Dialing in the Horror with Mark Korven’s Score for The Black Phone
Mark Korven’s unnerving score for Scott Derrickson’s 2021 supernatural horror film, The Black Phone, is an exemplary case study in contemporary horror film music.
The score is primarily based on the element of fear.
There is little discernible melody in the traditional sense and there is spare use of orchestra and harmony. Instead, Korven favours a range of distorted and mangled electronics, extended techniques on a handful of stringed instruments, and bizarre custom creations to shade and colour the horror of The Black Phone.
WHO IS MARK KORVEN?
Korven is a Canadian musician and composer most recently known for scores on 2015’s period-horror piece The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse. However, he has worked as a composer for film, television, and documentary as well as a notable singer-songwriter for over two decades now.
Korven’s work is marked by his expertise in a wide range of non-traditional and exotic instruments such as the sarangi, nyckelharpa, duduk, erhu and water phone.
He has also created a bespoke instrument aptly titled “the apprehension machine”, designed for a more tactile approach to creating creepy, horrific soundscapes.
THE WAY MARK KORVEN SCORES THE HORROR GENRE
The horror genre has delivered some of the most notable and important landmarks in film music history.
From John Williams work on Jaws to John Carpenter’s often-emulated Halloween to the OG work of Bernard Herrmann on Psycho, the horror genre has throughout history been driven by strong musical themes and melodies.
There has been a shift, however, in the methodologies and approaches to scoring horror films.
We hear less of the iconic meme-moments like the shark theme from Jaws. Instead, contemporary horror film scores tend to focus on more aleatoric, atmospheric sounds that accentuate the mood and feeling of a story without providing a sort of direct character connection in the way that older horror scores would.
Korven’s score for The Black Phone is a solid example of this trend in horror film scoring.
For example, there is no clear musical cue for scenes when Ethan Hawke’s “Grabber” character appears in his menacing black van.
There is no specific musical identity for Gwen and her dreams. There is not a special musical motif for Finney that captures the development in his character throughout the course of his capture.
Perhaps the score would be more effective, or at least more memorable, if there was more attention paid to these sorts of musical identities. These sorts of cues give us something to latch onto as an audience and help build our affection or derision for particular characters and storylines.
That being said, The Black Phone blends the score and sound design in near seamless fashion. But that begs the question, at what point is scoring contemporary horror actually creating “music” and instead more of an exercise in sound design?
There have been several instances the last week as I have been listening to this score where I have forgotten it is playing, walked away to do some other thing, and suddenly found myself feeling oddly anxious and paranoid as I hear these slight, scratching, off-putting noises quietly emanating from my computer speakers.
FROM ‘MAIN TITLE’ TO ‘FINAL CHAPTER’
Korven’s “Main Title” piece is by far the most rhythmically interesting and driving piece of the score.
The main title sequence is a disturbing blend of idyllic 1970s Americana suburbia juxtaposed with haunting newspaper clips of child abductions.
Full of screeching and wailing, nail biting pulsations, and highly-dissonant, slippery sonorities, Korven’s “Main Title” could be the perfect intro to your favourite '90s industrial jam.
The cue “Final Chapter” is the sole cue in the film that features a piano with string accompaniment, making it a wonderful antidote to the wretched, wrecked chaos of the previous cues.
It appears after the main protagonist Finney finally murders and escapes from the clutches of the Grabber and is reunited with his sister and father.
Built on a repeating cycle of drawn-out chords in the strings over a faster moving piano figure, “Final Chapter” sets a melancholic and reflective mood.
How does a child, a family, and a community move beyond events like those that unfold in The Black Phone?
Obviously this is not the final chapter in these characters’ lives. However, as we see swiftly after this scene, Finney is back in his science class, smiling, laughing, and flirting with a girl, with a new sense of confidence and self-esteem after having successfully murdered a full-grown human monster who kept him captive.
Rather odd turn of events, really.
MARK KORVEN GOT IT RIGHT WITH ‘THE BLACK PHONE’
Korven’s score for The Black Phone is an overall effective match to the mood and atmosphere of the film.
His blend of abstract, experimental electronics and willingness to blur the line between music and sound design has helped flesh out the characters and horror-elements in a generally successful way.
All Images: UIP Malaysia
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.