Composer Ben Lovett on the Pain and Pleasure of Scoring ‘Hellraiser’
For director David Bruckner, the choice to hire composer Ben Lovett for his new spin on Clive Barker’s iconic Hellraiser was a simple one. One might even call it the next natural configuration of this particular cinematic puzzle cube. Having known each other for more than 20 years and previously collaborated on The Night House, The Ritual, and The Signal, no one understands the sound of a Bruckner film like Lovett. However, for both creators, Hellraiser presented unprecedented challenges and delights.
As a self-taught musician, composer and songwriter, Lovett is used to thinking out of the *ahem* box. And it’s a skill that has served him quite well. Known for his creative versatility and willingness to experiment and explore further regions of musical experience, Lovett is deservedly one of the most interesting and in-demand composers currently working in the genre.
Along with Bruckner’s films, you can hear Lovett’s music in films like The Wind, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, The Old Ways, and I Trapped the Devil. Yet, no two Lovett scores sound the same. Consistently fueled by all the distinctive individual pieces that it takes to make a film, each score Lovett delivers retains a uniquely singular and effective identity.
Not surprisingly, Hellraiser is different. Deeply rooted in popular culture, Clive Barker’s creation carries a whole heap of leather-trimmed baggage on its back. One of these bags is composer Christopher Young’s iconic original music for the film. When paired with Barker’s potent narrative and visuals, Young’s themes and orchestral contributions elevated the project to an unprecedented, Gothic level of grandiosity. An integral part of Hellraiser’s original identity, Lovett found himself navigating the unchartered territory of balancing Young’s work with his own.
An exquisite blend of legacy and Lovett’s own sonic flavor, the music for the new Hellraiser walks that blood-soaked wire beautifully. Not an easy feat indeed, it was too intriguing, too monumental of a project to ignore. With that in mind, we decided to go straight to the source and pick Lovett’s brain about what it was like to enter the musical world of Hellraiser and play with horror history.
Dread Central: You’ve previously worked with director David Bruckner multiple times, but Hellraiser being an established franchise and IP, was a new challenge for both of you. How did this movie’s legacy impact your typical early conversations with him about the musical direction? Did it impact how you approached it?
Ben Lovett: It did, but it wasn’t clear in what way. At first, it was just trying to calibrate to the challenge of making what was in the script. Like, just telling the story that was written in the pages of this script about these characters was challenging in and of itself. Then, you’re working with something that’s so iconic and so revered. And, we’re big Hellraiser fans. So there’s this question of how much you emulate, how much you pay homage to what came before, but also, how much permission do you give yourself to run amok in that world.
I think that what was new about it was that there’s usually no movie…and then there’s a movie, right? There are not normally a lot of people actively anticipating what it might be or projecting their desire about what they might want to see in something. We’re normally working over here in a silo on a thing that no one knows exists until it does. That’s a whole different kind of experience than going up against something like this. But I think that the challenge remains the same — the difficult task of making movies and telling the stories about the characters that you have.
I try not to think about that stuff too much, in an abstract way anyways. I feel like you’ll sort of paralyze yourself with the anxiety of all that you’re contending with. All the history and the stature that it has, particularly in the genre, is there to inform you, but probably not there much to help you beyond a certain point. You take a lot of instruction from it, but if you have to carry the burden of that along with just trying to make your own movie and tell your own story, it could paralyze you, I think.
DC: You’ve spoken in the past about coming in really late on some projects, and really early on others. Since you have such a long working history with Bruckner, where did you come in on the production for this?
BL: I read the script before The Night House even came out. That was partly due to the sort of COVID movie jail that The Night House was in for so long, but it was sometime in the earlier-middle point of 2021 when he first came to me about it. This was way before they had shot anything or cast anything.
That tends to happen with Bruckner a lot because he and I are so story-focused. Everything about what we do comes out of constant conversations about the story, the characters, and the emotional arcs. They’re never really about stylistic things or even musical things, necessarily. There was a bit of a change of that with this because the music of Hellraiser is so well established, the Christopher Young themes, and all of that music is such a big part of the identity of it.
We were talking about that, but not at the very beginning. We started with just conversations about the story we had, the characters that we had, and the challenges of what we were going to do. I was able to start writing and sketching and doing some homework and exploring all the different Chris Young material. There’s all this stuff to draw from, right? There’s even the famous unused music that was written for it, so even the Coil stuff is there! I was even listening to Motörhead’s cover of Ozzy’s “Hellraiser” and was like, “Can I draw anything from this?” [Laughs]
It gave me some time to soak up and absorb all of that stuff. But I was doing it through the lens of…not doing that first and then seeing how we fit all of that into our story, but the other way around. We had a lot of conversations about the story, the characters, and, tonally, the kind of movie that he wanted to make. Then I went back to all that wealth of material to help inform me, like, “How will this help me tell this story?”
