THE CONJURING – Joseph Bishara
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Conjuring is the latest in a series of high profile ‘demonic possession’ movies, following on from such recent successful theatrical efforts as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside, The Possession, and the Last Exorcism series. Based on the supposedly true experiences of two paranormal investigators from the 1970s, the film stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are called to help a married couple, Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston), and their daughters, who have recently moved into an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island, and who have since been terrorized by a malevolent spirit who appears in the form of an old woman. The film is directed by James Wan, who directed the first (and best) Saw movie, and has opened to generally favorable reviews and good box office returns.
The Conjuring represents the probably only second time in cinema history where the same person has played the film’s main antagonist, and written it’s score. That person is 43-year-old Joseph Bishara, who appears on-screen in The Conjuring as the terrifying Bathsheba, and who over the last few years has made a career writing music for horror films, most notably Insidious, 11-11-11, and Dark Skies from earlier this year. And, by the way, probably the first person to play the film’s main antagonist and write it’s score was also Bishara, who performed the same double duty on Insidious in 2010 playing the “Lipstick-Face Demon”.
Bishara is an unusual fellow, having spent his early career writing for and performing in various industrial metal bands and goth/fetish performance art groups, before turning his hand to cinematic sound design and film music just a few years ago. He seems to revel in the ‘darker arts’, creatively, and his music reflects that – despite being predominantly orchestral in nature, Bishara’s scores have a harsh, aggressive, somewhat avant-garde sound to them that reflect the pervading, preferred sound of most modern horror movies. The Conjuring is certainly more of the same, but the problem the score has – as all scores of this type have – is that, no matter how well it works in the context of the film, it’s a tough, tough listen on its own.
Dark, buzzing brass clusters overlaid with ghostly vocals get the score started in the opening pair, “The Conjuring” and “Dead Birds”. These ferocious brass effects re-occur frequently throughout the score as one it’s few recurring motivic ideas, in cues such as “Touring Haunted Planes”, “Hanging Drop”, the chaotic “Birds Pulled In”, the almost Goldenthalian pair “Black Bile” and “Sleepwalking”, and the big finale “Annabelle” which also works in some harsh piano chords into the mix. However, as an identifying marker for an entire score as a whole the motif is pretty flimsy, and is one of the score’s main drawbacks. It’s interesting to observe the differences between the way composers like Christopher Young or Roque Baños score horror movies in comparison to the way Bishara scores them, with the latter eschewing melody and thematic presence almost entirely in favor of a more abstract, texture based approach. Both are successful in achieving the film’s stated aims, in their own way, but Young and Baños employ a much more conventional and ear-pleasing style which I greatly prefer.
Much of the rest of the score is textural “creeping around” music, with cues such as “Clap Game”, “Witch Perch” and “Ritual Casting” being little more than a series of string sustains overlaid with electronic pulses and industrial effects, which occasionally explode into moments of ear-splitting shrieking terror, before fading away once more. There are also long periods of virtual silence, where literally nothing happens. The use of silence as a tool in music has been explored before, not least by the legendary John Cage, but whether or not someone was cooking mushrooms on the scoring stage during these elongated periods of quiet, 20 seconds of nothingness on a score album does not really make for compelling listening.
Processed choral effects give cues like “Taped Occurrences” a chilly ambience, while the fleeting moments of string-based consonance in “She Saw Something” and the more conventional “Souls Pulled In” drag the score out of its pit of dreadfulness for a few seconds, however briefly. Some of the more unearthly vocal performances come courtesy of the astonishingly-voiced Greek-American performer Diamanda Galás, who previously lent her disquieting talents to scores such as Simon Boswell’s Lord of Illusions and Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula. Her unearthly ululations in cues such as “Maurice”, the aforementioned “Black Bile”, “You Look Very Pretty”, the terrifying “Witch Comes Through”, and the nightmarish “The Soaring Entities” can only be described as sounding like someone gargling with yogurt and razor blades at the same time as having an epileptic fit or an especially painful orgasm.
The one thematic high spot is the album’s conclusive piece, the “Family Theme”, which was actually written by Mark Isham, and stands out from the rest of the score like a poppy in a field of grass. Its low key, soft, and sentimental, with a hesitant piano melody and a warm string wash that builds to a quite lovely conclusion, although even here the middle section of the cue is given a slightly creepy texture through its use of various choral, electronic and tapped light percussion effects, creating an aura of uneasiness. Despite this, however, Isham’s contribution is like night and day compared to the rest of Bishara’s score, and its presence alone adds a star to the overall rating of the score as a whole.
I’m always loath to give scores like The Conjuring a negative review because in many ways they do exactly what they are intended to do – scare the bejeezus out of an audience watching the film in a cinema – and in that respect Bishara’s score succeeds completely. There is also clearly a lot of musical creativity going on here which is commendable – it’s not easy to write this sort of dissonance. However, as much as I recognize this, I have to also evaluate the score as a separate listening experience, and on those terms, for me, it fails on all counts. With the exception of Isham’s cue, The Conjuring is a vacuum, with an almost total lack of any sort of thematic presence, melody, harmony, or emotional connection besides the pervading sense of fear. La-La Land’s album is a chore to sit through more than a couple of times, providing the listener with little more than an hour’s worth of angry, unappealing orchestral sound design that holds virtually no repeat play value.
Buy the Conjuring soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Conjuring (1:01)
- Dead Birds (0:35)
- Clap Game (5:23)
- Witch Perch (2:32)
- Maurice (0:59)
- Touring Haunted Planes (1:37)
- Taped Occurrences (2:00)
- Black Bile (1:04)
- She Saw Something (1:10)
- Look What She Made Me Do (0:35)
- Sleepwalker (1:34)
- Wall Searching (0:28)
- Hanging Drop (2:14)
- Water Corpse Vision (1:44)
- You Look Very Pretty (1:49)
- Souls Pulled In (1:43)
- Witch Comes Through (1:29)
- Birds Pulled In (1:15)
- Murderous Offering (0:58)
- The Soaring Entities (3:15)
- Ritual Casting (3:25)
- Cellar Tone (0:59)
- Annabelle (3:32)
- Doll Box (0:48)
- Family Theme (written by Mark Isham) (4:35)
Running Time: 46 minutes 10 seconds
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1265 (2013)
Music composed by Joseph Bishara. Conducted by Jeffrey Holmes. Orchestrations by Dana Niu. Recorded and mixed by Chris Spilfogel. Edited by Lise Richardson. Album produced by Joseph Bishara and MV Gerhard.