbows” it hovers on the periphery of the score, like a dread presence, muttering in the background.

Some of the orchestral textures and instrumental combinations Young uses are wonderful. In “Mexican Devil Disaster” and “Ordeal By Corpe” he revisits the rasping ‘devil’s horn’ sound that was so effective in Hellraiser II, while in “Tale of a Haunted Banker” and “Brick Dogs a la Carte” he introduces another one of those warm-yet-cold beautiful-yet-unsettling string and piano themes which have been a staple of scores like Species, Jennifer 8 and The Gift for many years. “Ode to Ganush” is impressionistic and detail-oriented, with a plucked stand up bass and pizzicato strings to jangle the nerves even more.

Some of the moments of pure action and horror are terrific and shocking; enormous stingers which make the listener jump out of their seat, before building into terrifying moments of pure dissonance and chaos. “Bealing Bells With Trumpet” and “Buddled Brain Strain” are superb examples of undiluted horror music, in which Young lets loose with every hair-raising, goosebump-giving technique he can muster. There are even moments of brilliant, utterly demented circus-like calliope music, a frenzy of whooping horns and pipe organs, notably in the mind-blowing second half of “Lamia” and in the thunderous “Auto-Da-Fe”, which is clearly intended to be a gypsy-like leitmotif for Mrs. Ganush, but which truly has to be heard to be believed.

The score’s tour-de-force set piece is “Loose Teeth”, a wonderful 7-minute monstrosity which combines the spooky female choir, the solo violin motif, a frenetic action interlude, and an increasingly loud and dissonant orchestra with monstrous, guttural, demonic moans from a solo male vocalist which are utterly terrifying – it sounds like a beast from the seventh level of Hades is emerging from your speakers with the express purpose of vomiting bile on you while you sit there. This one cue really typifies Chris Young at his horrific best: intelligent musical ideas, wonderfully realized and creative instrumental textures, but with a shocking and scary emotional punch that fulfills the needs of the genre it serves. It’s absolutely magnificent.

And then, to cap it all off, Young expands the main theme further again in the conclusive “Concerto to Hell”, which takes the violin element from the opening cue and expands it further into a glorious full orchestral concert piece that touches on all the various elements of the score proper. I would pay to listen to this in a symphony hall.

Really and truly, I cannot say enough good things about this score. I don’t usually gush like this over a score, especially a score to an intentionally tongue-in-cheek over-the-top horror film like Drag Me To Hell. It’s just that you so rarely hear scores like this these days; scores which are unafraid to unleash huge orchestral forces, which contain such wonderfully inventive and intricate instrumental and choral performances, which have this much intelligent design, and which are so entertaining on a purely visceral level. I was in raptures from the first note to the last, whether I was marveling at the beauty of the theme writing, or being scared out of my seat by the moments of horrific carnage.

In recent years I have been somewhat reticent about giving out top marks to scores which patently don’t deserve them. I haven’t given a 5-star rating to any score since Arsène Lupin and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005, although with hindsight I should have given one to The Golden Compass in 2007 too. Drag Me To Hell makes four in five years, and this one is absolutely deserved; it is unquestionably one of the best scores of 2009, in any genre.

Rating: *****

Buy the Drag Me To Hell soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Drag Me To Hell (2:33)
  • Mexican Devil Disaster (4:33)
  • Tale of a Haunted Banker (1:52)
  • Lamia (4:06)
  • Black Rainbows (3:24)
  • Ode to Ganush (2:23)
  • Familiar Familiars (2:11)
  • Loose Teeth (6:31)
  • Ordeal by Corpse (4:35)
  • Bealing Bells With Trumpet (5:12)
  • Brick Dogs a la Carte (1:46)
  • Buddled Brain Strain (2:51)
  • Auto-Da-Fe (4:31)
  • Concerto to Hell (5:59)

Running Time: 52 minutes 34 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS 34091 (2009)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Orchestrations by Christopher Young, Sean McMahon, Andrew Spence, Brandon Verrett and Laurent Ziliani. Featured musical soloists Joohyun Park and James Speight. Recorded and mixed by Ugo Derouard. Edited by Thomas Milano. Album produced by Christopher Young and Flavio Motalla.

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