‘The Night House’ Composer Ben Lovett on Using ‘Negative Harmony’ for an Unsettling Horror Score

Rebecca Hall in the film THE NIGHT HOUSE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

As “The Night House” unfolds, and viewers watch as the widow of a suicide victim slowly unravels his dark past, it is composer Ben Lovett’s creepy, atmospheric music that keeps us on edge — a score that began long before director David Bruckner started filming on a lake in upstate New York.

Lovett and Bruckner are old college buddies from the University of Georgia, and as soon as they finished work on “The Ritual” in 2017, Bruckner sent over a script that immediately inspired the composer.

“The Night House” is not your average horror film. The film’s central character Beth (Rebecca Hall) has visions that compel her to delve into her late husband’s disturbing obsessions, which involve mirror images, reversed architectural floor plans, affairs with women who resemble her, and more.

“So you start thinking about inversions of melody, and negative space, and the idea of focusing on the sound between the notes instead of just the notes themselves,” says Lovett. “There was so much there in the script, it was just an interesting thing to explore, musically.”

Lovett began sending music to Bruckner during the “Night House” shoot, and eventually visited the set near Syracuse, N.Y., which served as a further inspiration. “The idea of lake water being this murky, unstable presence, then constantly being agitated by external forces, which seemed to mirror this state of anxiety that the character’s constantly in…. Even when a lake looks settled, it never quite is.”

He translated that into an eerie soundscape that was partly acoustic musicians, partly synthesized sound. “The music modulated with her varying states of manic anxiety,” Lovett says, “and that led to synthesizers, but also taking acoustic instruments and just mangling the hell out of them and running them through things that could twist them into unrecognizable sounds.”

So although much of the “Night House” score is textural rather than melodic, it’s also partially rooted in a song that reappears throughout the film. Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1974 “Calvary Cross” first appears in the couple’s wedding video and then recurs, jarringly, throughout the film.

Lovett took its three chords and converted them through a music-theory concept called “negative harmony” into “a shadow version” of the original. “That music defined her marriage, and the loss turned it inside out and inverted into a darker context,” he says.

While many of the sounds were created by Lovett in his studio in 2019, prior to the film’s 2020 Sundance debut, he did employ a 35-piece string orchestra and some offbeat percussive sounds by top L.A. percussionist MB Gordy. Seventy of the film’s 108 minutes are scored, and Lovett’s description of the film’s opening as “a cloud of dissonance” is apt.

Upcoming for the composer are “The Old Ways” (next week on Netflix), also a horror film but featuring traditional Mexican folk instruments, and “Broadcast Signal Intrusion,” a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller.