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LIGHTS OUT – Benjamin Wallfisch

lightsoutOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There has been a trend in recent years towards more thoughtful, creative, innovative horror films. Acclaimed works like The Babadook, It Follows, Under the Skin, and others, have begun to push the boundaries of the genre, blending art and terror together, while remaining cognizant of many of the classics that preceded it. Lights Out is another one of those films which may soon join that list of outstanding contemporary chillers by playing on one of the most innate and universal fears of them all: fear of the dark. Directed by Swedish filmmaker David Sandberg – remaking his own acclaimed 3-minute Youtube short film – the film stars Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer, and Gabriel Bateman as members of a family who are terrorized by a supernatural being which only appears when the lights are out.

One of the most important aspects of any horror film is its score. Watch a horror movie before the music has been added and it more often than not fails to scare you, irrespective of how gruesome the imagery is. In some instances the film can actually appear amusing, with people creeping around in the darkness for no reason. Once the music is added, however, the entire atmosphere changes; shadowy corners become more ominous, moments of stillness become unbearably anxious, and sudden movements shock you and make you scream. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score for Lights Out is one of those scores which makes its movie better – it oozes with tension, breathless anticipation, and lurking fear, and occasionally explodes into all-out musical carnage. The 36-year-old Englishman, who cut his teeth working as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli, is best known these days for his more lush and theme-driven work, especially outstanding scores like Conquest 1453, Summer in February, Desert Dancer, and Gamba, but Lights Out shows a new side to his personality that is very impressive indeed.

The score is predominantly orchestral in nature, making use especially of strings and piano, but is regularly augmented by a variety of electronic processed effects and textures, including some very effectively manipulated vocals which crop up from time to time to accompany the horror at the center of the story. The score’s main theme, “Rebecca’s Theme,” relates to Teresa Palmer’s character, and is presented for the first time in the second cue. A gentle, innocent piano and string theme, it embraces pleasant harmonies for harps and light metallic percussion, but gradually becomes more moody and brooding as it develops, offering tonal comparisons with something James Horner or Christopher Young might have written for a film like this. Further performances of the theme, in cues like “Help Him Or Hurt Her,” “Three Of Us,” and “Safeguards,” help the listener by giving them a brief respite from the juggernaut of horror scoring elsewhere.

And a juggernaut it is: Wallfisch’s music for the rest of Lights Out is pretty much an onslaught of aural terror, and it begins right in the opening cue, “Keep the Lights Out.” One of the clever musical touches Wallfisch weaves into his score is a highly manipulated vocal texture that acts as a leitmotif for Diana, the evil entity at the heart of the story. Wallfisch takes the original sound, performed by vocalist Tori Letzler, and sonically murders it, turning it into a nightmarish combination of gasping, breathing, screaming, humming, and singing; after its initial appearance in that first track, Diana’s motif becomes a cornerstone of the score, sometimes sitting quietly in the background as an indefinable lurking threat, but also coming forcefully to the fore when her malevolence directly encroaches into the world of the living.

In “Goodnight Martin” Wallfisch allows Diana’s motif to moan and groan in the background while aggressive, brutal horn clusters offset by disarmingly delicate light electronic textures take the lead. In “Diana” the motif makes its monstrous presence felt amid horrific explosions of noise, and skittery, scratching, insect-like strings. Later, in “Three Of Us,” the initially warmer string textures and piano chords give way to terrifying outbursts – three definitely is a crowd when the crowd consists of a mother, a son, and a nightmarish darkness-ghost. “Basement” allows for another brief hint of warmth, with soft pianos and relieved-sounding string lines, before the reemergence of the Diana motif doubled by strings makes everything creepy again.

Even when neither of the two main motivic ideas are present, Wallfisch’s score still impresses. The creepy “Mulberry Hill” uses glockenspiels and chimes alongside the strings to create a sense of impending horror, like something inexorably creeping up on you. “Sophie’s Mind” uses processed echoing effects to give the slow, chilly string and piano writing a sense of loneliness and isolation, as though they are being heard through a fog. “We Need To Find More Light” is a brutal collision of aggressive pizzicato strings and walls of sound, vicious and overwhelming, with an increased percussion section full of heavy drum hits.

The conclusive “Final Attack” showcases Diana’s motif at its most cacophonous, with savage strings, rumbling insect-like textures, and crushing electronics, before segueing into an almost operatic performance of the main theme in “No You Without Me,” a cue which over-achieves in its sense of dark beauty and tragic self-sacrifice. The end credits piece, “Lights Out,” presents a version of Rebecca’s theme with a pulsating contemporary dance music-like beat.

One of the things about horror movie music is that it allows its composer the freedom to go nuts, and I mean that in a good way. No other genre of film embraces unusual and avant-garde musical textures, extreme dissonance, and experimental contemporary techniques than horror, and when it is combined with some counterbalancing lyricism and a keen mastery of the orchestra, as it is here, the results can be startling. Having said that, horror movie scores can also be the most difficult types of scores to appreciate as standalone listening experiences. Their entire reason for existing is to unnerve the listener, and many people simply don’t like feeling that feeling, which is why I feel like the score for Lights Out will have limited appeal. I like the score a lot; it achieves everything a good horror score should do, and certainly proves beyond doubt that Benjamin Wallfisch is a composer who can successfully turn his hand to any genre he chooses, but at times it is so challenging and dissonant that many will find it to be too challenging, and switch the lights off.

Buy the Lights Out soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Keep The Lights Out (2:57)
  • Rebecca’s Theme (2:53)
  • Goodnight Martin (1:20)
  • Help Him Or Hurt Her (1:35)
  • Mulberry Hill (3:19)
  • Diana (2:22)
  • Three Of Us (1:53)
  • She’s Real (2:57)
  • Safeguards (1:43)
  • Stay Away (1:04)
  • Sophie’s Mind (5:19)
  • We Need To Find More Light (4:23)
  • Basement (2:41)
  • Final Attack (3:08)
  • No You Without Me (2:04)
  • Lights Out (1:51)

Running Time: 41 minutes 36 seconds

Watertower Music (2016)

Music composed and conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch. Orchestrations by Arturo Rodriguez. Special vocal performances by Tori Letzler. Recorded and mixed by Satoshi Mark Noguchi. Edited by XXX. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

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