Scream's enormous success will forever be intertwined with the failure of the genre that it resuscitated — and that may be why its music is at once wonderfully unique and a familiar echo of scores for the movies that preceded it.
Slasher movies had reached the lowest ebb in their estimable history by 1996, after mainstay franchises Friday the 13th and Halloween had lumbered into box office irrelevance. Even Wes Craven's noble effort to inject postmodernism into A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1994 with New Nightmare failed to capture that irresistible, winking, youthful energy that he and Kevin Williamson would harness much more effectively just two years later. And yet, each of those series had developed a distinctive musical identity — an identifiable, almost Pavlovian cue or theme — over the decades of their existence that evoked a comforting familiarity for horror fans, drawing them back to theaters even when the storytelling no longer could. Scream, by comparison, was almost literally engineered to stand on the shoulders of those giants; but without the commercial cache to enlist a name brand composer like, say, Candyman's Phillip Glass (much less OGs Harry Manfredini, John Carpenter, or Charles Bernstein), Craven chose a complete newcomer — Marco Beltrami — to create a thematic bedrock, both entrenched in musical boilerplate and unencumbered by genre expectations, that has become one of the keys to the franchise's longevity.
Ahead of the release of the film we'll call "Scream 2022" for the sake of clarity, Varèse Sarabande's new limited-edition six-disc box set collects Beltrami's scores to the first four installments in the Scream series along with more than four hours of unreleased music, previously unreleased demos, cues, and alternate takes in deluxe packaging inspired by none other than Ghostface himself. Additionally, Varèse has released a four-LP set for vinyl collectors, housed in a unique jacket that folds out into a 3' by 2' Ghostface mask. Both of these sets include liner notes by film music journalist Jim Lochner, who interviews Beltrami about his journey with the franchise — starting with the desperate possibility it might never have gone anywhere.
Prior to Scream, Beltrami's only pedigree was one of a promising up-and-comer, studying under no less than Alien composer Jerry Goldsmith while attending the USC Thornton School of Music. Although that promise got his name passed to Craven's assistant Julie Plec, Beltrami had only some samples to present, none of them horror, when Craven gave him a weekend to put together a cue to accompany the Drew Barrymore set piece that opened the film for presentation to the producers and distributors the Weinstein brothers. "The Cue From Hell," as it was named, earned him the job, and it's easy to see why: it covers a wide spectrum of "necessary" horror sounds, from haunting piano to blasting brass, and showcases Beltrami's versatility — as well as his willingness to aim square for the bullseye of the genre he's exploring.
The other themes that emerged for the film, including Dewey's theme and a vocal cue that served as a crucial throughline for Sidney's melancholy and terror-stricken journey, would be further developed and fleshed out in the sequels, but it's hard to overstate how perfectly this music worked for this film at this moment in the history of horror (much less slasher films) — hence the duality of being so special and so indistinct at the same time. The film itself was a commentary and a deconstruction of the genre, while still delivering its necessary thrills. Craven reportedly worked closely with Beltrami to develop cues and, maybe more importantly, certain sounds that would alert audiences to what the filmmakers were doing, both startling viewers and subverting their expectations when a shock of music led to nothing behind a door. For better or worse, this technique became wildly overused in the intervening decades, combining high-quality multi-channel sound and ear-splitting volumes to knock viewers out of their seat whether or not they were actually frightened by what was happening on screen, but he capitalized on both the technological and musical possibilities at a moment when they were still largely untapped.
What's interesting in parallel to the more traditional scoring elements is how Beltrami indulged in the musical lexicon of the moment in pop and rock, as on cues like "Trouble in Woodsboro;" you could be forgiven for mistaking their music for the instrumental version of some alt-rock song, but he packs in electronic sound effects, drum machines and enough industrial noise to make fans of Trent Reznor or Garbage producer Butch Vig pause and say, "hey, wait a minute." He later skillfully merges the classical and the modern on cues like "Sidney Wants It," where mournful voices waft like smoke as chugging electronic beats convey a contemporary urgency.
Greenlit while Scream was still in theaters, Scream 2 raced into production as Dimension reassembled the winning team from the first film, including Beltrami, for a release date just shy of a year later. It was this speed that resulted in some of Beltrami's work being replaced — or more accurately, never placed — in the film after editor Patrick Lussier put cues from Hans Zimmer's score for Broken Arrow in a rough cut shown to test audiences. Despite the fact that Beltrami had actually been inspired to compose music for David Arquette's Dewey based on Ennio Morricone's scores for spaghetti westerns, the Duane Eddy-performed cues by Zimmer resonated with audiences, so Craven (and more likely the Weinsteins) left them in the film. Additionally, Danny Elfman composed two tracks for the film, "Cassandra Aria" and "Cassandra Reprise," which overshadowed Beltrami's work with Zimmer's contributions, even though the young composer had confidently evolved his own work from the first film. (The Zimmer cues are absent from the box set, but Elfman's are included.)