DC: Let’s talk about Christopher Young and his Hellraiser scores. How did you navigate that iconic musical legacy and honor it while also putting your own unique stamp on the score?
BL: That was the core challenge of the whole thing; How do you make something that’s both familiar and different at the same time? We knew that for it to work, it would need to be that. That was the spirit of the whole endeavor. You know, reinterpreting the original material into something new but staying true to what it always was. Even the text that inspired the original film and going all the way back to the original ideas.
David and I both talked about how it just wouldn’t feel right, it wouldn’t feel like Hellraiser to try and not bring the spirit and the characteristics and the style of what [Young] established. That’s so specific and unique to pair this kind of image system with this type of music. There’s this kind of Gothic, romantic, very lyrical orchestral writing that, I really think, is what brings the magic and the fantasy element to Hellraiser. It’s that juxtaposition of the music that he wrote for those first two films and the imagery.
So we talked early on about, not only did we want to try to write music that still felt like it was within the context of what had been established as the way these movies sound, but to try and bring some of their original themes back into it as well. And that proved to be challenging to do as the people we were making the movie with did not own the rights to that music. So, it was very difficult. There was a long period of time when we just didn’t know if we were going to get to do it.
I credit David for being very dog-headed about it and saying, “This is non-negotiable. We have to be able to do this. We can’t make a Hellraiser movie without the Hellraiser music.” But we knew we couldn’t use and didn’t really need or care to use the original recordings of that. We wanted to be able to reinterpret it. But because they didn’t own it, I didn’t have any access to the scores, the music, or any of that. I just had to sit in front of it on Spotify and learn it. I just had to figure it out. And that isn’t really the normal way to do it. Usually, there are ways to make it a little easier than that. [Laughs]
We had to identify which themes, which parts, and what specifically we wanted to pull. And that was kind of new for David and I’s process. Usually, we don’t talk about music in a musical way. We talk about music in an emotional or narrative way. I think a lot of it comes from his own gut instinct. For example, the Cenobites’ theme is something that specifically he was like, “We gotta get that in there.” But the Cenobites’ theme in the original, which was very good for the time and the era, it’s this big brass fanfare. And, it just did not work. I even tried that, but it just did not work with our imagery and the way David’s movies work.
[David’s] musical preference is traditionally, and personally, his style is a little different than what traditional Hellraiser music sounds like — bold statements, very underlined, bold emotions, broad stroke kind of stuff. And David, his stuff really tends and lends itself to very subtle abstractions, a lot of dissonance, and kind of murky. So I’d play him some things that I’d done in the style of Chris Young, and he’d be like, “Oh, it’s great. It’s so pretty. Can you put some slime on it or something? Can you rub it around in the dirt?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I can put some slime on it.” [Laughs]
So it was a process of trying to find where it had the right amount of influence of that style without totally just aping that stuff. But then also not abandoning what’s always worked for our collaborations for his movies. I felt like it needed to sound like Chris Young, it needed to sound like the original Hellraiser, but also sound like a David Bruckner movie. And I feel like where we landed is something that has one foot firmly in each of those worlds.
DC: The world of Hellraiser is filled with these seemingly contrasting ideas and intentionally plays with that while blurring the lines between them. How did you interpret and work that part of the narrative into your music?
BL: Well, I think it goes back to the famous line, right? “Demons to some. Angels to others.” The dichotomy of that is great. As simple and elegant as that is, there’s a lot you can dig into with that. I think that the demon side is well represented in the canon, but this was sort of an opportunity to lean into that angelic side.
They’re interesting characters, the Cenobites. They’re not really ever, like, evil. But they’re not really traditional villains. They’re kind of neutral. They just want to lure you to this other world where they think all the things that are absolutely horrible to us are like, “This is great, isn’t it? Don’t you love it when I pull the skin off your arms?” So the evil in the story is usually always represented [by] a human character — Roland Voight in ours. It’s always a meddling human who has gotten themselves mixed up in all this.
So for the Cenobites, I thought it would be interesting to try something. Could we translate that big brass fanfare theme into something really much more subtle and much more Bruckner-like? We started to do that with voices and choral [music]. You kind of think, “Well, they have the word angels. We can get a choir!” At least it’s somewhere to start. There’s a lot of that on-screen whenever they’re around. But then I did these little experimental kinds of operatic arias with a vocalist named Theodosia Roussos. She’s fantastic.
