On October 18th, a film many had been anticipating for months finally made its way into American cinemas: The Lighthouse, the sophomore feature from director Robert Eggers. Released by indie powerhouse A24 and starring acting titans Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, the film is a brilliant, terrifying and beautifully shot descent into madness that’s a true must-see for any lover of cinema. The gorgeous, black and white cinematography and the furious, no-holds barred performances from the two leads ensure that the film is already one of the best of the year, but there’s one element that does the most work to catapult The Lighthouse into the pantheon of great American horror: the score.
Across horror cinema history we’ve seen all genres of music set the tone for the events that unfold on screen. John Carpenter’s high energy synth compositions for films such as Halloween and The Thing are perhaps the most memorable, serving as inspiration for his numerous successors, including Disasterpeace’s It Follows and Sinoia Caves’ Beyond the Black Rainbow. Others such as Candyman and The Shining have used classical pieces to great effect, while the 90s over the top masterpieces Army of Darkness and Dead Alive achieve a perfect balance of terror and comedy with completely overblown, almost slapstick-esque orchestration.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen much more experimentation in this field than ever before, and it seems to be really coming to a head in 2019. Scores of films like Us and Midsommar demand to be paid attention to: Us with its soaring choirs and sinister flips of classic rap songs, Midsommar with its paralyzing, string-laden ambience. Perhaps most uniquely impressive was how director Gaspar Noe soundtracked his supremely disturbing Climax, making French house the soundtrack for an LSD-induced psychotic freak out, and effectively ruining future listens of most Daft Punk songs. Even in a year with this many great scores, The Lighthouse stands out as the best so far.
Composed by Mark Korven, the music serves as the perfect compliment to the barnacle-covered, brine-soaked psychological breakdown the film’s audience bears witness to. Korven had previously scored Eggers’ first feature The Witch, and the Canadian cult hit Cube. Raised in Winnipeg, Korven studied jazz and orchestration in Edmonton, and ended up specializing in various genres of world music throughout his life. He’s been composing since the 1980s, and had been nominated for several awards in Canada, but he seemed a relative unknown to American ears until he met Eggers.
What Korven has done here is remarkable: he’s taken all presumptions of structure and melody and thrown them out the window, in favor of putting ear-shattering, soul-shaking soundscapes at the forefront. The score effortlessly evokes the feeling of a terrible nightmare in an unknown place, and like every good horror score, it’s unpredictable. The blaring, ever-present, obnoxiously loud foghorn from the film that repeats enough to drive you insane is absent from the soundtrack; Korven manages to almost completely eschew motif here, partly because there’s rarely a distinguishable pitch or key in any track. In other words, it would be very hard to traditionally notate or transcribe the noises present here. Accomplished and fully realized through an assortment of instruments alien to American ears, The Lighthouse’s music is more avant-garde than the majority of films are willing to get, and because of that it only serves to make the film scarier. Perhaps not surprising that Korven was a key player in the creation of the Apprehension Engine, an instrument whose sole purpose is to generate extremely unsettling sounds.
In a way, The Lighthouse seems like the ultimate culmination of this new wave of experimental horror music. Gone are the cheap jump scare accompaniments to The Conjuring and Sinister that defined the earlier part of the decade, and gone is any notion that music in horror should be relegated to the background.
Listen to The Lighthouse score here: https://open.spotify.com/album/2BhIDZrVtzZ5v9xY6KblYJ
The Apprehension Engine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzk-l8Gm0MY