The Woman in Black (Marco Beltrami)

Final Musings: What we have here is an undeniably effective score in context but something that is incredibly dull and dreary on album. While the score is not atonal in a sense, its noise and drivel is nearly unbearable, leaving very little room for any harmonic appeal. Even the more thematically driven moments are far too oppressive in its nature to truly enjoy. Besides 15 min of some orchestral beauty, this score lacks any harmonic appeal. Hence this is a score to appreciate on film more so than on album.

Susan Hill’s 1983 chilling horror novel has seen its fair share of adaptations. Its radio, television and theatrical adaptations might attest to the reputation the novel had. But the 2011 film would be the first feature film to take on the tale. It would also be the first opportunity for star of the Harry Potter series, Daniel Radcliffe, to branch out in film since the end of his hit franchise. The film was surprisingly well received by critics for its credible handling of an old-fashioned horror tale. It showcases Daniel Radcliffe as a young lawyer and father who has certain visions which would go on to lead him into the usual predictable circumstances. This isn’t a flick with gore, but rather the eerie suspense of the stories of old in the genre.

Signed on to the project was horror master, Marco Beltrami. It was hardly a surprise, considering the composer’s expertise with the genre. Beltrami has often shown off his talent in the genre with melodic and harmonious strengths in his stronger efforts like Mimic. To go on, the composer had quite a year in 2011, especially in terms of horror with the haunting score for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. His first 2012 venture ran along the lines of Beltrami’s lesser works, further proving the composer’s strange hit-and-miss trends in the quality of his work. While the score has a basic foundation of melody and lyricism, it certainly won’t be the most pleasant listening experience for fans eagerly awaiting the harmonious appeal of his 2011 work.

What one has with The Woman in Black is a score that works far better in context than it does as an album experience. Perhaps in the name of traditional horror or for the sake of some other cause, Beltrami compiles the horror techniques common to his career and standard to modern horror scoring to create quite the piece. The score has everything one would expect of a horror score. You have the screeching strings, unsettling whispers, eerie ambient textures, creepy female voices and all the other little sounds that the composer has emulated in the past. These elements do an extremely effective job of scaring you. On a technical level, this score can actually be quite interesting to study in its impressive ability to truly frighten the listener through its combination of certain methods of inducing fear. In that regard, this is a strong score in context. While there is absolutely nothing new in this score, it does its job quite well. The inherent flaw however is simply how difficult a task it is to listen through it. Even in its more accessible moments, the score’s bleak and oppressive nature is not far off from bringing out serious states of depression. Perhaps it is key for listeners to acknowledge that this is a more textural score as a whole rather than a melodious one before approaching it.

Beltrami provides two main themes. The primary one is crafted for the character of Arthur. The melody is a cold six note progression. It’s brutal and stark nature will leave listeners emotionally detached. Regardless, the theme effectively adds on to the gloomy atmosphere of the score. The theme debuts at the second track (The Woman in Black) in its more eerie renditions. To add on to that, listeners may find interest in its harmonious appeal at the final track (a refreshing moment from much of the nearly atonal material). Beltrami’s second theme is designed to represent for the woman herself. The simplistic motif opens up the score in the unsettling lullaby-like fashion that Beltrami used in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s a darn shame that this instrumental colour was not used consistently for the rest of the score. In fact, the theme is rarely brought out to shine for many of its appearances are far too subtle to have much of an impact. A fine instance would be in cues like Voices in the Mist in which the theme creeps in for a peak before fading out and giving way to the score’s ambient textures. There is also the driving motif which is a consistent thematic element of the score to create tension and drive fear in the score. You first hear it at Crossing the Causeway. The pace it gives the score is one of the more enjoyable elements of the score. Its interesting to note how often these thematic elements play a very subtle role in the score as a whole. For example, the driving motif is nearly indistinguishable from the bass churning in Rising from the Mud. This idea further proves how this score seems to be more about texture than melody.

Muse on These:

Bills Past Due

Very dreary in its musical atmosphere, but the movement that is emulated by the driving motif and the use of different instrumental colours will make this a cue of some mild interest for listeners.

Journey North

More of the aforementioned dread is consistent in this cue. But the combination of melodramatic orchestral material for Arthur, the relentless movement of driving motif and the eerie chorus may appeal to ardent Beltrami fans.

Into the Fire

Arguably the best cue of the album. The tragic climax of this track is impressive along with the well conceived use of all the major thematic ideas of this score. This is especially the case when the chorus explodes at 2:06 with Arthur’s Theme. Listeners will definitely be eager to get to this while listening to this album, unfortunately it’s not quite worth the half hour it takes to get there.

Race to the Marsh

The heart-racing opening, the unsettling whispers,  the melodrama and all that ruckus will effectively do its job of frightening the listener (if you take the time to listen to it in the dark). Perhaps one would need to be in the right mood to want to listen to that extensive ending.

Arthur’s Theme

Finally, something that won’t have you at the edge of your seat! This is an appealing suite of Arthur’s Theme in its normal melodramatic sensibilities brought out in a far more harmonic fashion that in the past of this score. The cue will come as much relief to those who were born to the near point of suicide while listening to the score (although the depressing nature of this track may continue to explore such feelings). This might be the only track that may receive some emotional attachment by listeners.

While most horror scores tend have their fair share of dissonance and the usual droll suspense material, they usually offer highlights that make their purchase worth it. Oddly enough however, The Woman in Black offers very little of that. Listeners may enjoy the climactic highlights like Into the Fire where the woman’s theme and Arthur’s theme burst into furious heights, yet even at moments like these, there appears to be something the score is lacking. Moreover, the album is overwhelmingly dreary. Simply listen to cues like Bills Past Due to understand the terribly oppressive nature of the musical atmosphere that Beltrami creates. There is no doubt that this score plays as an incredibly effective tool in film, adding on to the atmosphere that the film attempted to make. Furthermore, the score has merit with Beltrami’s intent with creative touches like the extensive chair noises in the music for The Door Opens. It is at moments like these that listeners will find themselves impressed by how the score can work so well at inducing fear. Unfortunately, this ultimately makes the score quite hard to enjoy and listen to as a standalone album. Most of it simply sounds like standard suspense filler music, regardless of its potency in the film. And so, while the score’s use in context may be admirable, the lack of any new ingenuity on Beltrami’s part or the failure in the entertainment factor prevents this score from receiving a heartfelt recommendation.

Rating: * * 1/2

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