We were trading things back and forth. I would sing loose little ideas of how we might translate that theme, we were sending voice notes back and forth, and then I cut some things and just let her experiment with it. Her ability to sing is beyond my ability to imagine what she might sing. So I just sort of encouraged her with a few ideas and then turned her loose with it. She really captured something that I think is very additive to those scenes.
Particularly anytime The Priest is on screen. There’s something in Jamie’s performance that really connects with this kind of singular voice. There’s this sinister desire, this haunting wickedness, this angelic wickedness that’s floating around anytime that she’s on screen. I think it added a lot to being able to identify that. Hopefully, at least for the hardcore fans, they’ll recognize that it’s alluding to the [sings Young’s original Cenobite Theme], but it’s all kind of exaggerated and stretched out.
What is such a great credit to Barker and Young is that these guys have created a sandbox that is so big and broad. It’s like there’s almost no such thing as too much or too far. Because that’s kind of in the thesis of the whole material, you know? It’s all about excess, and it’s all about pushing limits. You can get away with a lot. I mean, there’s some stuff in the score that’s just absolutely enormous. It’s just so over-the-top big, and, it feels right. It doesn’t feel hokey that you’re trying to suggest that these things are so especially important and huge and consequential because they already established that. Like, that’s the rule book, you know?
DC: Not only are there some really big musical moments in this score but there’s also just a lot of it. How does this compare to some of your previous projects? In terms of the sheer scale and scope of what you actually had to deliver, what did that take from you?
BL: It took my sanity, my personal relationships, my physical health, and my well-being. [Laughs] I mean, to actually answer your question, it is without a doubt the biggest score I’ve done. It’s big in all the ways that you would measure that. It’s the biggest in terms of the scale and size of the sound. I think there are 85 musicians on the score. It’s also the biggest in terms of the number of minutes. It’s a 97-minute score. I mean, you can do, like, three rom-coms with that amount of music.
It’s also the biggest with what [I was] having to contend with. It had the most amount of unique ancillary problems to solve outside of just a usual mission. Not even just the abstract part of like, “How do you deal with and enter a world that’s so well-defined and so beloved as this?” But then, sitting in front of a piano just searching around, trying to decode these scores and figure out which parts of them to re-orchestrate and how to get all that done.
I guess it’s sort of appropriate, right? This seems like the right thing for that to be the case. It also kind of seems appropriate that it’s a movie about these interdimensional sadistic beings obsessed with pain and suffering because I also seem to embody some of that. [Laughs] I keep jumping into these things that take over my life for a while. I’m just so lost in it in the middle. But, you always find yourself.
I said to David at one point, “We’re experienced sailors, right? But we are further out to sea than we have ever been, my friend.” That’s how it felt. We know what we’re doing. We’ve done this. It’s not that different than making movies the way we always have. We learned by just doing them, not through a school way. So, our whole education was just solving problems, trying to pull something off when we didn’t have the means or really the business even trying to do so. So that part felt familiar. But it was just so much more movie. It was a lot, dude. It’s 80% of the runtime of the movie. I’m on screen more than the actors. [Laughs]
DC: As a composer, you always seem to connect really strongly with a few unique elements of a film and infuse them into your score in interesting ways. For example, with The Night House, you used the architecture, distortion and mirror elements to inspire your negative harmony approach. Did the box and the puzzle element of Hellraiser inspire you in any way? It just seems so appealing to play with.
BL: A little bit. There’s certainly a really strong presence of geometry in this. Having started early, I’m just working straight from the text. I actually started from The Hellbound Heart. I read the novella, and I would just write down little passages.
All these great little unique phrases where he’d say things like, “a fitful phosphorescence.” There’s just all of this really lyrical writing like “roars and rattling.” Or “whispered professions” and “verge of senselessness.” I would write all these little things down in a notebook so that every day I would go in, write and just think about, “Ok. Verge of senselessness. Let’s get into that and just try to define a sound or a melody. Let’s enter from the lyrical nature of the text and see where that goes.”
With the box, I had this challenge of if we were going to use some of the original melodies in the score, if I was writing too many new melodic ideas, it would have to compete with it. And there’s only so much time on screen to keep introducing new musical ideas. So I was like, “I need some indicators and some motifs.” They’re not really a musical thing so much as they’re a consistent sound set that when they come, you’re like, “Ok. They’re after us again.”
