Musings About Music In Film

Stonehearst Asylum


By Karol Krok Stone-Hearst-Asylum

Brad Anderson assembled quite a cast for his latest period drama thriller – Ben Kingsley, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson. That much is certain. In this adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, young doctor ventures into Stonehearst Asylum facility to find an apprenticeship. However, what he finds there is a terrible mystery that will push him to the limits of his sanity. The concepts might seem terribly outdated and trailers don’t really do much to encourage viewing. However, this kind of setting usually offers great opportunity for film music.

John Debney is rightfully known in the film industry as a chameleon. That is a good and bad thing, depending on how to look at it. The wide variety of genres he tackled is quite impressive. But, at the same time, producers often employ his talents to mimic someone else’s style – sometimes really closely - in order to accommodate the needs of different projects. It is a real shame, because scores he writes without such constraints are usually his best.

Stonehearst Asylum marks a return to purely orchestral style of writing, after several projects filled with drum loops and electronic manipulation. While there is nothing wrong with such experimentation, John Debney is at his strongest while writing for an orchestra in its traditional idiom. And this score is an excellent example of his talents in this medium. Oscillating somewhere between classy period drama and horror, the music is always elegant and sprawling. The lovely recurring main theme for Kate Beckinsale’s character is introduced early on - in the opening piece (‘Eliza’s Theme’). It’s very classy and fits well in Edwardian period tale, especially when arranged for solo violin.

There is a lot of creepy suspense music to be found on the soundtrack album. However, the composer does it with enough flair not to descend into chaos, everything is always well structured and listenable. He makes also a nice use of low woodwinds (‘Seeing the Asylum’) to create a very old-fashioned feel. ‘We Are Not Crazy’ employs discordant piano and solo string instruments in a particularly unsettling track. The mysterious and quirky ‘The Doctor’s Story’ adds a certain sense of lightness to an otherwise heavy writing surrounding it, while ‘Shock Therapy’ is coincidentally similar in approach to some asylum sequences from Abel Korzeniowski’s Penny Dreadful.

About a third into the lengthy album, the scope becomes a bit bigger. ‘Dangerous Liaison’ contains some rhythmic string-driven tense suspense music in its opening and closing segments. In both ‘Edward  Meets Timm’ and ‘The Chase’ we hear the score’s first proper action writing. Brass section, up to this moment virtually absent, gives a sense of urgency to those cues. ‘Finn/Edward Fight’ is also quite exciting, although airy woodwind and xylophone interlude makes it less than serious in the end. On the other hand, there’s a great sense of urgency to ‘Countdown’. The two climactic tracks –  ‘Electrocution/Lamb’s Story Revealed’ and ‘Finn Catches Fire/Escape’ – bring an almost Gothic horror feel to mind. The latter makes a use of Eliza’s theme in an action context to great effect.

Among all the terror and intrigue, also emotional passages can be found as well. The slightly melodramatic ‘Edward’s Plea to Eliza’ is particularly strong. Although the melodrama swells, dark undertones are never far behind. ‘Aftermath/First Kiss’ presents the main theme in its loveliest variation yet, especially with the solo cello counterpoint. ‘Eliza and Edward’ ends the album with a refined and mature piece that would make Dario Marianelli proud.

The score contains also numerous source pieces. One of them is ‘Eliza Plays’, which contains a rather elegant piano solo. At the end of the album, we are treated to ‘Eliza’s Waltz’ for a chamber ensemble. Some other score cues evoke the similar feel  of Edwardian period – the particularly gorgeous ‘Wagon Ride’ contains some lovely string quartet writing from Debney. Saint-Saens ‘Danse Macabre’ makes an appropriate appearance in the latter portions of soundtrack album. It fits very well with surrounding underscore, to the point where inattentive listener might mistake it for another score cue.

Stonehearst Asylum is a return to form for composer John Debney. The Lakeshore Records album is probably a bit too long – almost 80 minutes seems a bit excessive. However, there is not a single weak piece on this release. It might not be terribly original or fresh (nor does it need to be) but proves once again just how skilled this composer is in almost any genre or convention. Flawless from a technical point and contains a strong theme – safe recommendation by anybody’s standards.

Stonehearst Asylum is out now from Lakeshore Records