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PET SEMATARY – Christopher Young

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For many years, from the late 1970s through to the end of the 1990s, cinematic adaptations of novels by Stephen King were everywhere. Director Brian de Palma started it all with Carrie in 1976, and over the course of the next 20 years or so, film after film and TV series after TV series came out. Titles like Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine, Children of the Corn, Stand By Me, The Running Man, It, Misery, The Dark Half, Needful Things, The Tommyknockers, The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, and many others, have received critical acclaim, box office success, cult status, or all three. Such is their enduring popularity that we are now in the realm where certain titles are on their second or third version, and this is the case with Pet Sematary. It is based on King’s 1983 novel, and was originally adapted for the screen in 1989 by director Mary Lambert. The film tells the story of the Creed family, who move to Maine when the father, Louis, accepts a job as the doctor at a local school. When Church, the family cat, is run over on the road outside their home, Louis and his elderly neighbor Jud Crandall take the body to a ‘pet cemetery’ deep in the woods by the Creed property, and bury it; the following day, the cat returns, apparently having been supernaturally resurrected. However, Church is now vicious and aggressive, whereas before he was sweet-natured and lovable. Some months later, Louis’s daughter Ellie is killed in a terrible traffic accident on the same road; distraught, and despite Jud’s dire warnings, Louis takes her body to the pet cemetery too… with naturally horrific results. The film stars Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, and Jeté Laurence, and is directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch.

Pet Sematary is a film about death, grief, and the understandable human desire to overcome these natural forces, dressed up for cinematic audiences with a liberal amount of gore, tension, and spooky atmospherics. Contributing to the latter is the score, by composer Christopher Young. It’s been a lean couple of years for Young in terms of his musical contributions to American cinema. Although he wrote successful and outrageously brilliant scores for two films in the Chinese Monkey King series, his last score for a high profile mainstream theatrical American film was, shockingly, almost five years ago, for the horror film Deliver Us from Evil. It’s quite inexplicable that a man who scored two or three major films every year for almost thirty years beginning in the mid 1980s would be in such little demand – but times change, and it appears that Young’s bold and theme-driven music for mainstream horror and thriller films is seemingly falling out of fashion, replaced instead with the orchestral croaking and groaning espoused by composers like Joseph Bishara.

Christopher Young’s music has a special place in my history; his score for Murder in the First in 1995 was one of the ones which initiated my love of film music in the first place, while works such as Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Shipping News, Drag Me to Hell, and many others, remain personal favorites to this day. However, in addition to his outstanding orchestral writing, Young also has a long-established relationship with and love of the music of the bizarre; outlandishly dissonant electronic soundscapes, musique concrète, and sounds so challenging that they are almost impossible to listen to on any conventional level. This side of Young’s musical personality has manifest from time to time through scores like Invaders from Mars, The Vagrant, and Sinister, and Pet Sematary falls squarely into that category too.

It’s not that I was expecting something as grand as Hellraiser for this film – it’s not that kind of movie – but, speaking from a purely selfish point of view, I was still hoping for something bold and attention-grabbing that would thrust Young back into the limelight. Instead of that, however, directors Widmyer and Kolsch seemingly asked him to dial everything back, concentrate mainly on a series of ambient moods and textures, and write most of it for electronics. I understand the impetus behind this; despite the supernatural forces at play, this is still a fairly small-scale story of a family in turmoil, and a large bombastic score could easily have overwhelmed the tone of quiet intimacy the directors were going for. However, irrespective of how well the score works in film context, this decision is likely to leave many people disappointed from a purely musical point of view, because this makes the album a challenging, difficult listen.

There are three musical ideas that blend together throughout Pet Sematary. The first is for the Creed family itself. It’s a warm, wholesome, quite attractive theme that initially conveys the familial bonds of love that tie Louis, his wife, and their children together. The family theme is most prominent in two cues, “The Maine Road” and “Fielding Fine,” and it comes across as an idyllic, pastoral piece written for strings, piano, and chimes, with an underlying hint of a lullaby. Long-time Young fans will find similarities between it and some of the pretty but subtly foreboding themes Young wrote in the 1990s for scores like Copycat or Jennifer 8, which is definitely a good thing.