One of those is one of the first things you hear in the movie. It’s this big giant left hook of a power chord that’s like…maybe that was when I was listening to the Motörhead stuff and had that on repeat. [Laughs] We took eight guitars, tuned all the strings to the same note and just created this giant sound. [We also] had the orchestra play that.
There was something about this idea that all the hell that’s compressed inside that little cube just wound up in this massive, one big dumb note. It’s like the key. It’s the root note of all the music in the original Hellraiser. It’s all in C# minor. So it’s this huge C# minor thing that’s referencing that, but it’s also letting you know that you want to keep moving. Because if this thing catches up with you, everything that’s inside that fist, you don’t want that hand to open. Or, the box, in this case.
DC: Oh, I love that. It’s simple but powerful.
BL: Well, it was also like, “Where’s the metal? We need the heavy metal influence on this.” You know, we have all this orchestra stuff, we needed some fucking heavy metal in it somewhere.
DC: You gotta have some chains hanging from the ceiling somewhere, right? You can’t forget about that part of the story.
BL: We did that, too! I’ve got some great footage that hopefully we’ll be able to dig up and share, which is for the Voight character. We dressed up a piano in all kinds of ways. We laid chains across the piano and stuck pins and tacks and all sorts of stuff into the wires to replay his theme. So all those parts later in the movie where he’s all hunched over with the thing in his chest, it’s his theme from earlier in the movie, but it’s all fucked up and dissonant.
You’re also getting all this weird aliasing and strange tonal reactions out of the notes. Basically, it was like, “We should dress the piano up in bondage.” So those kinds of experiments, even when it’s not doing something overtly melodic, it’s creating textures and sounds that are really drawing a lot of influence from visually what’s on screen.
DC: Instead of a prepared piano, you created a tortured piano.
BL: Yeah, absolutely. It was an S&M, BDSM, bondage piano. [Laughs]
DC: There’s a line The Priest says in the movie that I wanted to ask you about. She says, “A joyful note without change, without end — heaven? There’s no music in that.” That really struck me, and there’s so much to unpack there. Did that resonate with you at all as well in any way?
BL: Yeah, I love that scene. I love that monologue. And obviously, when I first read it, I was like, “Oh, they’re making music references in the monologue. Ok. Underline this part.” I like the nature of that conversation, too. It’s partly her disappointment at Riley’s choice in the end. It’s like, “You choose to live the most boring life? You’re going to suffer anyways. The rest of your days are fucked. And you choose taxes and regret? You could have had so much more.” And I kind of love that perspective from them. They’re like, “If it’s all misery and it’s all hell, and you’re going to die anyways, why don’t you come to die fantastically.”
I don’t know how that informed the music except for one way that would take me a while to fully explain. But I will say, to plant an Easter Egg, there’s something that I incorporated into that monologue. It’s part of the motif for Pinhead, and it’s hidden and nestled in there. But it’s something that I really wanted to get into the movie. It’s just in the sea of sound and in the music that’s underneath the dialogue. It sort of follows her around in a bunch of the Pinhead scenes. It’s taken from one of the most famous pieces of classical music that exists. But it’s not the easiest thing to identify or know where it’s from.
Somebody’s going to figure it out eventually. It’s very textural, and it’s about as high up as you can go climbing up and pulling an apple off the tree. That was partly my response to how iconic this character is and how I feel about Jamie’s embodiment of the character. And it was sort of like, I want to be the person who put these two things together.
DC: Ok, definitely going to go back and rewatch that scene now. But first, Christopher Young not only scored the first Hellraiser but the second one as well. If there’s ever a sequel to this new Hellraiser, and you get the call, would you open this box again?
BL: Oh, man. I’m going to play coy and say…maybe? It was a lot to give, but I always feel like you come away from these feeling like you had more to give. The old saying is, “They’re not finished, they’re just taken away from you.” As hard as we work and as long as we had, it really was like they just had to show up and pry it out of Bruckner’s and my hands.
In the end, it’s always just him and me running around, hiding from everybody in that very final stage, being like, “What else can we do? How do we make it just 1% better?” You always feel like you only fully understood what you were trying to do by the time you get to the end. And rarely do you ever have a chance to go, “Well, now we get to make another one! Now we can take all that we learned and put it into this one.” That’d be an interesting conversation to have.
Hellraiser is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu. Lovett’s score for the film is currently available to stream via Lakeshore Records and available to pre-order on vinyl via MONDO/Death Waltz Recording Co.Test