Holly Amber Church On Her Emmy-Nominated Main Title Theme for ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’
The second composer Holly Amber Church pops up in our Zoom meeting her brilliant smile and energy radiate warmth and enthusiasm. Set against a brightly colored wall decorated with fabulous artwork, we immediately bond over the fact that we’re both wearing Stephen King-related tee shirts. Not only is this juxtaposition of the delightful and the dark a superb encapsulation of Church and her work as a frequent genre composer, but it also serves as a particularly fitting prologue considering the reason for our meeting. Church has recently been nominated for a 2023 Emmy Award in the Outstanding Main Title Theme Music category for her wonderful Main Title for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
Affectionately dubbed the “Scream Queen of Scoring,” Church has been a frequent flyer in the often male-dominated space of horror film scoring for years. With her sharp ability to support and navigate the space between story and scares, Church consistently finds the light amongst shadows through rich themes, emotionally conscious orchestration, and respect for space and silence. She’s also not afraid to get creepy and experiment with sounds and techniques that quickly raise goosebumps and send shivers down spines.
Easily heard on past projects like Open 24 Hours, Miranda’s Victim, The Runner, Ruin Me, and The Toy Box, Church’s unique viewpoint and thoughtful approach to horror scoring easily shines through. Her style has also proven to be a perfect partner for Guillermo del Toro and his new anthology series for Netflix. Rich, evocative, and captivating with a hint of darkness, Church’s Main Title theme efficiently sets the tone for Cabinet of Curiosities while enticing viewers to venture in. No easy feat to be sure, I was eager to hear from Church about her experience working on the series and within the larger horror space, what makes an excellent main title theme, her nomination, and, of course, Guillermo del Toro himself.
Dread Central: Cabinet of Curiosities brings so many incredible talents together, including yourself! Tell us how you became involved, what the creative team was looking for, and who exactly those early conversations were with.
Holly Amber Church: It was mostly Guillermo del Toro and the Netflix music team. I actually demoed for this. There was a call as they were going to look at some different composers to do the Main Title. So we were all sent an animatic, and we wrote demos. I got hired based on that demo. So a lot of my demo actually stayed in there. It was a different process, rather than getting hired and then writing the music. This time, I got hired from the music, and then we kind of shaped it from there. As a composer, you demo all the time, and you like, never hear back. But this time, I did, which was amazing!
DC: Did you know Guillermo del Toro was involved when you first submitted that demo?
HC: I did. I knew it was his show, but I think it had a different name on the animatic. I don’t know that it was quite Cabinet of Curiosities yet, but my animatic [had] the cabinet opening up, and it was storyboards of what we see now. Knowing it was his show was so cool because I’m a super fan. He’s amazing! So when I got the opportunity to demo, I was just like, “I’m just gonna do the best I can, like I do all the time. I’m going to write something that is exciting for me and that I think fits these visuals that I’m getting.” Then you throw that into the ether, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. In this case, it worked out!
DC: Since you are a fan, were you at all inspired by Guillermo del Toro himself?
HC: Absolutely. I’ve seen all of his movies. One of my favorites is Crimson Peak. I remember having this very visceral reaction in the movie theatre as that movie opened—it’s gothic, it’s beautiful, and the music is haunting but beautiful at the same time. I think that’s sort of Guillermo’s aesthetic a lot of the time. Same with Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s this dark meets beautiful.
Things that are terrifying can also be beautiful. So I think he as a person and his past work did inspire me because that’s what I went for. I was like, “It needs to be dark and haunting, but it also needs to have this heartache and beauty to it as well.” I think he finds the beauty in the darkness, and he absolutely inspired me as I wrote it.
DC: You not only composed the Main Title, but you also scored del Toro’s superb horror host-style opening sequences. Was that part of the original concept, or did that come later?
HC: That actually came later. I had the Main Title pretty much wrapped up, and then they said, “Hey, we’ve got these prologues we’re doing where Guillermo comes out and introduces each episode. We want to use the Main Title theme on them in a more understated, underscore sort of way.” And I was like, “Yeah! I’m totally in for that.” Because then [the Main Title theme] becomes more the theme of the show. It’s embedded a little more. Growing up, I was a huge Twilight Zone fan. I love Rod Serling. So when I got sent these prologues, and I just had this footage of Guillermo, who I totally love, walking out very Rod Serling-style and saying cool, prolific things while introducing each episode, I just totally geeked out. It was a total geek-out moment. I was like, “I get to do this! Oh my gosh!” It was pretty cool.
