Composing for Drama vs Horror: Fernando Velázquez’s Scores for ‘The Impossible’ and ‘Mama’

By  · Published on January 24th, 2013

I applauded composer Fernando Velázquez last year for his score for The Impossible, a film wrought with drama in which Velázquez wisely kept his music to the background rather than trying to influence the raw emotions on screen. But Velázquez’s latest project has audiences hearing a very different side of the composer – one of suspense and intrigue with his score for the Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama.

Velázquez switches modes here, wasting little time bringing audiences into what del Toro described as a “fairytale gone wrong” with the first track, “The Car and the Radio” quickly putting you on the edge of your seat. Unlike his score for The Impossible, which drew audiences into the film slowly, Velázquez is at full tilt here, utilizing a full orchestra (and some ominous choral elements) which become a part of this world rather than simply keeping to the background of it.

It is not surprising that dramatic and horror films (two very different genres) would require their own distinct music, but when comparing the work of a singular composer who has recently created music for each, it is interesting to see what elements are brought to the forefront and what are left in the shadows. Tracks from Mama’s score, such as “Helvetia,” get right in your face with screeching strings while “What Happens Now?” has the strings jump at you and then quickly recede into the background, making the score just as suspenseful as watching the film itself. The score for Mama is essentially an audio horror film whereas Velázquez’s score for The Impossible was less engaging on its own. That makes sense seeing as it was created to add to scenes rather than leap to the forefront of them.

The main difference between the two is the score for Mama is more agressive while the score for The Impossible simply helped to highlight key moments. Mama’s score grabs attention by injecting suddenly loud instrumentation into quiet moments (as is true with most horror scores) while The Impossible achieved this by letting its grand orchestration gradually “turn up the volume” during some of the film’s bigger moments. But beyond those more obvious comparisons, Velázquez’s work is interesting because he does not simply “paint by the numbers” with his scores by relying on basic instrumentation and instead finds ways to make his music distinct and meaningful for each project he works on.

Seeing as Mama tells the story of two young girls, Velázquez includes hints of music boxes in the score to help to add to the ominous feel and to channel the presence of the children. This is a stark difference to his score for The Impossible which, despite taking place in Thailand, did not include instrumentation from that region, opting instead to keep the score simple, another factor that helped keep it from competing with what was happening on screen.

However, while the score for Mama is intended to scare (and certainly does), it still conveys that feeling of grand orchestration, something that is well heard (and more expected) in the score for The Impossible. The orchestration in Mama is naturally much more haunting, but each showcases Velázquez’s ability to command an orchestra when composing for either genre. Velázquez delievers that robust orchestral feel in each score by turning to startling strings and rumbling percussion for a film like Mama versus soaring strings and triumphant horns for a film like The Impossible.

When listening to the score for The Impossible you may think Velázquez is a restrained composer, but hearing his score for Mama proves otherwise and shows how music truly plays a different role in each film. It is interesting to see how a single composer is able to embody such different styles and tones, a trend and skill I hope to see more of such as when Danny Elfman went against type to create the score for Promised Land, a stripped down, character based film that was a far cry from Elfman’s normal collaborations with the eccentric Tim Burton.

The surface level differences between dramatic scores and horror scores are fairly obvious, but the way certain composers approach those different genres (and still maintain their signature style) is an impressive feat and one that will hopefully have us seeing more unexpected choices from other composers in the coming year.

The soundtrack for Mama is available through Quartet Records.

1. “The Car and the Radio”
2. “The Encounter and Main Title”
3. “Helvetia”
4. “A New Home”
5. “What Happens Now?”
6. “Voices from the Other Room”
7. “Observation Room”
8. “Victoria and Mama”
9. “The Painted Wall/The Doll”
10. “Desange Folder”
11. “Scare and Lucas Wake Up”
12. “Wilson Pass”
13. “Vic in the Laptop Archive”
14. “You Guys Talk A Lot!”
15. “Last Hypno”
16. “Good Night”
17. “Mama Fight”
18. “Last Reel”

All songs on this soundtrack composed by Fernando Velázquez.