Fantastic Fest Sets The Bar High For Film Music

Scorekeeper takes a look at the scores of Fantastic Fest. 

A lot has been written about Fantastic Fest here at Badass Digest and for good reason. It’s the single most awesome film festival I’ve ever attended. This year was the 10th anniversary and it certainly lived up to the hype. I go every year. In fact, I’ve written off all other film festivals just to ensure that I’m able to attend Fantastic Fest. My family, friends and my clients are all acutely aware that during the third week of September, I’m essentially “off the planet."

Since so many across the world wide web are writing about the various films, I decided to focus my attention on the scores. I saw 33 feature films in eight days (roughly half of what was available) and would only put three of those movies in the “didn’t like it” category. That makes 30 films out of 33 that I liked, loved or flat-out adored! If you’ve ever been to a film festival you know that ratio is crazy-high!

Although I’m a fervent devotee of Fantastic Fest, I don’t go there specifically to seek out memorable film scores. Genre films in general (which are largely lower-budgeted) aren’t necessarily breeding grounds for exceptional film music; however, Fantastic Fest never fails to deliver a few which end up among my favorites of the year. Independent gems like Marco Beltrami’s The Substitute (2009), Frank Ilfman’s Big Bad Wolves (2012), Abel Korzeniowski’s Escape From Tomorrow (2012), Victor Reyes’ Grand Piano (2012), Jeff Grace’s The Innkeepers (2011), Kôji Endô’s 13 Assassins (2010), Eugenio Mira’s Agnosia (2010), Victoria Kelly’s Under the Mountain (2009), Tarô Iwashiro’s Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005) and Johan Söderqvist’s Let the Right One In (2008) are just a few of the masterful scores I discovered at Fantastic Fest over the last decade.

This year, the festival kept this tradition alive by introducing me to a smattering of scores that seriously stimulated my ears. Here are a few of the standouts…


The latest from Kevin Smith isn’t for everybody; however, I enjoyed the hell out of this film. As a fanatic of exploitation cinema and general wackiness on film, this one certainly delivers. What’s especially pleasing is that Smith tabbed Christopher Drake as his composer. Having established his name scoring an assortment of straight-to-DVD animated comic book adaptations including Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) and Wonder Woman (2009), Drake’s first theatrical feature film is the perfect companion to Smith’s uncontrolled absurdity. I even smirked when, during a brief expositional sequence early in the picture, I heard traces of the familiar “Tusk” drumbeat by Fleetwood Mac (the full song heroically appears later in the film). The character of this drumbeat is a motivic element in the film which reoccurs throughout the picture giving it a slightly campy yet primitive feel to the music.

I applaud Smith for exploring the bevy of talent existing outside the overexposed Hollywood elite. It was one of the better scores I’ve ever encountered in a Kevin Smith film and I certainly hope the pair continue to work together in the future.

It Follows

There’s been a bit of buzz already about this film and its ear-piquing music by Disasterpiece (Rich Vreeland). The score is a heavy tapestry of retro synth textures incorporating a surprisingly modern twist that’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel, nor is it blatantly ripping anybody off. Primarily a composer for video games, Vreeland manages to control the steadily increasing tension with the skill of a more experienced film composer. Considering the film has very little gore or money-hogging special effects, the music is singlehandedly instrumental in adding and/or manipulating the edge-of-your-seat tautness of this film.

I was on my way to being blown away by this film; however, the ending reeks heavily of “not knowing how to end it.” Despite its lackluster third act, the film overall is a must-see and its score is a big reason for this.

The Tale Of Princess Kaguya

Wow! This is an absolutely gorgeous film and my favorite of the entire festival. The latest from Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata and composer Joe Hisaishi, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a bountiful smorgasbord for the eyes, ears and heart. It’s a very “Japanese” film meaning the overall aesthetic is pure and simple. There’s a lot of attention directed toward the negative spaces both visually and aurally throughout the picture which makes this unusually long animated film an everlasting experience.

Joe Hisaishi is, without a doubt, one of the single most talented composers for film in the world. Every note he composes radiates emotion with such ease that it transcends its own construction. It’s as if he breathes the music onto the film without ever having to actually compose it. It’s effortless! The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an exemplar of Hisaishi’s devotion to traditional Japanese folk music wrapped within a modern setting. It’s absolutely exquisite!

It will be tough finding a better score written this year.

The Tribe

As a true champion of the craft of film scoring, I’m often praising skillful decisions to exclude music as being equally as important to the cinematic experience as including it. This is why I feel so compelled to list this film in this article. The truth is, The Tribe doesn’t have a single note of diegetic nor non-diegetic music anywhere in the picture. All of the characters in the film are completely deaf and communicate entirely using sign language without any subtitles. The very absence of any significant sound creates a world of unparalleled consequence that affects you emotionally as if it were strife with dialogue or music. It’s one of the most unique, brilliant and brutal cinematic experiences I’ve had in many years thanks in large part to the complete and total absence of music.

The Absent One

This Danish crime drama is the perfect example of how different European films are scored compared with their American counterparts. What I loved most about this film is the overwhelming proliferation of sympathy woven into the picture by its composers Patrik Andrén, Uno Helmersson and Johan Söderqvist. One of the primary characters, who is suspected of murder, is expressed by the music as a tragic figure. This idea earns an enormous degree of compassion from the audience which helps to firmly invest our emotions into the story. The music is incredibly emotional and doesn’t give in so easily to scoring the surrounding environment, unfolding action or increasing tension. These strong sentiments are ubiquitous throughout the picture firmly establishing a separate layer of the narrative functioning independently from the script itself. I wish more urban crime dramas were scored this way.


This isn’t the first time Isaac Asimov’s tale of artificial intelligence run amok has hit the big screen; however, it certainly might be the most refreshing (and faithful to the original story). I loved this film wholly because it was so different than anything I expected. It’s a thought-provoking film that doesn’t rely on “keeping it interesting” just to appease short attention spans. It’s a slower, more methodical film and it all works beautifully thanks to a provocative score by Zacarías M. de la Riva.

Backed by a signature sound of large percussion and a haunting female choir, the music combines the tangible and philosophical elements of the film into a single musical expression strife with paradox. De la Riva’s score evokes pristine cleanliness while at the same time, unsanitary primitivism. It conjures up heaven along with hell and is as equally defeatist as it is inspirational. These are difficult concepts to express musically but De la Riva executes it with ease. Autómata is not your typical sci-fi film and De la Riva’s music is not your typical sci-fi score. This alone makes it worthy of applause.


James Newton Howard is a composer whom I adored throughout the 1990s but haven’t been too impressed with since. In Dan Gilroy’s exceptional directorial debut Nightcrawler, Howard delivers a timely throwback to '90s-era film music proliferated by reverb-drenched electric guitars and sultry percussion loops backed by large orchestras. The roots of Howard’s latest score can be traced back to his earlier years where he helped define the sound of an entire decade with scores for films including Night and the City (1992), Falling Down (1993), Intersection (1994), Just Cause (1995), and Primal Fear (1996).

This nod to the past is ironically a breath of fresh air in a genre that has largely stagnated musically in the past decade. It’s fun, not pretentious, while at the same riveting, perplexing and tension-filled. It’s wonderful having Howard back on my radar again.