As we draw ever closer to Halloween, we are reminded of the more sinister things in life. Black cats, witches and pumpkins are very much attached to yesteryear; it’s 2014, things have to be ramped up a little bit. Ironically, however, latest release Stonehearst Asylum looks back to a short story by Edgar Allen Poe for a little dark inspiration. Telling the story of one man’s grisly discovery, the film is set in the dank, lurking eponymous asylum, a perfect setting for revisiting the dead.
Following his recent work on the TV two parter Houdini, John Debney returns to similar fare, reinvoking traditions of days gone by through his compositional style. Debney’s inspiration for the dark tale, surprisingly, lay in the sweeping romantic theme of his heroine. Aiming to evoke feelings of love at first sight, Debney explained how the theme was the most crucial to the narrative as “it puts into motion all the events in the film”. Balancing love and psychopathic obsession, Debney returns to more traditional fare in his score for Stonehearst Asylum.
Traditional the music is, expected, it is not. From the off, it is apparent that Debney has really hit the nail on its head with his score. Evoking the zeitgeist of days gone by, his music is entirely of its time, representative of the cinematic narrative but not for one moment alienating of its audience. Cue ‘Eliza’s Theme’ is the clear high point of the film. Melancholy, vulnerable and sweeping, it represents entirely the sadness which pervades the character in the narrative. Debney’s balance of strings is incredibly thoughtful and gentle; avoiding cliche, over exposure and large musical statements, the music is so deeply moving that it is hard to consider the sinister story from which it was born.
Of course, not everything is dripping with romanticism and the score certainly has its darker moments. The sound Debney has created for the creaking, ageing asylum is entirely Victorian; never overblown, he manages to reduce the sense of dread to a size small enough to lull you into a false sense of security. Tracks ‘Seeing the Asylum’ and ‘Edward Enter’s Asylum’ balance tremolo strings, pizzicato and spidery harpsichord motifs to evoke our darkest memories of cobwebbed haunted mansions. There’s no absence of humour, either. Moving gently from brooding strings to punctuated bassoon, the music seems self-aware, perceptive of its dramatics and theatricality.
Cue ‘We Are Not Crazy’ is suitably crazy. Using off-tune percussion, glockenspiel runs and slow, low motifs, the sound is deeply unsettling. To Debney’s favour, he rarely expands the sound of his music, choosing to keep the instrumentation restricted within tight confines. His music never does more than it absolutely has to and because of that, is all the more sinister. It is in what is not heard that the terror of the music lies.
With a nod to the musical sound of the Victorian era, including a version of Saint-Saens’ masterpiece ‘Danse Macabre’, Debney’s score is a thrilling, sinister and deeply romantic work. Never overstepping his task, he manages to keep the theatricality of the film within very close confines, alluding just enough to haunted genre to chill audiences to the bone. Bringing the very best of the dark Victorian-era storytelling to cinemas once more, Debney’s score is something to which it is possible to listen again and again and again.