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THE EMPTY MAN – Christopher Young and Lustmord

October 31, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Empty Man is a horror-thriller written and directed by David Prior, based on the graphic novel of same name by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey. James Badge Dale stars as James Lasombra, a retired detective who is called back into action after a group of teens from a small Midwestern town begin to mysteriously disappear. The locals believe the disappearances are the work of an urban legend known as the Empty Man, and as Lasombra delves into the mystery, he soon finds himself drawn into a supernatural world of secret societies, ritual sacrifice, and dark magic. The film also stars Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, and Ron Canada, and bizarrely is it not one of the films that fell victim to COVID-19 restrictions, opening in cinemas over Halloween weekend in an attempt to lure brave horror fans into the multiplexes that actually opened.

The score for The Empty Man is by the brilliant Christopher Young, who is an old hand at this, and the curiously named ‘Lustmord,’ the alter-ego of Welsh musician and sound designer Brian Williams. Interestingly, it is actually Williams who seems to have provided the template for much of the score; according to his Wikipedia page he is credited for creating the dark ambient genre, and his experimental work has been described as “not traditionally musical”. As such, for the vast majority of its running time, The Empty Man is indeed darkly ambient, and very little of it can be described as ‘traditionally musical’. This is a score full of noise; synth patterns and pulses that whine and scrape and howl, which create an overall mood of tension and sinister suspense, and which are then punctuated by roars of deafening cacophony to coincide with specific moments of abject horror.

The first three cues – “In Hidden Mountains,” “Ancient Voices Whisper,” and “Portents of Doom” – are by Lustmord alone, and they make for challenging listening. They are dark, aggressive, almost confrontationally atonal, expressly designed to make the listener uneasy. “In Hidden Mountains” contains some tortured, guttural throat singing of truly evil intent, something I haven’t quite experienced since Simon Boswell’s Lord of Illusions back in the 1990s; it really sounds like Williams is reciting an incantation designed to raise a demon from hell, which I suppose was the idea. “Ancient Voices Whisper” begins with an unexpectedly eerie flute texture which stands out from everything around it, before again dropping back into the auditory hellscape.

The rest of the score is all Young, with exception of “Out of Nightmare Mist” and “A Vastation,” which is credited to both of them, and it contains some of the most difficult music of Young’s entire career. Young is no stranger to writing challenging music; parts of his most famous horror scores, like Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, contain more than their fair share of musical chaos, while things like 1992’s The Vagrant, and more recent works like Deliver Us from Evil and Sinister, are awash in experimental sound design and musique concrète. I’m not going to go through it cue-by-cue because most of it is tonally similar, but I will say that Young’s music does have a more cinematic edge to it, with identifiable rhythmic ideas, recurring patterns, and even some music which recalls the twisted calliope funfair from Hellraiser II. Still, despite this, large sequences of the score are deeply, deeply unpleasant, little more than manipulated sound effects and distorted electronic tonalities designed to place the listener in a state of fear. It’s undeniably effective, but not anything I would normally choose to listen to.

A theme emerges in “In the Heart of a Broken Man,” a sort of dark, resolute piece for a processed guitar, chimes, and synth effects, which seems to be commenting on the dogged tenacity of Lasombra as he tracks down the missing children. This idea recurs frequently throughout the score as a leitmotif for the character, bringing a touch of weary humanity to all the carnage, evil, and supernatural chaos elsewhere; it is prominent, in both clear statements and variations, in cues like “Seeds of Evil Germinate”. Another cue of note is “Nurtured by Corruption,” which feels like a twisted lullaby played on a broken music box.

Once in a while Young really goes for broke, offering music of such of such overwhelming evil and auditory grotesqueness, that the results are truly bone-chilling. The creaking sound effects and jabbering vocals in cues like “A Duality of Forms” and “From the Noosphere” are horribly unsettling. These ideas reach their zenith in the terrifying pair “Down Paths to Dark Woods” and “Where Forbidden Spirits Call,” which use voices and angry electronics in a way I haven’t heard outside my most vivid, horrific nightmares. The satanic chanting in “Fervent Supplicants” is… well… utterly demonic; perhaps a good comparison would be Don Davis’s work on House on Haunted Hill back in 1999. The siren sounds and monstrous gurgling noises in “The Shadow Self” and “A Vastation” can only be music written by the devil himself.

Then, in the last ten minutes, Young suddenly presents two cues of such staggering, monumental beauty that it makes the preceding 50 minutes more than worth the wait. “Where Sentence Is Served” and “In a Prison Built Out of Lies” are throwbacks to the most glorious, darkly romantic scores of Young’s career in the 1990s and early 2000s: think of the finale of Bless the Child, the most sweepingly beautiful parts of Priest, the lament from The Fly II, a more elemental version of Murder in the First, and you’re on the right path. Young’s strings – hitherto so dissonant and twisted – suddenly reach for the light, freed from earthly bonds. The choir, previously sick and diseased and calling for demons, is now angelic in nature. It’s just magnificent, easily the best film music Young has written since The Monkey King 2 in 2016.

The Empty Man is one of those scores which has to be rated in two different ways. First, in terms of the score’s intent and how it plays in the film, it has to be considered a complete success. The score is designed to create an atmosphere of desperation and terror, and to frighten and disturb the audience so that the scares are scarier, the tension is more tense, and the horror is more horrific – and it does exactly that. Unfortunately that also means that the vast majority of the standalone album experience does the same thing, and as such it is one of the most disturbing listens I have had in years. I absolutely recognize the technical achievements it took to put it together, and I can appreciate it from that point of view, but I cannot recommend it in good conscience lest it drive some of the more sensitive soundtrack fans insane. But then there is the final ten minutes, which is so beautiful and so majestic and so redemptive that it’s almost impossible to believe it came from the same score. My advice is to download the final two cues as yet more evidence of what a brilliant composer Christopher Young is when he’s in that frame of mind, and save the rest until you need to scare off some late-night trick-or-treaters.

Buy the Empty Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • In Hidden Mountains (2:09)
  • Ancient Voices Whisper (2:26)
  • Portents of Doom (2:45)
  • Mysterium Tremendum (1:40)
  • In the Heart of a Broken Man (2:52)
  • Seeds of Evil Germinate (2:19)
  • Nurtured by Corruption (2:38)
  • A Duality of Forms (2:40)
  • Parallax Bridges (4:04)
  • Out of Nightmare Mist (2:27)
  • Promising Infection (3:10)
  • From the Noosphere (3:40)
  • Down Paths to Dark Woods (2:50)
  • Where Forbidden Spirits Call (2:50)
  • Fervent Supplicants (3:15)
  • To Enflesh (3:02)
  • The Shadow Self (5:09)
  • A Vastation (2:45)
  • Where Sentence Is Served (5:05)
  • In a Prison Built Out of Lies (5:03)

Running Time: 63 minutes 01 seconds

Hollywood Records (2020)

Music composed by Christopher Young and Brian ‘Lustmord’ Williams. Orchestrations by Kostas Christides. Recorded and mixed by Martin Roller. Edited by Ben Schor. Album produced by Christopher Young.

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