Michael Abels’ New Approach to Horror Score
Michael Abels’ mysterious, creepy, and innovative score to Jordan Peele’s movie Us is one of my favorite soundtracks because it is truly genre-less. His haunting children's choir chorales paired with ominous strings and orchestral renditions of rap songs combine to form a masterpiece. Above almost all other horror film scores I have studied, this one appreciates the tone of the movie while adding a creative and curious idea extremely effectively.
Michael Abels is a film and tv composer best known for his collaborations with critically acclaimed director and comedian Jordan Peele. Abels was working at a high school back in 2016 when Peele discovered some of his orchestral music on Youtube. Just randomly, Peele reached out, and after meeting a few times, Abels was hired to score Peele’s first horror film, Get Out. After this was a massive success, Peele turned back to Abels to score his next horror thriller, Us. The score opens with a quiet, creepy children’s choir tune that never gets too loud but definitely is not too quiet. This music sustains to haunt the listener and sets an unsettling scene. Early on, Abels also utilizes perhaps the most common horror movie music technique—sustained drones and crazy strings. He combines high dissonant strings with active rhythmic strings and percussion to give a pulse to the music and keep the listener on his feet.
Although he continues to do a great job at keeping this score scary, what really sticks out to me is the way he morphs the 90’s hip hop song “I got 5 on it” into an intense horror score perfectly fitting for the film. The original rap song is played a few times in the early parts of the film as source music—which is heard by the characters in the film rather than just the audience—through the car radio. After the listener has gotten used to the catchy theme of the song and the movie is starting to pick up, Abels slows the melody down, adds haunting sustained strings, and throws a ton of reverb on it. He builds this scary variation of the theme into a climax and then halts all sound before crashing down on a loud and distorted string section hit. This practically creates an orchestral beat drop. From here, the piece really takes off as the theme is heard in pizzicato strings, the loud distorted hits reoccur every little while, and an occasional break in the flow of the music containing thrilling string craziness is let loose. The way he changes a popular rap song into a violently horrifying score is so shocking and inspiring. Since I first watched this movie I have been a huge fan of Abels and am excited to see what he does on Peele’s next film, Nope.
Here is a link to the piece!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFGmO1e_sAU