<I>Immaculate</I>: Will Bates scores Neon's new horror feature
April 5, 2024

Immaculate: Will Bates scores Neon's new horror feature

In Neon’s Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney stars as a young nun named Cecilia, who embarks on a journey to a remote convent in the picturesque Italian countryside. While she is warmly welcomed, she quickly realizes that her new home harbors a sinister secret, along with unspeakable horrors.

Michael Mohan directed the feature, which was released on March 22nd and features an original score by Will Bates.

“I came onboard Immaculate relatively early in the process, during pre-production,” Bates recalls. “Mike made a playlist of tracks — some horror scores, some obscure Italian references — lots of stuff. He reminded me recently how quickly we abandoned that playlist!”

There were immediate musical tasks that needed to be taken care of for the production to move forward. This included selecting which instruments some of the nuns would be playing on-camera. 

“In an early scene in the script, there is a trio of nuns playing in the piazza as Sister Cecilia is arriving,” Bates explains. “We talked about the isolation of this sect of the Catholic Church. Perhaps it is somehow stopped in time and we thought the instruments should reflect that. I suggested Zither, Psaltery and Hurdy-Gurdy, which were then sourced in Rome for the actors to play. I went out and acquired those instruments myself and started writing sketches. Those were then used as templates for the on-set performers, but also became a blueprint for the score as we got into post.”

A larger task during production was to write the piece that the nuns would sing during Sister Cecilia's vow’s ceremony. It needed to be in Latin so Bates used the text of the Te Deum prayer. 

“Its tone is a reflection of Sister Celia's own feelings of spirituality at the beginning of her story — a sense of wonder and awe towards god,” he explains. “Again, it needed to sound ancient, but somehow a little off. I used a Hungarian Zither as my starting point for the piece, which has its own very specific modal folk scale.”

Moving forward with the score, Bates often used this scale as his tonal center, as it places some of the more familiar ecclesiastic tones in an unfamiliar setting. 

“Along with large tenor and bass recorders for woodwind accompaniment, and my trusty Hurdy-Gurdy, there is something familiar but also unnerving.”

Bates asked frequent collaborator Maiah Manser to sing the vocals for the Te Deum before handing it over to the choir to sing — a group called the Hi Lo Singers, based out of London. 

“Maiah's voice just seemed to fit so perfectly into the world we were creating, so I wrote another piece for Sister Cecilia's arrival at the convent using the Latin text from the Kyrie Eleison movement of the Requiem Mass. This melody became Sister Cecilia's theme in the movie.”

About halfway through the project, Bates acquired a 19th century square grand piano at an estate sale that had previously been owned by General Phineas Banning. 

“It has a very specific sound — nightmarishly un-tuneable,” notes the composer. “Its horizontally layered sound boards make it perfect for scraping the strings with one's fingernails, placing resonating e-bows on them, striking them with a mallet. The square grand has been through a lot for Immaculate. It became a source for all the moments of dread, horror, the jump scares. It has such a big sound, we found that using it amongst moments of silence was very effective.”

 To that end, Bates says he also wanted to recapture the sound of a church organ's reverberation trail — a sound that's left filling the room once the big sound has departed. 

“Something about that majestic moment of silence between the organ ending and the congregation being seated is what I was hoping to capture, and was a jumping off point for some parts of the score,” he notes.  

At that same estate sale, Bates also acquired an old church pump organ. Pumping air through the organ without the reeds engaged became a source of rhythm for some cues, as it has a disconcerting, wheezing, creaking, heart-beat sound.

“So much of the score is about atmosphere,” he reflects. “An expression of what this convent is. We decided during post that the score should always be from Cecilia’s point of view. Despite what the audience has learnt during the cold open, we are on a journey with her to discover the sinister intentions of this place. Her melody at the start of this journey has a feeling of reverence and awe. It is elegiac, she is damaged and perhaps escaping something herself, yet it has a feeling of spirituality. As the story unfolds, this theme becomes framed in a different context as we start to understand the [motives] of the people around her.”