I finally got round to working on a third What’s The Score, and I decided to look at a DTSFT favourite, The Cabin in the Woods. The music for this film was consists of a compilation soundtrack for most of the first half and an original score by David Julyan, a composer who has experience with darker and horror film scores, having composed for The Descent and Eden Lake as well as a few Christopher Nolan films. Plus he’s British – I love to hear about successful British composers having a great career in Hollywood! As ever, please don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film, because there will inevitably be spoilers right from the start. Unlike with Hunger Games and The Godfather, I was unable to find individual Youtube videos for each musical cue in the film, but hopefully this embedded Spotify player will work for you. If it doesn’t, then here is a link to three videos that contain all the tracks:
The first piece of music we hear is called ‘In The Beginning’ – the name a reference not only to the fact this is the opening credits but also a hint at what the pictures might represent, these ancient forces that require the sacrifices laid out in the film. The first sounds are something like ethereal yet almost Gregorian chant-like voices, setting a drone over which almost industrial sounding drumming starts up, a percussive beat with machine-like qualities. Effect-laden brass instruments come in next with a 2-bar, 6 note motif which for some reason puts me in mind of the opening scene of The Shining. I don’t feel it’s necessary to do a What’s The Score on The Shining, as that film has been torn apart and dissected by many more qualified fans than me. Anyway, back to CITW. This opening theme crescendos and builds over roughly a minute, maintaining the same tempo but employing a chromatic ascension in the last 15 or so seconds, building to a climax which is abruptly cut short. The drama and tension which the music and imagery set up is seemingly abandoned as we meet Hadley and Sitterson at The Facility, chatting about their personal lives over a background of ‘muzak’, that insipid, synthesised nonsense that you hear in shops that can’t play current pop music, sometimes referred to as ‘elevator/lift music’. It contrasts the previous music nicely, and already we see horror movie traditions being shaken up; from the build up of tension in the opening credits, we’d expect something big to happen right at the climactic point in the music, but instead the audience is lulled into allowing that tension to dissipate, so that about 90 seconds later when the title screen appears out of nowhere, mid-conversation, we really are shocked by it.
The title screen is accompanied by a classic horror-film style screeching hit, which is heavily edited with reverb and includes what sounds like a rough female voice screaming, with loud percussion to the point that it is difficult to discern which orchestral instruments are present or missing.
That cuts straight to the street where Dana lives, panning up to find her dancing in her underwear as she packs her bag for the trip to the cabin. Across this scene there are five songs, all diegetic:
‘White Knuckles’ by Ok GO – Dana dances to this pop/rock song in her room
‘Crazy World’ by Ladyhawke – This plays underneath Jules and Dana’s conversation
Asher Roth’s ‘Be By Myself’ – When Curt, Jules, Holden and Dana are packing up the van, this music introduces Marty’s character
Switchfoot’s ‘The Sound’ – Starts under the dialogue with Marty and then gets louder as Curt turns the key in the camper van, so I assume that it’s just diegetic music that has spilled over into the previous shot. It is subjected to some sound editing to echo out as the operative on the roof communicates the group’s activities to The Facility.
Eagles of Death Metal’s ‘So Easy’ – I think we can safely assume that this is diegetic, as it is at a volume that allows the passengers to hear it without it stopping them from having a conversation.
So far, we’ve been given a good idea of the characters and their personalities, through a number of factors including the musical choices – it’s all popular, mainstream stuff, highlighting that these are just your average college kids. After Marty’s rant about going off the grid, we get a brief return to The Facility, without knowing yet how it relates to the college kids. The machine-like noises come back into this scene, and the sort of groaning industrial noise leads into the next shot of the camper van pulling up at the gas station, and blends into the music. This scene is underscored with the cue entitled ‘Beware The Harbringer’, albeit very quietly and with a slight edit – the ‘hit’ when Mordecai surprises Holden is classic horror film territory. It starts with a sustained high string which teeters from note to note chromatically, with a few isolated piano notes and some well placed lower vocal effects and brass ‘sighs. For a little while during the dialogue, the music drops out, but pops back in quietly when Mordecai talks about the Buckner house, the 4 note motif played by low strings, I would think probably a double bass rather than a cello given the deep pitch of the notes.