The other two ideas are connected, but different enough to be identifiable from each other. The pet cemetery itself is supposedly given its evil powers from an ancient Native American curse, and so to capture that idea Young used a set of textures intended to reflect both Native American culture, and a general sound of nature. Drums, tom toms, wood flutes, bells, and metallic wind chimes were recorded and then electronically manipulated in post production, to give Young a palette of textures that he could interpolate into the score to create an atmosphere of dread, of this deep and ancient forest coming alive in the dead of night. The final idea is initially related to the cat, Church, and eventually to the concept of the resurrected beings themselves. In an interview with Film Music Magazine, Young describes Church’s theme as being made up of a number of “sonic blobs” that include a ‘vomiting’ double bass and a manipulated cello modified to sound like a cat’s scream. These textures are then blended with the more traditional sound of a string orchestra, and a number of impressionistic choral and vocal textures, to create the bulk of the score

Cues such as “The Wendigo,” “But the Cat Has No Hat,” “Underground Terrors,” “Church Isn’t Church,” “Fouled Soil,” and several others, make strong use of this approach. Often Young uses a sort of distorted electronic scratchy flickering technique, seemingly to touch upon the idea that these things that come back are broken, and not entirely of this world. Occasionally the synths pick up a more bold and forceful rhythmic pace – notably at the beginning of “But the Cat Has No Hat” and towards the end of “Church Isn’t Church” – for some of the more intense sequences of action.

For me, however, the most unsettling parts of the score are the vocals. I have always been susceptible to human voices used in frightening, horrific ways, and Pet Sematary is one of those scores which got under my skin whenever the voices started. Young uses a palette of sampled voices making all manner of unearthly noises – whispering, moaning, breathing, gasping – to terrify the listener. Sometimes they are incorporated within the body of a cue, as in “But the Cat Has No Hat”, “Underground Terrors,” and “Fouled Soil,” but several individual cues focus on the voices specifically, and these are the moments that are freakishly effective. “Scream for More” starts with the vocals being distorted by the flickering effect, but ends up basically just screaming. “Un-Hallowed Even” begins with a creepy, twisted melody performed by 8-year-old vocalist Chrysilia Kallis (the daughter of composer George Kallis), before eventually shifting to strings manipulated to sound distant and ancient.

The three conclusive cues – “Just Not the Same,” “Watching the Dead Do,” and “Die Daddy Die” – are a culmination of all the score’s main ideas, from the Native American textures to the Cat theme (which has now shifted to represent the resurrected child), the unsettling and unearthly vocals, and some more forceful action rhythms. “Die Daddy Die” even makes use of heartbeat textures and an evilly twisted deconstruction of the family theme to fully illustrate the devastating fate of the Creed family. The finale cue, “Wasn’t the Beginning,” offers a sad final statement of the Family theme that reflects on the film’s events. The end credits piece is a cover of the Ramones’ title song from the 1989 film by LA punk rock band Starcrawler, which is fine from a musical point of view but has completely awful lyrics.

In comparison with Christopher Young’s all-time great efforts in the horror genre, Pet Sematary is a minor work. There are literally dozens of other scores in this most creative of styles that are more satisfying from a musical and emotional point of view, and as such I fear that long-time admirers of his work will find this to be a disappointment. My takeaways from this are as follows; firstly, it seems to be that the overall sound of mainstream Hollywood horror has moved away from Gothic theme-based works and into textural abstract sound-design territory which scares its audience with loud bangs and stingers. This is not the case for every horror score, obviously, but when you look at the success of the Conjuring, Annabelle, Saw, and Insidious franchises, and the music they contain, you can see why this shift is taking place. Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – Pet Sematary will hopefully put Christopher Young back on the radar of producers and studio heads, who will be reminded that not only can Young write great horror scores, but that he also excels at straight drama, action, sci-fi, and jazz. Unlike the protagonists of this film, and in relation to his career, dead is not better, and he is more than capable of coming back the same.

Buy the Pet Sematary soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Wendigo (4:50)
  • The Maine Road (2:55)
  • But the Cat Has No Hat (4:12)
  • Underground Terrors (6:41)
  • Fielding Fine (2:45)
  • Scream for More (4:07)
  • Dead Alive Again (3:53)
  • Church Isn’t Church (4:12)
  • Un-Hallowed Even (3:09)
  • Fouled Soil (4:43)
  • Echo Angels (4:08)
  • Just Not the Same (4:32)
  • Watching the Dead Do (3:34)
  • Die Daddy Die (4:30)
  • Wasn’t the Beginning? (4:32)
  • Pet Sematary (written by Douglas Colvin and Daniel Rey, performed by Starcrawler) (3:24)

Running Time: 66 minutes 14 seconds

Paramount Music (2019)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Orchestrations by Jared Banta and Kostas Christides. Edited by Ben Schor. Album produced by Christopher Young.

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