Listen to composer Christopher Young's unsettling Pet Sematary soundtrack
Music tantalizes the ear, it can get stuck in your head, but rarely does it crawl under your skin like composer Christopher Young’s score for the new Pet Sematary film.
The soundtrack is out today, along with the movie, and EW has an exclusive track from the release and an interview with the artist himself, explaining how he used distorted voices and unusual rhythms to destabilize the listener.
The song above is called “The Cat Has No Hat (Burial Vamp),” which is a combination of cues from the film.
“This track doesn’t exist in the same format as the movie,” Young tells EW. “It was adapted for the soundtrack. But this is a key point in the film. The lead character has had an unbearable loss, and the audience gets to experience the aftermath. This is also when we see two cemetery scenes. The evil pulsing is when we see the evil Pet Sematary.“
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As the track begins, the rhythm almost sounds like a heartbeat. Is that what you were going for?
CHRISTOPHER YOUNG: Absolutely. Yes. It was the throbbing heartbeat of someone who is set on doing something wrong. It’s the kind of heartbeat that happens to someone when they step over the line.
Then that pulse becomes so driven, it felt to me almost like a dirge — a funeral dirge. Was that type of music an influence?
Yes, toward the latter part with the chords. A string orchestra is playing minor chords but they are being stretched and are dirge-like. The inspiration comes from music that acknowledges the burial of someone important. It is intentionally dirge-like. It’s supposed to make you feel like you’re entering a dark, sacred, and twisted cemetery.
Around the 1:20 mark I hear notes sung by what sounds like a little girl. But there’s a distortion. Is it being played in reverse?
Yes, the backward voice speaks to the haunted past of the mother, the twisted, ghostly voices, and the melodic line is a twisted version of Ellie the daughter’s theme.
Then there are these whispered voices darting back and forth between the stereo. It’s truly disturbing. Can you reveal what those voices are actually saying?
They aren’t saying anything specific. It’s really a collection of different random syllables that are modified.
There’s also a squeal, it almost sounds like tires. What’s creating that sound?
These are modular synth sounds that are based on vacuum tubes. In the percussion, the looping groove, there is modified electric guitar, modified breath sounds, banging on low piano strings, and the sound of walking on gravel that has been filtered. The low “baaaaaaaah” is again a modular synth derived from a vacuum tube.
You have quite a few horror films in your filmography — Hellraiser, Tales from the Hood, The Grudge, Sinister — what is it about your style that attracts filmmakers whose goal is to frighten and unsettle the audience?
Throughout the darker, scarier films I’ve done, there has been a genuine effort on my part to address the invisible world of the movie, and I’m always seeking to get behind the image, and bring to life that which we cannot see on-screen. That translates to different sounds and music, depending on the needs of the film. I think that’s the thing directors often respond to. A genuine effort to provide more than just stock, scary music. At the end of the day, I think people understand that this is really alive for me. I truly understand the genre; it’s ingrained in me. When I was very young, I took an interest in things that weren’t on “the brighter side of life.” I have always been fascinated by Halloween, carving pumpkins, and wondering what is going on out there in the dark. It’s not something that is frightening, it’s the awe, the wonder of what exists in the invisible world.
You previously did the music for a Stephen King film with George Romero’s The Dark Half. Any good stories or memories from making that?
Needless to say, getting a call from George Romero was really something. I think his original choice for a composer was Henri Mancini, but the studio that released the film didn’t go for that choice. I won him over by putting together a suite of music that aptly described the book. Back in those days, we didn’t do digital mockups, so the director had to settle for me whacking at the piano to describe the score! It was fun to have him sitting next to me while I worked to describe what would happen musically in the film. He lost the hearing in his right ear right as we were heading to Munich, Germany to record the orchestra. So the first time he heard it was when he was on the dub stage. I was terrified —would he like it or not? But indeed, he was extremely happy with the music.
There are inevitable comparisons to be made between the two Pet Sematary films, although they both approach the material in a different way. Your score and Elliot Goldenthal’s for the ’89 film also could not be more different. How would you compare or contrast how you both approached the music for this story?
I have a confession to make. I read the screenplay before I met with the directors of the new Pet Sematary but I haven’t seen the original. I was going to but thought it would cloud my head. I listened to some of the score, but not all of it. What I can say, is that Elliot Goldenthal is a wonderfully amazing composer, but it didn’t influence me. By contrast, his score is an acoustic score and mine is electronic.
Finally, could you list some of your other favorite tracks on the soundtrack and what makes them special?
The opening track (“The Wendigo”). I like that it’s primarily sampled strings, modified in a way that’s not quite normal, a screwed up string orchestral, with sounds created by stretching, banding and panning the sounds [moving them between speakers] in a way they don’t really pan, adding a stuttering effect, and transposing them, and playing them at abnormal pitch levels. I also like track No. 6 (“Scream For More”), which is created entirely with voices, a cappella. Again, I stretched the sounds, moved them backward and forward, and bent the pitches. I really putrefied them. I also really like the last track, No. 15 (“Wasn’t the Beginning”). I am a fan of the tunes and besides, there is nothing like settling into a theme that is catchy and mysterious. The closing track didn’t make it into the film, so you will only find it on the soundtrack.
Pet Sematary (2019 movie)