The motif is C#-E-D#-C; this close series of notes uses chromaticism and minor harmonies to create a dissonance that keeps coming back with each repetition of the motif, and it repeats in this score at moments to create tension and fear. The next low pitched statement of the motif is almost lost under the rumble of the camper van when it pulls away, but it is there. ‘Beware The Harbringer’ leads seamlessly into the cue called ‘The Cabin In The Woods’ (although they are in the wrong order on the soundtrack), which features the motif which we briefly heard in the opening credits, and as it plays over the next few shots where the camper van drives up a winding road surrounded by trees you can sort of see why it reminds me of The Shining, right? Soaring high strings allude to pastoral suites and nature (we see a large bird flying and then crashing into some kind of invisible electric grid, unbeknownst to the group), over an ascending sequence played by strings and brass which repeats while a harp and some middle violins add texture with arpeggios. As the group get out of the camper van and approach the cabin, the music takes on a more hollow, shimmery tone, with a few simple flourishes at various levels – mixing different instrumental and synthesised timbres lends a sort on instability to the scene; having entered this old house in the middle of nowhere, Dana and Marty seem unsure of it, while Curt and Jules seem to be fine. Mixed feelings from the group, mixed feelings in the music.
Cabin in the Woods has been praised for managing to be genuinely funny in some places, and while music in films is often used for more dramatic purposes, some well placed musical cues can enhance the humour in a scene – take the scene where Holden realises that his room has a one-way mirror, and he sees her start to get undressed. We hear the motif from before (C#-E-D#-C) being played on a pizzicato cello (I think cello, anyway) – this lends a sort of comic effect because it sounds a bit sneaky, and it harks back to the technique of Mickey Mousing from cartoons, where the music would match up with actions like someone falling down the stairs would be accompanied with a descending xylophone scale. Although this pizzicato motif isn’t connected to specific actions, it gives the sense of sneaking around and trying not to be seen, until Holden knocks on the wall to let Dana know what’s going on. When Dana and Holden switch rooms, we get the creepy, slow moving low notes as well as an oh-so-brief reappearance of the pizzicato notes when Dana sees Holden getting undressed, their roles momentarily reversed.
As the shot from Dana’s room pans out and is revealed to be on the screen in The Facility, Sitterson says ‘Places, everyone’, which is also the name of the musical cue that plays underneath. This is a just another arrangement of the same material from before, but as you’ll be able to hear more clearly on the music track there are Thomas Newman-esque synth noises and piano notes, which are low enough in the sound mix to let the dialogue take the forefront, but feature enough movement and texture to add a sense of importance to the scene. This is where we are getting a better idea of the way Hadley and Sitterson are connected to the cabin, and also a great example of how the typical horror elements are mixed in with the comedy in this updated vision. Mordecai the Harbringer talks in archaic language, referring to lambs and killing floors, and underneath his dialogue the 4 note motif emerges again to add extra suspense. But halfway through his speech when he realises he’s on speakerphone, the music cuts out and we’re reminded that this is all an act as the Facility staff crack up laughing. It even starts up again while he talks before realising he’s still on it, at which point the music gives way to the more upbeat intro of ‘Tightrope Highway’ by Motocade, although only briefly. Again, playing around with the horror cliches, Curt points out something in the water, at which point we get the classic sustained high strings – it always creates suspense, and just as we’re wondering what could be in the water, it turns out to be nothing but a ruse to distract Jules and push her in, and ‘Tightrope Highway’ comes back.
We get a few low drones while the bets are being placed, but nothing much different from the other occurrences of low sustained notes; it just adds a serious tone to juxtapose the frivolous attitude that the Facility staff seem to have towards the ill-fated group. Back in the cabin, Jules starts up the music, which initially is ‘Miss Cindy’ by The High Decibels – diegetic, and the film plays with this nicely by reminding us that Hadley and Sitterson can also hear the music, and dance around in their booth, too…
This gives way quickly to Iggy Pop’s ‘She’s the Business’ as Jules makes out with the stuffed wolf – never thought I’d ever type that sentence – and it continues through the scene until the cellar door swings open with a bang. We’re now at the next musical cue, ‘The Cellar’. Here we’ve got a mishmash of musical techniques usually found in horror films….
