Having long championed the talents of composer Christopher Young, I was absolutely delighted to hear that he would scoring Sam Raimi's hugely anticipated return to his horror roots with 2009's crucial scream-inducing Drag Me To Hell. The tale of a gypsy curse placed upon hip, go-getting bank loans officer, Christine Brown (played by Alison Lohman, owner of the best pair of legs that I've had the pleasure of admiring in the flicks this year), and the young woman's subsequent battle to extricate herself from its demonic clutches is pure, unadulterated Raimi. He may eschew gore in favour of shivers and spooks, but his trademark visual dexterity, penchant for maximum intensity coupled with tongue-in-cheek savvy, and profound sense of giddy fun are all very much in evidence as the Satantic goat-demon, or “Lamia”, first torments its victim, then comes for her soul. The film is no masterpiece, as some knee-jerk(off) writers love to claim, but it is wonderfully atmospheric, fast-paced and, in a very neat bird-flip to practically all the other “teeny-bopper” horrors of the last couple of years, actually has characters that you damn well care about.
Taking as its springboard the tremendously evocative and immediately tension-building premise of Jacques Tourneur's classic occult chiller, Night Of The Demon (see SD review), in that Christine is given ample warning of her fate, three days hence, and then left to use whatever means necessary to protect herself, whilst aided or hampered by those around her who either believe the desperate situation she is in, or simply think that she's flipped her lid. I loved the film, folks, and was unsurprised to discover that one of its greatest strengths lay in the creepy, haunting, beautiful and wildly terrifying score that Young provided for it.
With a pedigree that takes in the first two Hellraisers, The Fly II and The Dark Half - all four supremely Gothic splendours that truly elevated the medium of horror film scoring - and then Young Sherlock Holmes, Species, Jennifer 8 and Ghost Rider, Young was eminently placed at the forefront of go-to composers for such slick, but textured terrors amid the exultant glory of a full orchestra. After falling out with Danny Elfman, Raimi turned to Young for Spider-Man 3 - which has still yet to have an official score release - and, having already done some work on the second web-slinging instalment, most notably for the rip-roaring train-tussle sequence - the composer and the director found that they were reading from the same music-sheet. Young favours long string-lines, emotionally swooning chords, ethereal plateaus and the backing of full symphonic might. His style dips into the classical, drags out of the best and most heightened aspects of it and then forges down a musical avenue that he seems to traverse almost instinctively. His writing is powerful and haunting at the same time, melding neo-classicism with densely thematic, pile-driving momentum. And his talent is wonderful at conveying the mystery and beauty of the darker side of things. Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II raised the bar for deliciously macabre, cathedral-like harmonies, whilst The Fly II, Species and Flowers In The Attic uniquely found the tragedy and eloquence behind the horrors. Even when scoring pure, out-and-out fright-flicks, such as Urban Legend and The Uninvited he found time to create magical passages of fragile melody, evoking the human side of trauma and lyrical voice of evil. In this way, Young is unusual, and also unusually adept, at scoring horror films.
Drag Me To Hell incorporates all of his recognised styles and themes in one glorious concerto of the skin-prickling, the eerie and the supernaturally captivating. Whilst his regular motifs are thoroughly revisited, the spin that he puts on them here is fascinating. Horror film scores are rarely things of eloquence and beauty, but in Christopher Young's hands they become exactly that. With this album, he combines some of the film's cues together and the line-up plays slightly out of sequence from the story's narrative. The overall experience, however, is satisfyingly intense. And intensely satisfying!
He commences the score with the title suite, Drag Me To Hell, which plays over the opening credits in the film after the prologue episode. This is simply wonderful stuff. In many ways broad and demonstrative, evocative of the supernatural and the inherent mischief of the gypsies and their demons, but it is also full of exotic Eastern European flavour and a rich vein of almost medieval playfulness. Voices hover at the outskirts of the cue, a percussive swell rolls, rickety-carriage-like, beneath the strings. Memorable for the exquisite solo violin that serenades us as though we have just wandered into either a Transylvanian Romany encampment, or onto an old Universal horror backlot-set of one. Awesomely evocative of mist, wine, trinkets, charms and ornate wagons, the violin playing is virtuoso and profound. Its melody twists, turns, slides and pirouettes as though dancing by a camp-fire, the effect actually lilting and intoxicating. Venom exists within its heady brew, though, and it would be unwise to fall under its spell.
