Written by Charlie Brigden
I don’t know about you, but whenever sometimes says the word “witch” I think of my ex. And after that, it’s of course Suspiria, especially musically. In that movie Goblin really come into their own and they’re a pretty huge reason why Dario Argento’s movie is regarded as a masterpiece. But there’s a new goat on the block and its name is The VVitch. A 17th century tale about witchcraft in New England (where else?), it scared the shit out of a bunch of hardcore horror hounds in festivals last year and hits cinemas next month in the US and March in the UK. Milan Records are putting the soundtrack out and kindly sent us a copy for our delectation, and, well, holy shit.
The VVitch is one of the most unsettling scores I’ve ever heard. Composed by Canadian Mark Korven – who unsurprisingly had one of his earliest jobs writing music for the 80’s revival of The Twilight Zone – and performed by the composer and two other musicians (with a choir backing them up), it starts your skin crawling from the first second. Beginning in a reasonably traditional way with a slow moody string line, it feels immediately like a precursor, something foreboding. Fan, meet shit. Dissonance follows, something that you encounter a lot during The Witch, and here it surges into a wave of scratching and biting strings, with low notes clashing with a horrible chorus of shrieking that not only sounds terrifying but also feels absolutely authentic.
And that’s an intentional and crucial part of Korven’s approach. While he uses the familiar chaotic and malevolent strings that we’re so used to in the genre, their source is less traditional, at least for a modern score. Appearing are the Spanish Viol, the Finnish Jouhikko, and the Swedish Nyckelharpa, stringed instruments that range from the 14th century to the 18th, as well as the infamous Hurdy-gurdy (probably still best known from the Donovan song so memorably used in David Fincher’s Zodiac), together with the cello and waterphone (the latter of which was a staple of Bernard Herrmann). So while the instruments themselves are perhaps appropriate for the film in terms of period, they also work to unsettle us a bit – they’re certainly familiar, but there’s something in there that we don’t recognise.
And then there’s The Element Choir, a group led by folk artist Christine Duncan who are responsible for the frankly horrific choral parts in the score (horrific in a good way, of course). Just listen to the wordless underlying chorus in ‘A Witch Stole Sam’, or the floating, ghostly voices in ‘William’s Confession’. They’re also responsible for the most terrifying moment in the score, ‘Witches Coven’, which is essentially the chorus furiously chanting incantations in an unknown language. It’s a chilling moment, and I say that listening to it on a Tuesday afternoon. Do I dare play it late at night?
I’m not especially prone to hyperbole, but much of The VVitch is a deeply uncomfortable listen. As mentioned earlier, it’s full of dissonance and atonal pieces, with the score constantly shifting and warping, creaking. The percussion sections sound like they were literally created with tree branches and sticks, something that feels consistent with the setting of the story and the imagery that comes with witchcraft. And there’s one moment during ‘Caleb Is Lost’ where the strings produce this horrible gutteral growl that genuinely made me shiver.
I haven’t seen the film of The VVitch so I can only go by this soundtrack, but what Mark Korven has composed is able to work all by its lonesome, which is not always guaranteed when it comes to these kind of scores. But it’s an utterly rewarding listen, not only in the way it’s able to creep you out but also the haunting beauty contained within, such as the two solo string tracks that bookend the album, as well as ‘Isle of Wight’, which is a wonderful folk song. Get ready for The VVitch – to quote the tagline for a classic horror movie, it knows what scares you.
The VVitch is released on February 19th (digital) and March 4th (CD) from Milan Records. A vinyl edition is due for May.
Charlie Brigden is a longtime horror nerd who runs his own site about film scores and soundtracks, Films On Wax. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter as well as subscribe to his podcast on Soundcloud.