DC: I adore how rich and orchestral your Main Title theme is. Did you record with a live orchestra? What was that process like?
HC: The Main Title, we did. The prologues, we didn’t. Those were all me doing synth mock-ups. But the Main Title had to have an orchestra. So we recorded it overseas in Budapest with East Connection Music Recording. They’re fantastic. So yeah, we got an orchestra, and I got my violin duet! It sounds like a solo, but it’s actually a duet playing along with some percussion and some brass. They sounded amazing, and that was very, very fun.
DC: Part of what makes this series so fun is the vast variation we get from the segments. For example, there are different periods, directors, composers, styles, and source material. Were you aware of any of that info when approaching the theme? It feels like you encapsulate everything so well.
HC: I didn’t, which is cool. I hadn’t seen any of the episodes and I didn’t know anything about them. I knew it was a horror anthology, but that was about it. I knew about as much as everyone else did. It wasn’t until I got the prologues where he introduces each episode that I got just a little tease. I got the name, I got the director and he’d pull out the artifact, but I already had the Main Title done by them. And in the Main Title, there are some things that hint at the episodes, but I wouldn’t have known. So it was interesting trying to create the overall theme for the show but having no idea what the episodes were. I suppose if there are more seasons, it’ll have to just encompass any story forever!
DC: Which is a big task!
HC: Yeah, right. [Laughs] No pressure!
DC: Let’s talk a bit more about the humble main theme for a movie or TV show. It’s so important as it’s usually a pretty short piece, but it sets the tone and is a window into the world for everything that will unfold. In your opinion, what makes a solid main title track? Were there any hallmarks or goalposts you aimed for when you wrote this?
HC: Yeah. I think music is subjective to everyone, and everyone has a different opinion, but for me, I like a theme. I like a very strong melodic theme. You know, you hear Magnum, P.I. and that’s a theme you remember. You get excited like, “Oh! An episode of Magnum, P.I. is about to start!” So that was what I wanted to go for—something that would be memorable. Something that hopefully people would hear and get excited about as it meant a new episode of Cabinet of Curiosities.
Something that brings you to the show and becomes synonymous with it. That, to me, was important, and that’s what I went for. I know there are so many different things. Sometimes there are songs or a cool sound effect that is the main title. It can be so many different things, but I like a good old-fashioned melodic theme.
DC: Well, it clearly paid off for you, as you are currently nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music category! What was your reaction to hearing the news? Since Cabinet of Curiosities is a horror series, were you surprised to see your work recognized at this level?
HC: Yeah! I was very surprised! I was not expecting it at all. As you mentioned, horror doesn’t always get recognized. But, it is Guillermo del Toro, and he defies all genres and is very award-nominated. But it is also horror, and there are so many television shows.
I’ve been around a while, but doing a lot of indie films and indie horror. So, in a way, I felt like the new kid on the block. I didn’t imagine it happening. So that was the coolest day ever. It was so much fun and just very exciting and surreal. Especially considering how this all started. Like, I demoed. It wasn’t like I’d known Guillermo my whole life, and we’d done a million projects together. So to go from demoing to an Emmy nomination is pretty cool. I’m still pinching myself, and it still doesn’t feel real.
DC: Well, I will definitely be keeping my fingers crossed for you.
HC: I’m up against some heavy hitters, but it’s cool just to be in that group.
DC: Now that you’ve seen the entire show, do you have a favorite segment?
HC: Oh my gosh. I loved so many of them. I personally love a good old-fashioned ghost story, so The Murmuring [directed by Jennifer Kent] was one of my favorites. It was that beauty and that darkness that Guillermo does. It was very emotional but still creepy. And I loved Graveyard Rats [directed by Vincenzo Natali] and The Outside [directed by Ana Lily Amirpour]. I thought The Outside was really quirky and weird. I liked pretty much all of them! How about you? Do you have any favorite episodes?
DC: Oh, totally. I also adored The Murmuring and am a huge Essie Davis fan. I also really enjoyed Pickman’s Model [directed by Keith Thomas] and The Viewing [directed by Panos Cosmatos].
HC: Oh, The Viewing! Yeah, that one was nuts. I liked that one. They are all so different and just cool in so many different ways. It was really a fun show.
DC: Everyone answers when Guillermo calls!