This gypsy violin melody returns throughout the score, forming the main backbone of the film's vocal core. Not strictly a signature motif for Mrs. Ganush, the grimly determined gypsy whose home Christine forecloses on (marvellously played by a wild and dangerous Lorna Raver), but a key theme for the spirit of anarchic occult misbehaviour that her beliefs and power conjure.
Track 2 gives us the prologue cue. Entitled Mexican Devil Disaster, this accompanies a failed attempt to thwart the demonic Lamia from hauling a young thief's soul down to the depths of Hell back in 1969, forty years before the events of the movie unfold. Fabulous twinkling chimes, a xylophone and bells glisten in a fake reverie of wonderfully constructed pre-bedlam harmony, before swirling strings, wind-effects and brass strive to rob the courageous medium of her victory. Raucous blasts from trombone and tuba replace the soothing female vocals that floated beforehand, the scene transforming from the spectrally hopeful to the eternally damned in one smoothly vicious movement. Male voices buffet the cue and then a squall of dissonance from demented strings and possessed trumpets rattles the nerves and shakes the conviction of all hearing it. The solo gypsy violin creeps back in at the end, forlorn and melancholy, an echo now retreating over the hills.
Young, as I've implied, is unsurpassed at finding the heart and the character of the story. For poor Christine Brown who, by the way, is refreshingly not as cute, ditzy and likeable as you'd think, he fashions a nice little melody that is as poignant and fated as it is sweet. Found in Tracks 3, 7 and 11, this plays like a doomed lullaby, or an antidote to all the horror elsewhere. Led by a gentle piano phrase, wavering strings fold around the melody, painting a picture of fragile normality, and Christine's tentative career-minded focus. It doesn't actually remark on the ordeal to come, but it implies that whatever happiness she feels right now is not likely to last. Young provided another similar heart-aching piece for The Uninvited (Charles and Thomas Guard's US reworking of the much-admired Korean “A Tale Of Two Sisters”) which, if anything, is more beautific than this, but both serve the same agenda - the lull before the storm.
Track 4, Lamia, begins with a vaporous mist of wordless voices. A fierce assault from brass, strings and percussion then shatters the unnerving prelude, however, and the track then settles back into another fog-bank of undulating disquiet. Spellbinding glissandi, angular chimes and organ combine with creeping sensations from synth and keyboard. A disturbing episode of clamouring voices suddenly jumble together to rip the mood asunder, male and female tonsils shaping ungainly and inhuman wails and shrieks that piece your skull with utterly terrifying gusto. Something about this piece reminded me of Michael Ironside's nasty telepathic rebel in Cronenberg's classic mind-bender, Scanners, telling of how he used a power-drill to let the voices in his head escape. Part of this cue plays over Christine's violent encounter with the freaky Mrs. Ganush in the underground car park. The curse is placed upon her and Young births the sequence with some astounding jangles, string flurries, and, in a wild exhibition of zany drive, a macabre interpretation of devilish calliope music, as though some warped Ray Bradbury-esque carnival has come to town to pilfer souls.
Track 5, Black Rainbows, is another dark and twisted delight. After her initial ordeal with the gypsy witch and a rather un-reassuring visit to a fortune teller, Christine finds herself assailed by shadows, hostile pots and pans, a vicious unseen spirit, a pesky fly and the ever-present manifestations of Mrs. Ganush. Young's music for this, and the rest of the album, in fact, covers the various attacks and situations that she finds herself in ... and they make for a dedicated procession of unease, agitation, paralysing trepidation and breakneck mayhem and aggression - all the right nightmarish ingredients, in other words. Black Rainbows swerves icily about with bone-scoring violins and violas, clanging anvils and juddering percussion that lurches at us without rhyme or reason. The Devil's own hands are playing that fiddle, that's for sure. Murmurs from the choir rush in and then retreat, heavy chords are struck on the piano. A rising cloud of unease sizzles like escaping gas and a sudden storm of voices and effects, trumpets hooting like frantic elephant calls, sends us out of the track with our nerves thoroughly shredded.
Ode To Ganush (Track 6) begins with most of the cue that accompanies Christine's brutal encounter in the car park. Quietly agitated violins play against the throbbing of ponderous notes from the cello, which gradually increase in strength to give a vague hint of Lalo Schifrin's Scorpio signature from Dirty Harry - sort of like an undercurrent of undisguised insanity. For Track 7, Familiar Familiars, Young returns Christine's own theme, which now sounds more baleful and morose than before. The woman's dwindling confidence and sense of guilt are the key elements here, and the composer manages to make her soft theme come across as almost home-grown Americana, whilst still effecting an air of delicate doom.
