“It just makes sense to me. It’s the language that I most naturally speak…”
Last week saw the release of The Conjuring to surprising critical praise. Writers who have previously, and adamantly, proclaimed James Wan a hack of a director have suddenly termed him a horror auteur; dramatic turn for a man whose first directorial outing initiated the Saw franchise and sent him down a rabbit hole of varied cultural praise and displeasure. Taste aside, the genre began a shift in moviemaking and viewing queues that has only recently diminished in the big top studio sense.
Wan was pretty quick to leave behind the “torture porn” phenomenon for other arenas that have since led him to said legitimization, but this critical turn is new and has allowed The Conjuring to travel from avenues of horror genre fanaticism to pop culture reconnoitering. The Conjuring took the box office its opening weekend against other heavy hitters.
One aspect of this success is the score by Joseph Bishara. Some may be aware of his work from other films such as Insidious (also directed by Wan) or the release from this year Dark Skies, but he has yet to be a household name, despite also acting as one of the main baddies in both Insidious and The Conjuring.
I’ve been into horror films as far back as I can remember. It was my preferred genre by far. I got really into all the Argento scores, all the Goblin stuff. The early Howard Shore/Cronenberg collaborations I loved very much, Scanners, Videodrome. Tangerine Dream I loved quite a bit. And John Carpenter’s stuff too. I always liked that quite a bit.*
The film thrives on certain nostalgia for classic haunted house scenarios, one that never really existed except in our imaginings, pushed along by scores (as mentioned above) that many listened absent the film. The need for narrative clarity tends to nullify what makes haunted houses so terrifying. They require music and sound design on the front end to help. This can allow for an absence of clarity by tapping into feelings that take over understanding, expression rather than data.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was an early influence on me; I first saw it on Super 8 film; I was probably eight years old. That really stuck in my head, that imagery always really got to me. The visual and sonic and whatever (other) creative stuff bleeds together into something that can affect things musically.**
Bishara’s work here is very much a product of our time. Mixing sound design with drones and loud clashes; it’s terrifying.
And yet, in this day when the aesthetic is not knew and we can somewhat understand its method prior to experience, the work is somehow not cliché. Its design feels unique and rich. Almost like the ringing in your ear that slowly becomes an orchestral cacophony. Relying less on orchestral considerations and more on sustained dread, one can almost feel the sound waves dancing around your body. And with certain beats of the rhythm Joseph’s understanding of musical progression (and a certain connection with pop song schematics) rings overwhelmingly true.
As I spoke of earlier this year with regards to the score for the recent Evil Dead remake, “even when a horror film doesn’t work, the score can accomplish something wondrous…” There is potential for rewiring that can, but shouldn’t, go unnoticed. It’s a way of experimentation and expression that’s not for everyone and in most cases these types of considerations are just noise. That’s what allows them to succeed in a very big way, redefining the attributes that determine our experience, but also what can make them overwhelmingly debilitating.
I like extreme dynamics; it sounds right to me. I kind of like hearing things that are barely there. It’s the kind of thing that the tendency is when something is quiet, (someone will want) to turn it up—but it’s like, “No-no-no, it’s quiet like that for a reason.” It’s the finding attention to these little things that— It’s part of the palette, I guess, having the full range from barely-there to extremely loud.**