THE WITCH – Mark Korven
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
One of the most unexpected critical successes of 2016 is The Witch, a supernatural horror film set during the earliest days of the colonization of North America. The directorial debut of young filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as William and Katherine, who despite their exceptional devoutness, are banished from a Puritan Christian plantation in New England circa the year 1630. Months later, William and Katherine and their five children – including a newborn baby – are eking out a meager existence on a farm at the edge of a vast forest; one day, the baby is abducted by a mysterious figure while in the care of the eldest daughter, Tomasin (Anya-Taylor-Joy), adding more strain to the already desperate family. As time goes on, the almost fanatically religious family comes to believe that supernatural forces are at work, and the spectre of witchcraft comes to the fore, with the family’s two youngest children suspecting Tomasin of dabbling in the dark arts…
The Witch is not a traditional horror film; it’s a slow-burning, deliberately-paced film which eschews jump scares in favor of an eerie atmosphere, and a palpable sense of building dread. It mixes the basic human fear of the unknown – in this case, the vast North American wilderness – with a large amount of theological philosophy, and some genuinely unnerving imagery, charting the descent of the pious family into increasing desperation. The four main actors, – Ineson, Dickie, Taylor-Joy, and Harvey Scrimshaw as the middle son Caleb – are across-the-board excellent, although many viewers may have trouble understanding the period-accurate dialogue, with its thees and thous and hithers and yonders. Tonally, it reminded me a great deal of The Blair Witch Project, in the way it uses little more than the sights and sounds of nature to give you the willies, but one thing this film has over its predecessor is an original score, written by Canadian composer Mark Korven.
Korven’s only real film of significance prior to The Witch was the 1997 cult sci-fi movie Cube, and so for many this score will be their first experience of his music. Whether or not it resonates with you will depend almost entirely on your tolerance for extreme dissonance, because The Witch is one of the most cacophonous and challenging horror scores in recent memory. Unusually for a contemporary horror film, director Eggers specifically instructed Korven not to use any electronic sound design whatsoever, mirroring the hyper-realistic and authentic tone the rest of the film adopts, and as such the score is entirely acoustic. In addition to a small chamber orchestra, Korven employs a Swedish nyckelharpa (a medieval keyed string instrument), a hurdy-gurdy, and a waterphone, as well as the vocal stylings of a Toronto-based choir, The Element Choir, who specialize in improvisation; he also says that much of the score’s percussive underbelly was created by “abusing a cello”. This is not a score which uses traditional thematic ideas in any real way; instead, it uses a wide array abstract textures and techniques – some of which reminded me of the challenging work of classical composers like Krzysztof Penderecki – to create its horrifying mood.
The score begins with a doleful nyckelharpa theme in “What Went We,” a hymn-like piece which, despite its superficial melodiousness, clearly has a dark underbelly, and has an overarching mood of coldness and isolation. The nyckelharpa returns later in the score, often in combination with the hurdy-gurdy, droning its way through cues like “Foster the Children” and “William’s Confession”. Based on their use in the context of the film, it seems like these instruments are representative of the concept of religion and the piousness of the family. Elsewhere, cues like “Banished” embrace extreme dissonance, with banks of elongated string chords playing off each other, colliding and overlapping in great swaths of discordant sound. Similarly, cues like “A Witch Stole Sam,” “Hare in the Woods,” “I Am the Witch Mercy,” “William and Tomasin,” and especially “The Goat and the Mayhem” and “Follow the Goat,” make use of grating harmonics, slapping percussive ideas, and tortured-sounding, plectrum-scraping anarchy to create an oppressive, menacing mood of hidden evil. Cleverly, in cues like “Caleb is Lost” and “Caleb’s Death,” the ‘religion’ idea with the nyckelharpa and the hurdy-gurdy plays in opposition to the dissonance, illustrating the idea that their devotion to God is being tested and gradually eroded by the horrors that lurk in the woods.
In several of these cues the vocal effects of the Element Choir add a bone-chilling additional texture; they coo, wail, and even scream like a banshee, at times utterly overwhelming the soundscape with their ferocity. The choral ideas are clearly intended to be a textural leitmotif for the concept of the witch herself, and are especially effective in cues like the gruesome “Caleb’s Seduction”. Most effective of all is the conclusive “Witches Coven,” a nightmarish extravaganza of choral ululation which stands alongside Wojciech Kilar’s “The Ring of Fire” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula as one of the most terrifying pieces of music I have ever heard, especially while wearing headphones.
With the exception of the first cue and the last two cues (“Isle of Wight” and “Standish,” traditional folk songs dating from the time period in which the film was set), this isn’t enjoyable listening, by any means – but then it’s not supposed to be. Horror movie music, more than any other genre, lends itself to these challenging, complex ideas to put the audience ill at ease. After seeing the film, my girlfriend remarked to me that the score “wasn’t anything you’d want to listen to separately,” and in many ways what she said is completely true – the music in The Witch is absolutely not the sort of relaxing music most people would listen to for sheer pleasure. But then, that’s not the point of something like The Witch. It wants to scare you, unnerve you, and make you feel uncomfortable, and bearing this in mind it’s clear that Mark Korven has completely succeeded in achieving this aim. This, combined with the generally impressive musical technique on display, and the fact that all this chaos was achieved solely with live acoustic instruments, makes this score a resounding success. Just don’t play it at your next dinner party – unless you’re serving goat, of course.
Buy the Witch soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- What Went We (1:58)
- Banished (1:53)
- A Witch Stole Sam (2:13)
- Hare In the Woods (1:30)
- I Am the Witch Mercy (1:17)
- Foster the Children (1:18)
- Caleb is Lost (1:49)
- Caleb’s Seduction (3:05)
- Caleb’s Death (5:25)
- William and Tomasin (2:39)
- William’s Confession (4:08)
- The Goat & The Mayhem (3:28)
- Follow the Goat (1:15)
- Witch’s Coven (2:14)
- Isle of Wight (traditional) (1:41)
- Standish (traditional) (2:27)
Running Time: 38 minutes 27 seconds
Milan Records 36768 (2016)
Music composed by Mark Korven. Album produced by Mark Korven and J. C. Chamboredon.