Home > Reviews > HAPPY DEATH DAY – Bear McCreary


October 31, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

If ever you’ve wanted to see the 1990s movie Groundhog Day re-imagined as a serial killer horror thriller, then Happy Death Day is the film for you. It’s a fun, imaginative little slice of mischief in which Tree, a young female college student, finds herself living the same day over and over again – her birthday – and being murdered at the end of it by a deranged killer in a baby mask. She wakes up again the following morning in the dorm room of her sheepish one night stand, and slowly comes to realize that she must solve her own murder if she is to escape this endless time-loop of blood and death. The film, which was directed by Christopher Landon and stars Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard, is self-aware and tongue-in cheek, with enough playful humor to keep things light, but enough creepiness to make it an effective whodunit, especially when the hooded and masked killer is on screen.

The effectiveness of the latter is enhanced immensely by the score from Bear McCreary. Happy Death Day is McCreary’s 274th project of 2017, approximately, following on from the monster movie Colossal, the literary drama Rebel in the Rye, and the documentary Unrest, not to mention the current seasons of the TV shows The Walking Dead, Outlander, Agents of SHIELD, Black Sails, and probably some that I’m forgetting. Despite being arguably the busiest composer in Hollywood right now, what’s most impressive about McCreary’s recent output is how different they all are from each other: Rebel in the Rye sounds nothing like Outlander which sounds nothing like Colossal which sounds nothing like The Walking Dead, and Happy Death Day is different again. It’s a hybrid orchestral-synth action horror score that makes some excellent use of unusually processed vocal effects to tell its story and enhance its scares.

The cornerstone of the score is the main theme, Tree’s Theme, a simple six note pop-like melody which McCreary describes as being something that “could break out into an auto-tuned pop song at any moment” and is reflective of the bubblegum music Tree herself might listen to. Its intentional shallowness and narcissistic attitude is an expression of Tree’s personality at the beginning of the film, but what’s clever about the theme is the way McCreary develops it. In its first appearance in the first part of “Day One” the theme is light, confident, and sassy, but as the character becomes aware of her situation, it alters: it’s distorted and confused at the beginning of “Day Two,” a disoriented array of bent pitches and slurred key changes, and in “Day Three” it;s underpinned by a bed of surging cello ostinatos. By the time it gets to “Day Four” it’s been overwhelmed by a mass of racing strings and brass clusters, staples of horror movie soundtracks.

Similarly, the orchestration of Tree’s Theme changes with each new day. In “Day One” her music is heard mainly on synths and keyboards supported by electronic percussion, but as time passes on there are numerous variations that illustrate her mood, most notably a version for acoustic guitars and wholesome-sounding strings in “Righting Wrongs,” and a softly intimate solo piano at the end of “Tree Takes Control”.

Competing with Tree’s theme is the music for the film’s antagonist, the Baby Mask Killer, and it’s here that McCreary really stretches his imagination. The fictional college in which the film is set has an oversized baby as its school mascot, and so McCreary settled on the idea of having baby voices be the calling card of the killer hidden behind the toddler’s face. To this end, McCreary recorded his own two year old daughter, Sonatine Yarbrough McCreary, cooing and babbling and saying random words like ‘pasta’ and ‘up’. He then digitally altered and manipulated the sounds in order to create a set of creepy textures that were layered into the music to herald the killer’s appearance, or to add depth and consistency to the music for scenes where the killer attacks – the mournful moaning effect at 4:25 of “Day Two” is especially eerie, while the entire middle section of “Day Three” could almost be described as musique concrète a la Sonatine, and is enormously unnerving.

The action sequences are full-on orchestral onslaughts. The last minute or so of both “Day One” and “Day Two,” and cues like the superbly exciting James Horner-esque “Hospital Pursuit” and the frantic and frenzied “The Bell Tower” see McCreary using his orchestra as a battering ram, with slashing strings, enormous explosions of brass, and rapid tempos to increase the intensity and urgency. Cleverly, most of the percussion heard in these cues is the standard set one would hear in a high school or college marching band, which further subliminally reinforces the film’s setting, while the frequent use of the Baby Mask Killer textures keep the maniac at the center of the proceedings.

The two conclusive cues, “Tree Takes Control” and “The Cupcake,” take the score’s main trio of concepts – Tree’s theme, the moaning Baby Mask Killer sounds, and the action/horror music – and builds them up to an excellent finale with several standout moments. The marching band snares at 1:57 of “Tree Takes Control” are great, and the way McCreary allows the intensity of the swirling string writing to build during “The Cupcake” is superb.

Part of the reason why composers like Bear McCreary are so successful is because they clearly love what they do, and put a great deal of thought and innovation onto what they write. Happy Death Day is an inconsequential horror-comedy which could very easily have been scored with some basic horror tropes and bits of workmanlike orchestral mayhem, and everyone would probably have been perfectly happy. But instead, McCreary took the time to understand his film and write music that speaks to so many different conceptual ideas – the notion of things repeating themselves, the baby, the college setting – but which is also innovating and challenging while still remaining interesting and listenable and dramatically appropriate. This is why he seems to score twenty million projects a year and, if this sort of the music is the end result, long may it continue.

Buy the Happy Death Day soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Day One (5:27)
  • Day Two (6:05)
  • Day Three (4:18)
  • Day Four (2:18)
  • Hospital Pursuit (5:55)
  • The Bell Tower (3:31)
  • Righting Wrongs (3:40)
  • Tree Takes Control (4:30)
  • The Cupcake (4:17)

Running Time: 40 minutes 01 seconds

Back Lot Records (2017)

Music composed by Bear McCreary. Conducted by Richard Hein. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Sean Barrett, Benjamin Hoff and Jamie Thierman. Special vocal performances by Sonatine Yarbrough McCreary. Additional music by Jason Akers, Omer Bem-Zvi, Sam Ewing and Zachary Lucia. Recorded and mixed by Vitek Kral and Steve Kaplan. Edited by Michael Baber. Album produced by Joe Augustine and Bear McCreary.

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