– A shimmery, hollow sweeping noise
– Low, tremolo strings
– Simple, almost lullaby-like piano riffs
– Scattered percussive effects, to sound like a rustling leaves or scuttling creatures
– Screeching, sliding strings
– Low thuds and pulses, low in the mix but audible enough to hear
– A gradually increasing tempo with a crescendo
On top of this, Holden opens a music box, which plays along with the score, and everything stops when Dana decided to read out loud from the diary, at which point the musical cue of ‘The Diary of Patience Buckner’ starts up. Scratchy strings underscore this part, with a mournful solo violin and later what sounds like a viola countermelody over the low sustained note. The violin melody has folk quality to it, which would reflect the old-fashioned language and content of the diary, which reveals dark thoughts of a religious and brutal nature. Again, the music builds with those previous elements as Dana reads the Latin (much to Marty’s dismay) and we see the zombie redneck torture family rise from their graves and stumble toward the cabin. This time the music builds with more force and energy as the percussive hits become increasingly violent and frequent, and the overall tone is much more aggressive. It signifies that something has been set in motion, and the real action is just about to start.
The next cue on the soundtrack is a funny one, ‘Hadley’s Lament’; at only 40 seconds long, this slow-moving string piece in a minor key sounds quite moving and heartfelt, and it plays after the bet has been won and everyone is going back to their desks. Hadley’s facial expression seems to suggest that he is having some doubts about everything that they do at The Facility, which is what the music would suggest, some kind of personal conflict. But no – he’s actually ‘lamenting’ that he has yet again missed out on the Merman. Nice use of serious music here for a moment that is more comedic than anything else.
Then we get ‘Desire’ by Vassy while Jules inexplicably dances for the rest of the group – well, it’s not inexplicable, as we know that the behaviour of the group is being influenced by Hadley and Sitterson through various measures.
The next musical cue is ‘We’re Not The Only Ones Watching’ which covers 5 minutes in the film. It doesn’t have a much melodic content, it is more about building and layering harmonies to heighten the tension in the scene. It’s another horror movie cliche – the teens getting it on somewhere unsafe; we’ve got the high and low strings sustaining notes with piano notes coming in and out, which later give way to rhythmic drumming (including some blocks and perhaps more tribal sounding drums, played by hand?). The drums help to add movement to the music, and we get a build up to the shock of Jules’ hand being stabbed with some repetitive notes in brass, strings and piano – similar to the Jaws theme in that they signify impending danger and build tension superbly. Once the ‘Buckners’ start attacking Curt and Jules, we have thunderous crashes from the percussion and piano with heavy reverb effects, and high squealing strings which convey the shrill terror of the attack. Ever since Psycho, high strings have been used in horror film scores to accompany scenes with stabbing, and their use here is no different.
Moments later, we’re back with Marty, who is influenced by The Facility to go for a walk, and he comments (like Jules did) that he thought there’d be stars. This is also the name of a musical cue, but it doesn’t match up to the scene just yet; instead, when Marty goes in to his room to barricade the windows, that’s when ‘I Thought There’d Be Stars’ plays. It builds for a few moments then dies away, leaving the most critical moment without music – this in fact makes it all the more tense, because the lack of music removes the time frame and means that the shock can come at any moment.
We have another moment of comedy in the music, when for barely 2 seconds it looks like Marty is going to defeat the zombie redneck with his travel mug bong, there is an heroic fan-fare, which is then immediately lost as the zombie gets straight back up and overpowers Marty. As he is dragged away, the music peters out, reflecting what we take to be a the likelihood of his escape dwindling. ‘We Are Abandoned’ is the cue for the next shot, where Dana and Holden are still barricading the windows and trying to escape from the zombies. As ever, things are easier to hear on the soundtrack rather than on the audio in the film. The music is understated but plays throughout – it features the whiny strings and sustained note for tension, with a return of those squealing runs as the zombie attacks Holden with a bear trap on a chain. As Dana hacks at the zombie with a knife, the music becomes energetic to match the scene, with rapid strings moving frantically.
