ELLEN – Gareth Coker

Original Review by Alan RogersEllen

Ellen is a short, suspense thriller directed by Kyle Hausmann-Stokes as his thesis project whilst at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. It centres on an insecure high school girl who is abducted and held prisoner in a non-descript suburban house. The kidnapper is very meticulous about his time keeping apparently and he ensures that Ellen (Jessica Andres) is constantly drugged up whilst he’s out to work (as a home help). Ellen must overcome her insecurity and lack of confidence in her own abilities (established in the opening scene of the film) in order to fashion her escape from her captor. The score is composed by newcomer Gareth Coker who, since 2009 has scored numerous short films and two features including the recent thriller Dark Power, starring Kristanna Loken.

Coker’s score is very much centred around a small ensemble of strings with the addition of piano and adds a level of tension to the film that I think would otherwise be lacking. Whether deliberate or not, the composer’s use of piano (in tracks such as “Handle With Care”, “Deliverance”) brings to mind the work of Christopher Young. The use of various percussion elements (added at specific points to flesh out the drama) gives the score a certain Fringe feel to some of the tension-filled cues (e.g., “Outlet”). Overall, it’s a strong example of suspense thriller scoring which is helped enormously by the high quality of orchestra, particularly the strings (members of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music).

The album begins with “Handle With Care”, which plays over the opening credits as we see the kidnapper returning to his suburban home. The cue featuring an anguished solo melodic line in the strings that is accompanied by an off-kilter music box-styled rhythm which seems to be mirroring the immaturity and insecurity of Ellen. But, as the story progresses this music box motif seems to be associated more with the stunted emotional state of the kidnapper. The music box rhythm also has the feel of a clock marking out time, lumbering onward and a tolling motif recurs at several points in the film (e.g., “Heteromorphic”), usually being associated with the kidnapper and the routine that he follows. The idea of time is used particularly effectively towards the end of “Outlet”. Ellen has managed to remove her bindings and is looking for a way out of the house. But, as with all these kinds of thrillers, she has managed to time it so that almost succeeds in her attempt to escape just as her kidnapper is returning. At this point there is a blurring between where the drama ends and the score begins as Coker uses a strong percussive device as a musical motif to ramp up the tension as the kidnapper returns but it also seems to suggest the chiming of a clock within the house, reinforcing the point that it is time for the kidnapper to return. The use of long string lines and accompanying pizzicato keeps the suspense of the drama moving along and it’s all quite interesting, if not anything we haven’t heard before. It’s not all suspense though. “Hack”, “Where Are You My Sweet?” and the final cue “Deliverance” provide examples where the composer uses strings and percussion to add a sense of urgency to a number of scenes (e.g., when Ellen releases herself from her bonds).

“Deliverance” is the final cue of the album and is a concise summary of the score, replaying a number of ideas from the film as the end credits roll. It’s in this cue where the most thematic – and memorable – material is heard. A strong, celebratory theme for strings and piano played over a driving string ostinato confirms Ellen’s success at defeating her kidnapper and of her conquering her insecurities and finding her inner strength. There’s a beautiful statement of this theme immediately prior to the passage heard in “Deliverance” that’s played on piano and is heard as Ellen first emerges from the house into the brilliant sunshine. She sees the normal suburban street where her nightmare has been taking place and Coker manages to instil in this theme, by using the piano, a vivid recreation of Ellen’s emotions at now being free. But, there’s no sign of this cue on the album. This is a real shame as, for me, this is the real emotional highlight of the score and I can’t understand why it has been left off. Putting this omission to one side, Ellen is a very enjoyable score to listen to away from the film and this is down to the quality of the writing, the orchestrations and the quality of the musicians. The music adds significantly to the film (though there is one scene where the music – “Outlet” – seems a bit too bright, too light-hearted to be appropriate) and fleshes out both characters and situations in a manner that film music should. Overall, a good little score that uses music to add suspense and tension rather than relying on uninteresting electronic soundscapes. Ellen can he heard in full at the composer’s Bandcamp page, where it can also be purchased as a digital download in a number of formats. The short film can be viewer HERE.

Rating: ***½

  1. Handle With Care (1:16)
  2. Heteromorphic (1:47)
  3. Hack (0:52)
  4. Outlet (1:11)
  5. Where Are You My Sweet? (1:45)
  6. Deliverance (2:11)

Running Time: 9:04

Gareth Coker (2011)

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