HC: [Laughs] Oh, yeah. And I love that he did that, too. I just love that he’s like, “Let me pull all these cool people together that do horror and just put something amazing together.”
DC: At this point in your career, you have such a rich history with the horror genre. Were you a genre fan before you started working in the horror space? What does your horror history look like?
HC: I don’t know that I was as crazy about it as I am now, but I know I liked it. I liked seeing scary movies, and Halloween was my favorite holiday growing up. I like scary things, and I was very into werewolves for a while. I actually pretended I was one for most of the second grade. That’s another story, but that’s the only time I ever got in trouble in school. I loved Jaws as a kid. I loved Ghostbusters. You know, the gateway horror for kids. Twilight Zone, as I mentioned earlier, also has a lot of horror stuff, so I always liked that.
Then, once I did my first horror movie with Padraig Reynolds, I was like, “That was really fun. I love it.” I then started getting more and more and just really enjoyed it. Now, I just love going to the movies, seeing all the movies, and just being a part of the community, which is so great.
DC: You’ve actually earned this amazing nickname — “The Scream Queen of Scoring.” Where did that come from? Do you embrace the title?
HC: I actually don’t know. I don’t remember where that came from. [Laughs] Somebody might’ve called me that once and then it just kind of stuck. But I love it!
DC: It’s a pretty rad title to have, as most of the icons of horror scoring are, well, dudes.
HC: [Laughs] They are. They really are. They’re great dudes.
DC: And very talented! They all deserve to be icons, but seeing you up there alongside them is also amazing. Now that you’ve really made your presence known in the genre, what has the reception been like? What has it been like working primarily in the genre, either on the industry side or from fans?
HC: The horror community is so great. It’s funny; people outside of it don’t know. They think that we’re all weird or in cults, I don’t know. [Laughs] But it’s totally the opposite, as you know. It’s such a loving, kind community. I really, really enjoy it. Obviously, I’ve been doing it for a while, but I want to keep doing it.
I think the goal is to get a big tentpole studio film next. It would be amazing to do studio horror. They’re rebooting the classic franchises all the time, and I’d like to be the first woman to do A Nightmare on Elm Street or a Scream. Something like that would be so, so cool. Those are goals that I have. Will they happen? I don’t know.
DC: Hey, there are some good ones coming up, so you never know. Is there a particular franchise or icon that you’re particularly drawn to or interested in?
HC: Scream is one. I love Marco [Beltrami]. He’s amazing. He’s one of my idols, and the Scream scores are very orchestral, which is a little bit more my home. I would also love to do a Universal Monster movie because I love the Universal Monsters, and it seems like they’re constantly trying to redo those. And then I love everything in The Conjuring universe — Annabelle, The Nun, all of them. Anything in The Conjuring universe would be cool. I love James Wan and everything he does, so that would be amazing. Maybe I’ll get on Annabelle 12 or something. [Laughs]
DC: You have another project that I have to ask you about as it also, conveniently, has to do with TV main title themes. You released a whole album of tiki lounge-inspired covers of classic TV Main Title themes. How the heck did this come about?
HC: [Laughs] Yeah, something totally different, but it ties into the TV theme thing. So, I love 1950s and 60s sitcoms. Maybe it’s something I shouldn’t tell the horror fans, but I can’t go to sleep if I don’t watch one of them at night. Like, I have to watch Gilligan’s Island, Dennis the Menace, Mr. Ed, or something like that to fall asleep. I think it’s because I grew up in the 80s, and Nick at Night played those shows. I would fall asleep to them as a kid. I’ve been brainwashed or trained to fall asleep to a 1950s sitcom.
I just totally love them, and I love tiki. I go to all the tiki conventions and the tiki bars. As you can see behind me, it’s very tiki. Somebody then approached me from Notefornote Music, and they said, “Hey, we’re doing cover albums of film scores and stuff. Would you be interested in doing one?” I was like, “Well, I don’t know…” I mean, I’m not going to do a synth version of Braveheart, you know? [Laughs]
So, I had to think about it for a minute. Then I got this idea. What if I did a tiki-exotica version of some of my favorite 1950s sitcom themes? I was like, “Can I do that?” They said, “Yes! We love that idea.” So that’s how it was born. It’s so weird and kitschy, but it was so much fun and just so different to do.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is now streaming exclusively on Netflix. In addition, Church’s tracks are included on the series soundtrack, which is available now on all major streaming platforms and vinyl via Lakeshore Records.