After a brief bit of dialogue in the Facility, ‘The Cabinets Will Have To Wait’ starts up as Hadley notices that the tunnel is not blocked off as it is supposed to be. Here we get an action sequence that takes place away from the cabin and the intended victims, with Sitterson rushing to fix the situation. He runs down corridors and past co-workers, racing against time to find out what has gone wrong and how he can fix it. This part of the score is interesting in comparison to the other action sequences we’ve heard so far, in that it is somewhat more structured; the other shots have had more erratic orchestral hits and thuds of percussion to match the action, whereas this music has well-defined sequences and riffs, with alternating focus on two motifs. It starts with twitchy violins and a low, rumbling swell in the brass and lower strings, which is then cut through with a piping flash of strings that leads into a hectic piece as the scene cuts from Sitterson running through The Facility and the surviving members of the group driving toward the bridge, back and forth to build visual tension while the music adds to the drama with busy layers of music including the occasional metallic hit, steady rhythmic percussion, rapid strings and an ominous brass motif. As Sitterson succeeds in cutting off their escape, the music remains at its energetic high until the van stops and Curt, Dana and Holden survey the scene.
Following a few moments while they decide what to do, Curt revs up the engine on the motorbike and we’re into ‘For Jules’. This is easily one of the best scenes in the film, ruined by its inclusion in some trailers but nevertheless, it’s still brilliant every time I see it. Curt’s getting ready to attempt to jump over the gaping chasm that separates them from the other side of the tunnel – it’s brave, it’s manly, and it could just save our gang. The music builds triumphantly following his speech, with rising strings and brass that are heroic and reflect Curt’s bravery. And then…
(there is video, it just starts after a few seconds)
Curt slams against the electrical grid. The music here isn’t quite what I’d call Mickey Mousing but it’s pretty close; those strings that climbed up through Curt’s speech come plummeting down with him, the violins once more chattering and frantic, tumbling down in panic-mode as the shock sets in with Holden and Dana, whose scream almost blocks out the music because of the similarity in pitch and tone.
Holden and Dana get back in camper van, and while Holden asserts that they need to remain calm – what do you know, the musical cue is called ‘Whatever Happens, We Need To Stay Calm’. How about that?! Now this is just my opinion here, but I think there’s a little bit of foreshadowing in the music here, only mere seconds before what it actually predicts comes true. The music is very similar to that which we heard when the van was making its way to the cabin the first time, except that this time the harp is more prominent. To me, the dynamic change in the harps seems to hint that water is going to play a big part in what happens next, as the fluidity of the arpeggios represents the water really well. And while the harp plays on and Holden reassures Dana that they’ll find a away out, the stowaway zombie deftly stabs poor Holden in the throat from behind, causing him to lose control of the wheel (and, you know, die) and plunge the van into the lake. Bam! Water. As Dana barely escapes, we get a sustained note and brief build up as the zombie redneck almost manages to grab her leg and pull her down, which is followed by more hurrying strings as she swims quickly to the surface. Back in The Facility, Holden remarks that he’s rooting for Dana as her death is optional, and those low sustained notes creep back in to add gravity to his speech as he starts to lament about the suffering she has gone through – only to hilariously cut himself off when he gets distracted by someone entering the room with tequila.
Brilliant. Dana lies on the deck still in shock and catching her breath, surely happy to have survived, only to then get mercilessly attacked by one of the remaining Buckners as the staff at The Facility toast their own success with Dana’s attack continuing on video screens around them – at this point they’re listening to REO Speedwagon’s ‘Roll With The Changes’. Another example of where the music gives greater depth to the on-screen action by juxtaposing it rather than reflecting it.