The unique needle that this franchise has threaded throughout its existence is acknowledging the conventions — often explicitly — of horror films that it's also trying to deliver sincerely, and by the third film, Craven and his collaborators had not always accomplished this challenge with a consistent level of success or grace. In particular, admitting that a sequel's purpose is to escalate the body count, and to actively misdirect audiences to cause suspicion, ends up creating the sensation that the violence is superficial or pointless, and generating a mistrust of filmmakers that create an ensemble of characters viewers barely know enough about to care. At the same time, their resources were greater than ever; by Scream 3, Beltrami was able to assemble a 95-piece orchestra and a 30-person choir for a full week of recording. Perhaps that's why the music he composed for the third film stretches across two discs in the CD set.
Scream 4 didn't happen for another decade, but in Beltrami's conversation with Lochner in the liner notes, he admitted that he was initially shocked by how little he was budgeted for the film's music. But Beltrami's own stature in the industry had grown significantly since 1996, and perhaps more importantly, technology had advanced as well, making it possible for him to pivot towards something grittier than in the past utilizing fewer musicians and other resources. (He tells Lochner that "ultimately things worked out for the best," and if the music is actually a little rougher around the edges, it's otherwise faithful enough to the series that only a truly dedicated listener could tell it apart from the previous scores in a way that materially impacts the film it's accompanying.
Unused cues can be a fun treasure trove to explore for folks who have become familiar with the music that's used in an original film, but for the Scream series, Beltrami's extras here really tell a story, not simply delineating the creative process for a single film but setting up ideas that he would flesh out into completed musical pieces in the sequels. There are a couple of alternate edits of tracks like "Sunset pictures" from Scream 3, which feels more like a reprise of the "Red Right Hand" cue that was used so liberally in the first two films; "I Don't Care," a Garbage knockoff he recorded with singer Dillon Dixon; and even cues from the Stab film-within-a-film series (which are truly wonderful in this very streamlined way that his music for the rest of the franchise is not).
Ultimately, it's effortlessly equal to the Friday the 13th box set released by La-La Land Records and Varèse's Nightmare on Elm Street box set, both in terms of content and packaging, but most of all, in providing a context — a history, and a legacy — not just for the commercial success that the film series enjoyed, but the musical and artistic impact its music made.
Not to be forgotten — though it's a separate release — is Brian Tyler's score for Scream 2022. That Tyler's own career as a composer started at almost the same time as Beltrami's feels like a nice coincidence, but given Craven's absence, and his previous collaboration with co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the change seems earned, both for the series and audiences. Tyler frequently composes music for action films, and even the horror films he's done, such as The Final Destination, have skewed towards a more muscular storytelling style, but without giving too much away ahead of the movie, he very skillfully echoes some of those thematic elements that Beltrami originally created while refining that more bombastic sound for an era in which horror film composition has only seemed to grow more complex, exploring a lot of emotionality that was de-prioritized during the original Scream era, but has now become more of a cornerstone for the genre.
The first two tracks alone, "New Horizons" and "Rules To Survive," have this wonderful symphonic nuance to them that isn't merely racing towards a horror sting; of course, without having seen the film it's tough to know exactly how they're used, but where the Beltrami scores are a real roller coaster ride for the listener, clanging through one terrifying moment after the next, Tyler eases the listener into a musical atmosphere and then leans on those punctuative devices that amplify the intensity. But as Scream 2022 is poised to rekindle our love for this franchise all over again, it will be interesting to see how Tyler's music manages that difficult balancing act for one more adventure; after 25 years, viewers have not only had slashers deconstructed, but commented on, reconstructed and revitalized, and it's this music that subverts our expectations while somehow also satisfying them, that makes that bumpy ride so enjoyable to take, over and over again.
Here's a handy link to all purchasing options for this absolute treasure trove for your ears.
The deluxe Scream: Original Motion Picture Soundtracks Box Set features Marco Beltrami’s scores from the first four films, plus previously unreleased material—all packaged in a fold-out Ghostface mask. Now available digitally and on CD only at VareseSarabande.com and Intl.VareseSarabande.com
All LP products are now on PRE-ORDER, street date is June 10th. The Box Set and Black Vinyl version of Scream (2022) are available at all retailers, clear vinyl with red smoke version of Scream (2022) is available only at VareseSarabande.com and Intl.VareseSarabande.com
*Sponsored by VareseSarabande.com