From the onset, I feel it appropriate to state that François Tétaz’s score for 2005’s infamous, ‘Wolf Creek’ is my favourite modern movie score. I should also mention that ‘Wolf Creek’ is one of my favourite modern horror films. Extracting Tétaz’s score from the film in which it accompanies is difficult for me to do. Obviously this symbiosis is the aim of any film score, but ‘Wolf Creek’ works for me at a deeper, more profound level. To discuss why the score for ‘Wolf Creek’ is so exceptional is to discuss why the film itself is so exceptional. There are many tropes inherent in the horror genre that ‘Wolf Creek’ avoided, and in so doing, managed to become genuinely creepy and horrific, which isn’t a claim one can make about too many horror films made in this century.
Director, Greg McLean, expertly utilised the isolated Australian environment as the most pernicious element in the film and placed characters he made a point of developing into the middle of it. Upon my first viewing, I remember being taken aback at the lengths McLean went to in order to have me invest emotional energy into the characters. It made their fate more tragic and amplified the powerlessness incalculably. By the time Mick Taylor finally appears on screen, a little part of the viewer dies inside. We become passengers on a slow ride that will end in a fatal crash, and we know it the second we see Mick’s eyes.
This sense of hopelessness and foreboding is achieved via the film’s combined facets. Will Gibson’s stunning cinematography magnifies the isolation of the landscape, inducing horror with merest hint of shadow or the endless vista of the stark, Australian desert. The cast, particularly John Jarratt’s (now famous) portrayal of Mick Taylor produce rare chemistry. And then there’s François Tétaz’s score.
All of the most effective aspects of ‘Wolf Creek’ as a whole are exemplified by François Tétaz’s music. The isolation, dread, horror and hopelessness live in every mournful note and sound. There is more going on in Tétaz’s score than there may seem at first. The compositions are deliberately sparse and given room to breathe and brood. The pompous theatrics one might expect to find in a modern horror film are nowhere to be found. In taking this approach, Tétaz honoured the film more than one could hope.
To understand one of the means in which Tétaz was able to achieve such aural isolation, we must cast out attention to Australian sound artist, Alan Lamb. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Lamb produced a series of field recordings focused abandoned telegraph wires found in the Australian outback. These recordings contain some of the most haunting and mournful sounds captured on tape. It was a piece entitled ‘Night Passage’ that Tétaz decided to incorporate into his score for ‘Wolf Creek’. Here’s is ‘Night Passage’ divorced from the rest of the score:
One can hear ‘Wolf Creek’ very early on, and it was a stroke of genius on the part of Tétaz to incorporate sounds produced in the same isolated environment in which the film was made. Incorporating a classic piece of Australian experimental music into a commercial film score was a brave move, designed to actually provide the best accompaniment to the visuals rather than just follow the tired path of most commercial fare.
Beyond Alan Lamb, Tétaz employs a cast of the who’s who of Australian experimental music scene. The following list of players comes straight from this Cyclic Defrost review:
He’s enlisted the likes of Dave Brown (Candlensuffer/ Bucketrider) on prepared guitar, Anthony Pateras on piano and prepared piano frame, Miki Tsunoda and Andrea Keeble on violin, Bret Dean on viola, Rosanne Hunt on cello and Tim O’Dwyer (Bucketrider) on bass clarinet. Tetaz himself also offers guitar, Rhodes, Ukelyn and percussion.
If it wasn’t already apparent, this is not your typical film score. Using Lamb’s recordings as a starting point, Tétaz and co creates very similar sounds and moods in the composed material. The musicians spend plenty of time developing disquieting layers of abstraction that aren’t designed to impose themselves; rather they seep into you, achieving a cumulative dread. When more traditional music occurs (most notably in the ‘Main Theme’) it takes the form of morose string quartet instrumentation with Tétaz underscoring with funereal piano. These more traditional tracks become intermingled with the abstraction already discussed, casting a blacker cloud over an already black sound world.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this music is the beauty it possesses amid the darkness. The strings ache with beauty and drift with an undeniable sense of cinematics. The dichotomous result is one of both abject horror and goose-pimpled awe. This uneasy marriage further enhances the discomfort of the viewer. I can think of very few scores that have enhanced the film it accompanies so completely. I can also think of very few scores that hold up as a purely aural experience. I’ve probably listened to the score on its own more than I’ve watched the film, but such is the enormity of McLean’s achievement that one viewing makes an indelible imprint upon the mind. I can’t listen to this music without seeing the imagery – feeling the dread.
Below is a series of tracks from François Tétaz’s score to ‘Wolf Creek’. Turn off the lights, embrace the beauty, and feel the hopelessness. This one is a keeper.
Here’s a couple of tracks isolated from the film
And here is a scene so you can see and hear the way it has all been integrated.
Apologies for the lack of examples. I’ll admit to being presumptuous and assuming the entire soundtrack would be on YouTube. I’ll upload a couple of tracks over the next weeks and link back to this article in my next Sound of Trash post. Of course, you could always explore this wonderful soundtrack yourself!