A phone rings in the party as Hadley and Sitterson are informed that the task has in fact not been completed, at which point the action switches back to Buckner preparing to kill Dana, and the musical cue that plays here is ‘And Lo! Fornicus’. In a similar style to the other violent moments featuring the Buckners, the squealing, frantic strings make a comeback, and when Marty’s flask catches on the chain and stops the zombie redneck from fatally smashing it down onto Dana, the music is once more briefly triumphant, referencing Marty’s previous use of the flask to defend himself against attack.
Dana and Marty get in the lift and go past the series of cubes containing all the monsters and dangers they could have faced. Here we have a combination of sustained notes followed by bursts of the energetic and chaotic music used at most of the big jumps in the films, with periods of silence in between and more high sustained notes – the score adapts here to suit exactly what happens on screen, so that we have no expectations. The first big jump comes with the werewolf, and the music reacts with it, followed by the haunting, sustained strings in for the smokey ghost type creature, and then a more creeping, unsettling combination of high and low sounds with the tooth-faced girl and the scary bloke with the blades in his head. As the screen pans out and we see all the many cubes full of nightmares, the 4-note motif comes back and builds, reminding us that the fear is far from over, and that something worse is still to come.
We’re back at The Facility and the cue entitled ‘420’ runs on from the previous one, and it is named for the hidden stash that has kept Marty immune from their attempts to influence him. The music here is essentially the same as ‘The Cabinets Will Have To Wait’ except with a dip in the middle and some elements from the Buckners (those squealing strings again) thrown in for good measure – perhaps to further highlight their connection to The Facility. This is when things start to kick off for the climax of the film, where all the monsters are released at the same time and chaos descends on the The Facility. I’ll admit, it’s hard to follow the musical cues from this point because of the ensuing noise and action, but really the main point that can be made about the score throughout the next scene is that it combines all of the action sequence elements from before – the heavy crashing percussion, the hurrying strings and those squealing runs, and hits you with these musical ideas to keep the music interesting and also to make sure it can keep up with the brutal and rapid onscreen action. This all comes under the cue ‘Herald The Pale Horse’.
A nice touch and a clear example of how the themes are reintroduced is when Patience Buckner emerges from the lift on her own, and the usual music stops to give us another rendition of the folk string music we heard the first time round. Likewise, when Hadley finally gets his Merman, a lush rendition of ‘Hadley’s Lament’ plays; it seems almost romantic at this point, which makes it even funnier (and disgusting) when he is savagely attacked by the monster he really wanted to see.
Having accidentally taken out Sitterson too, Dana and Marty descend into a crypt, surrounded by the large etchings on the wall that represent each of them. Once more the cues run into one another, starting with ‘This We Offer in Humility and Fear’, which plays through Sitterson’s death and into the crypt. It features more of the creeping low notes and the twitchy violins, but this time smoothly and more precisely. The music drifts into ‘Punished For What?”, where the 4 note motif reappears as the very slow-moving bass line, and is heavily used with pizzicato strings emphasised by light timpani hits and harmonies that build with slow moving strings. The appearance of the motif at this final stage of the film highlights its importance; this is the real danger that was hinted at from the very start, when we saw those drawings in the opening credits. We heard the theme then and we’re hearing it again now, over and over so that it is inescapable, because that’s all there is left. As Dana and Marty survey the walls, the chattering effect used in ‘The Cellar’ is employed again, to add that extra creepiness to the scene.
We get a final few moments with jumps and scares in them, as the werewolf creeps up behind Dana and mauls her, and Marty fights with The Director who is unceremoniously killed with an axe to the head by Patience Buckner. This last burst of energy is underscored with ‘Patience’s Lullaby’, which again has all the elements from the previous action and violence sequences from the film, and once she and the Director are thrown over the sides to the Ancient Ones, the music returns to ‘Youth’, a quiet, slower piece that doesn’t threaten the dialogue, and reflects the last few moments of Marty and Dana’s lives, relaxing together as they share a joint. It builds for one last burst as the Ancient Ones emerge and the world ends around them.
For an in-depth look at the costume work in Cabin In The Woods, check out Sophia’s post. For a great analysis of the whole film, head over to http://lebeauleblog.com/2012/09/29/analysis-the-cabin-in-the-woods/