Track 8, the tellingly titled Loose Teeth, brings on a full demonic onslaught in one of the score's more fiendish highlights. Faltering strings and iron-scratchings shiver along a tensely building ledge of squirrelly unease. Something is coming and nothing is going to stop it. Dissonance and effects ebb and then halt, pawing at the slow, tainted tonal wall until all manner of brassy blurts, tambourine tremors and lecherous symphonic snarls gather, the cue then funnelling into a terrific string and bass-led charge of furious, though futile escape. Some magnificently creepy voice effects groan and belch during the middle stretch, echoing the diseased timbre of The Evil Dead's infamous “Joiiiinnnn usssss” quote. With Raimi's trademark love of violent sound effects, Young's music finds a kindred spirit - both accompanying one another, taloned hand-in-hand. The violin gently cries to itself, farther away now, as the voices mutter and gasp and retreat. There is the thick, yet wide air of an old church emanating from beneath the track, gothic and guttural at once. Young's atmosphere turns wilfully cloying and clammy, yet refuses to sacrifice its own dark beauty within the size and structure of such crazed writing.
He starts Track 9, Ordeal By Corpse, with an ethereal and sinuous approach. The swoon of a fallen angel wisps around it, the deep underscore droning hypnotically. There comes a distinctly spidery quality that enters the frame via woodwinds and glissandi, trickling up and down the closing web of sound, light as a feather, but unnerving and cold. A doomed coda then makes its presence felt, beautiful harp and piano ushering in a mournful horn and the warped wail of something primal, something waterlogged, Young blending effects with orchestra seamlessly.
Another tour de force comes in Bealing Bells With Trumpet, Track 10. This is a ferocious set-piece that strikes a swift and remorseless pace and just doesn't let go of you. Woodblock, wind-effects and an eerie soft clattering, evocative of the film's shadow hands scratching their way across the floorboards of Christine's bedroom, introduce us to yet more otherworldly dissonance. Unlike his alien soundscape for Invaders From Mars, which thrived on such a seemingly uncoordinated litany of jabbing electronic pulses, this all feels a part of something larger, something totally wild and weird but still connected to a governing beast, rather than the shapeless jumble of sounds from some other malformed monstrosity. A brief, but worrying chant strikes up a ritual hullabaloo at around the midway point. There is a rising tide of metallic, glistening disarray swarming towards us and, just when you think it will all reach a screeching crescendo, Young allows the track to slide into palpitating oblivion.
A variation on Christine's forlorn theme plays Track 11, the bizarrely titled Brick Dogs A la Carte. The sensation is one of helplessness and, again, an understanding of guilt at what she has unleashed and brought down upon herself. Such relative peace and reluctant tranquillity won't last long, however. Violins squeal and then Young grabs the hellish goat by the horns and delivers a darkly stirring charge into the demonic fray in Track 12, Buddled Brain Strain. Accompanied by the occasional hiss and rattle, and then a swirling vortex of supernatural rage - trumpets bleating shrilly, strings bloodied by the flayed fingers fiddling them - this is so expertly wrought that you can readily believe that Young has recruited the very musicians of the Pit to play for him. Immediate, raw and fantastic, this claws into you without mercy.
Then, unbelievably, he ups the game.
Track 13, Auto- Da-Fe, is a vicious roller-coaster ride of fury, retribution and out-and-out demonic conflict. Christopher Young throws everything into the cauldron with this one, every corner of the orchestra charged with plumbing the depths of their own souls and dredging up whatever evils and dark desires they can find down there - a musical confession writ large. Some incredibly frenzied string work lashes the discordant brass, malevolent woodwinds urge the keyboards and the percussion on to acts of escalating depravity and the whole blood-curdling cacophony rakes open fresh wounds. Designed to pulverise and succeeding at every turn, this creates a mightily effective nightmare-scape that is delirious and relentless, and dreadfully easy to become lost within. Insane calliope warbles and the ghastly sound of a church organ gone rancid roll with impish merriment, and a searing central phrase for brass meshes with the thudding charge of accelerating strings, the pace quickening to a frightening degree, its tone bone-numbingly malign and unforgiving. The whole thing then plunges into fierce piano fits and severe clattering from chimes, anvil and woodblock, possessed keyboards cavorting on an orgiastic high of sick torment. Sounds unpleasant, doesn't it? And yet there is so much fun to be had from all this, as well. It is an astounding achievement that sets Christopher Young apart from any other composer fashioning horror scores today. Medieval, satanic, dark and mysterious - he brings choral and orchestral together like a Faustian pact. Souls are definitely being bartered for and traded in this score but, swept up in its delightfully ferocious symphony, I doubt that anyone listening would dream of intervening ... even if they could.
