Composer Christopher Young Delivers Us Some Evil

By  · Published on July 7th, 2014

Screen Gems

Christopher Young knows horror. After 32 years in the business and countless horror movies under his belt from Hellraiser to The Grudge to Drag Me To Hell to his latest, Deliver Us From Evil, Young is a wealth of information when it comes to talking all things fear. A composer, but also a big fan, Young’s appreciation for the genre has in turn helped him give it some of its most terrifying scores.

Young didn’t seek out the horror genre, it just happened that he was coming up in the business when films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Freddy the 13th reigned supreme. Deliver Us From Evil marks the third time Young has worked with director Scott Derrickson, and Young is clearly a fan of the rising filmmaker, noting that he is one of only a handful of directors whose specialty is horror. “He’s one of two or three horror directors that I’ve worked with who are extremely intelligent and concise about what it is they’re trying to do with their movie as a director, but equally ‐ and more importantly from my perspective ‐ is what needs to be done with the music,” Young says.

While Young considers Derrickson a “horror brainiac,” it was the freedom Derrickson offered Young that truly made him happy to work with him again. There were techniques he’d wanted to try for years that other filmmakers weren’t open to, but Derrickson gave him the green light ‐ specifically when it came to escaping orchestral arrangements in favor of electronic style.

“I don’t care how inventive you are, once you introduce strings into the ensemble for a horror film, you’re entering into a world where a tradition has been thoroughly established,” Young explains. “So it’s repeated use over the years is like, ‘Oh god, another film with strings, another spooky movie with strings.’ Psycho is probably the best known example of a horror film whose exclusive sound was strings, and since then it’s been hard to avoid that. The minute you have strings as your primary voice, the comparisons are always made.”

Thanks to Derrickson’s faith in Young (and budget constraints which did not allow for an orchestra…) he was able to branch out into the electronic world on Sinister. Young appreciated him “taking a chance on an old school horror guy” and while his work apparently surprised Derrickson, it didn’t surprise Young. “I’ve always known I could do it and I’ve alluded to it and used electronics in a lot of my previous horror scores, but never to the extent I did in [Sinister] because it was exclusively electronic. My rule was, if I was going to do this, I was going to try and do it a little bit different. Because there are certain gestures or concepts that are shared by all of us with synth horror, but I was trying to rattle the cage a little bit.”

And that is precisely what Young says he has done again with Deliver Us From Evil. Working with both a string orchestra and synth, Young recorded a “grab bag” of extended string techniques, sampled them, and then proceeded to manipulate them.

“I wanted to do something with the transpositions, making the strings lower then they would ever normally be able to go or higher,” Young says. “Or they’re panning from left to right. Or they’re moving from extremely loud to extremely soft. From being very present and in your face to in the distance and in the reverb. The juxtaposition of certain techniques that could never be performed by one orchestra live.”

Beyond his present work, I asked Young what specific scenes have stood out to him over the years, and three films immediately came to his mind. The first was Hellraiser, where a woman spends the film killing people to try and bring her deceased lover back from the dead.

The scene that stood out to Young is when Julia (Clare Higgins) is flashing back to the first time she met her husband’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), who’d become her lover. Young said the film’s director Clive Barker wanted a “sick, romantic song” that would help the audience believe in her love.

“I was scared shitless because I knew if I flunked out on this one I would’ve betrayed [Barker’s] desire for the scene and in doing so, lost his audience,” says Young. “So we played the scene with my music and when it was over I just remember there being dead silence in the room, and then we all stood up and hugged each other because we all knew it was something special we’d just seen ‐ it even surprised me! But I couldn’t deny that there was something that had happened in that scene with that music and I’ll always remember that particular scene because it confirmed in my mind that I hadn’t made a mistake becoming a film composer.”

The second scene Young thought of came from his first big drama film called Murder In The First with Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater and Gary Oldman. Set on Alcatraz, the film focuses on the story of one inmate (Bacon) who spent an extremely long amount of time in solitary confinement underground. It was the first time Young was able to show people he could do a theatrical drama, but it was also where Young learned to ignore a film’s temp and go with your gut.

Young found himself pitted against Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana ‐ Intermezzo” which was made famous in Raging Bull and is considered one of opera’s most famous themes. Young realized he needed to get the “Italian thing” out of his head. “What I ended coming up with for the main title I think works pretty well. It doesn’t sound the slightest bit Italian, it sounds somewhere between American and English, but it does the job and [Marc Rocco] was thrilled. It took me a long time, but once I got over that hurdle and broke through and found a theme it made the writing of the score possible. I didn’t even start on doing the entire score until I had succeeded in coming up with that theme.”

For his third scene, Young recalled his first studio movie, Jennifer Eight. After the director, Bruce Robinson, heard Young’s score for The Fly II he wanted Young for the film, but the studio, Paramount, did not because of Young’s lack of studio credits. They brought on another composer, Maurice Jarre, who did not end up working out so Young was called in, but with only three weeks until the film hit theaters.

Once again stuck on the main theme, Young found inspiration at a busy street corner in Los Angeles. “I cross the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills and there’s that big fountain right there on the corner and right at the stop light there popped into my mind, fully shaped, the melody. If you watch that movie, the theme that opens the movie came into my head right at that stop light. I ran back to the piano and within fifteen minutes had worked it out, called Bruce and played it for him over the phone and he said, ‘That’s my theme’.”

Deliver Us From Evil is now in theaters.