LAST BREATH – Vincent Gillioz


Original Review by Alan Rogers (First uploaded at maintitles.net)

Written, directed and starring Ty Jones, Last Breath seems, at first sight, to be just another torture-horror movie where the protagonists find themselves trapped and at the mercy of a sadistic killer hell-bent on making his captures suffer for 90 minutes or so before killing everyone or being killed themselves (perhaps). However, Jones’ first directorial feature is not all that it seems to be. Released to both popular and critical acclaim in 2010 the film stars the director and Mandy Bannon as Michael and Tina Johnson, a couple whose once-happy marriage has come under severe pressure from various directions and is at risk of collapse. Finding themselves trapped in an abandoned warehouse and being stalked by a “Dark Figure” (Aaron Laue), the film follows the pair as they make a series of choices that will decide both their and their son’s future. A revelatory twist at the end of the film then takes the couple (as well as the audience) down a path that has everyone re-examining the film’s events. Recently made available on Howlin’ Wolf Records as a limited release (limited to 500), Swiss-born composer Vincent Gillioz’s award-winning score to Last Breath highlights how a score that could have been just another run-of-the-mill horror score can be enhanced when a composer has a clear vision for the score and how it interacts with the story.

Gillioz’s task on Last Breath is a difficult one. There is the family drama of the deterioration of Michael and Tina’s relationship plus the horror aspect of the film (their imprisonment and torture by the Dark Figure) which, as it turns out (as the composer explains in the CD’s liner notes), “…is actually an allegory to the [family] drama”. Musically, Gillioz represents family and family values with a piano because of the instrument’s association with the home and the attendant feelings of stability, solidity and warmth. “To The Core” provides one of the most complete statement of Gillioz’s family theme. A single piano gives a heartfelt statement of the family’s theme, highlighting the positive aspects of the family’s relationship. In the same track, Gillioz then highlights the versatility of the theme, taking a 4-note fragment of this theme (played on winds) and building the orchestra up around the fragment, mirroring the complication of Mandy’s family values by intruding revelations. This family theme (full or as a fragment) appears throughout the score whenever the concept of family values (a lifeline to which the protagonists must cling to in order to survive their ordeal?) arises during key moment of the film. 

In contrast to the family theme, a variety of sonic textures and “tonal palettes” are used to develop a specific aural landscape within the score to represent the struggle of the couple to survive their ordeal with the Dark Figure. Tracks such as “Scars” and “The Hangar” showcase the composer’s aural landscape whereby sonic textures and unusual sound orchestrations, percussion hits and whirlwind woodwinds all come together to give an oppressive feel to proceedings. Although suggested by some to be a departure from the usual “industrial/sound design” style frequently used in torture-horror films Gillioz’s music is suggestive of this style. But the composer’s use of imaginative orchestrations and the frequent appearance of the family theme within these soundscape cues helps differentiate Gillioz’s horror music from other scores of this genre.

Another interesting aspect to the score is Gillioz’s differentiation of acoustic/live instruments (piano, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, violins, cellos) and the electronic sonic textures. As well as separating the family and the horror of the couple’s circumstance through orchestration choices, these choices also helps signal the two levels on which the film works, namely the planes of reality and allegory. As the film progresses, these two aspects of the film merge and the two musical forms begin to intertwine, ultimately blurring the boundary between the two (examples include “Scars” and “Learning Process”). Interestingly, one acoustic instrument spans both musical worlds: the piano. The piano, when heard as part of the sonic textures (i.e., the horror/allegory), is transformed into a prepared piano (“Fatal Blow”, “The Hangar”) and represents a specific aspect of the film which, if explained in too much detail here, would spoil the dramatic twist played out towards the end of the film.

Gillioz’s score for Last Breath is a good example of a film score that is best seen in the context of the film. The composer’s firm idea of how the music fits into the fabric of the film, becoming such an integral part of the whole, means that some of music’s meaning is lost when listened as a stand-alone listen. However, some detailed and informative liner notes (written by Benjamin Chee) that also features some insights from the composer himself helps the listener to better understand how the music fits into the film. This undoubtedly helps when listening to the score. For me, the 67 minute running time is a bit too long as I did find my attention wandering towards the end of the disc. Trimming the release by 15-20 minutes (perhaps reducing the more textural passages) would have made for a much better listening experience. But in saying that, using the knowledge gained from reading the liner notes, I found Gillioz’s score to be an interesting listen and I did find myself listening out for the various devices he uses as part of his aural support for the film. As mentioned already, Last Breath is available as a limited edition CD from Howlin’ Wolf Records and is well worth investigating. And the film sounds as though it is worth tracking down too.

Rating: *** 

  1. Last Breath (3:57)
  2. Fatal Blow (2:00)
  3. To The Core (5:05)
  4. On The Edge (1:28)
  5. Scars (6:02)
  6. Mystery In The Shed (2:59)
  7. Learning Process (6:03)
  8. Existence (2:23)
  9. Memories of My Father (1:23)
  10. No Escape (4:05)
  11. Doubts (2:15)
  12. The Hangar (2:48)
  13. Torture (4:37)
  14. Deep Inside (4:04)
  15. Another Day (0:52)
  16. The Dark Figure (4:40)
  17. Temptations (3:08)
  18. Locked In (4:27)
  19. Running Wild (0:54)
  20. Home (3:36)

Running Time: 66:55

Howlin’ Wolf Records (2012)

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  1. […] of this genre including Ty Jones’ family-drama-with-a-bit-of-horror movie, Last Breath (reviewed HERE). Given the opportunity by the directors to work freely on coming up with a score to fit the film, […]

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