That wonderful main theme is revisited in an extended form for the album's closing track. Entitled Concerto To Hell, this is like an overture for the score, combining several key themes and elements into one 6-minute suite. But this also brings in perhaps the best and most profound exhibition of that addictive solo violin. The Devil may well have gone down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal but the fiddle-playing that emanates from your speakers throughout this score puts his presence squarely in your ears, and you will be powerless to refuse him after this abyssal serenade.
Folks, I love to hold big Halloween parties - props, bodyparts, murder, mayhem and the odd graveyard rumble - and one constant thing I have is spooky music playing continuously around the house. Obvious choices such as John Carpenter's themes from Halloween 1-3, The Fog and Prince Of Darkness, heaps of Goldsmith, Herrmann, Elfman and Donaggio, a soupçon of Suspiria, a hint of Ravenous, a lick of The Funhouse and the eerie bits from Aliens, plus various bone-gnawings of things from Universal's creature-features to Freddy's and Jason's greatest hits, but Young's horror work has always been the most atmospheric and blood-freezing. Drag Me To Hell is so damn good at raising the hackles that it could play in its entirety all night long and absolutely guarantee non-stop heebie-jeebies for all. It's top of the pops for ghouls and grave-robbers, demons and the damned!
Whether such fearsome fury floats your boat or not, there is not denying the sheer quality and intelligence of the writing, and the performances are simply magnificent. Young's established gift for interweaving massively strong orchestral majesty with inordinate dissonance and unearthly clamour is totally unique and, whether you can derive entertainment from such an unorthodox and unholy combination or not, you just have to admire his amazing ability at bringing the two "poles-apart" standards together. That firelight gypsy violin is sure to stay with you for a very long time, as is the gothic splendour of his harrowing Hellraiser-esque concerto.
Although Lakeshore's release offers no alternate tracks or bonus material, this score, alone, is worth nothing less than top marks. It totally elevates Raimi's movie to another level and, as a standalone album, it is a knock-out. Huge, enveloping and unforgettable, this is powerhouse writing and a score that Lucifer, himself, would admire and applaud.
Full Track Listing:
1. Drag Me To Hell (2:33)
2. Mexican Devil Disaster (4:33)
3. Tale of a Haunted Banker (1:52)
4. Lamia (4:06)
5. Black Rainbows (3:24)
6. Ode to Ganush (2:23)
7. Familiar Familiars (2:11)
8. Loose Teeth (6:31)
9. Ordeal by Corpse (4:35)
10. Bealing Bells With Trumpet (5:12)
11. Brick Dogs a la Carte (1:46)
12. Buddled Brain Strain (2:51)
13. Auto-Da-Fe (4:31)
14. Concerto to Hell (5:59)
Running Time: 52.34
A truly bravura horror score from Christopher Young. This is a great listening experience that is sure to rattle the nerves, as well as engage on a level of pure mysterioso. Sam Raimi has always found great composers - from Joseph LoDuca and Danny Elfman, to Alan Silvestri and now Young. Drag Me To Hell represents a magical and bone-chilling conjunction of both their astounding talents. Tremendously exciting and slyly written, the score has masses of personality, quicksilver production values and a genuine sense of the demonic. Young's chutzpah makes the music come alive with both wicked dissonance and captivating lyricism, towering Gothic might criss-crossed with a latticework of haunting charm.
This is one of those scores that you just have to put on again the second it has ended.
Now that it has stepped out of the shadows of the download realm, Drag Me To Hell reveals its true colours for Lakeshore's unlimited release. Plus, having seen the film a couple of times, I can safely say that there doesn't appear to be any music missed off - which is pretty much the norm when Christopher Young commits his music to disc - the score merely rearranged and fashioned into a more rewarding listening experience.
This year has seen some absolutely magnificent score releases, both old and new, and Young's Drag Me To Hell is certainly right up there amongst the best of the lot. Very highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.