Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scream asked, if you like scary movies, why don't you care about their soundtracks?

Screenshot: Scream. Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Screenshot: Scream. Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Soundtracks Of Our LivesIn Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.

Horror movies are dominated by film scores, as opposed to film soundtracks. It’s where you’ll find some of the industry’s greatest, most innovative themes and composers—Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Carpenter’s Halloween, Goblin’s Suspiria, Christopher Young’s Hellraiser, Tangerine Dream’s Near Dark, Fabio Frizzi’s Zombi 2—whose influence extends well into the furthest reaches of popular music, and who inspire the kind of cult worship that more mainstream artists like Howard Shore or Thomas Newman could only dream about. Today there are entire boutique labels devoted solely to collecting and reissuing horror movie scores, while “horror score” has become a recognizable style of music unto itself. But if you’re talking about soundtracks—those ancillary, mix-tape compendiums of pop songs that help a movie milk some extra life out of free radio promotion—there’s nothing that even comes close.

In some ways, this is kind of a waste. After all, horror films attract a lot of teens, and no one is more brand-loyal or willing to drop disposable income on shit to prove it. Creatively speaking, horror movies also tend to be lighter on dialogue, leaving plenty of room to cram some pop songs into all the filler scenes between slayings. Some horror movies even take place at loud parties, where people do all the stupid, sexy things that get them killed. And yet, the horror movie soundtrack is something of an anomaly, both in production and in record sales.

In fact, the most successful horror franchises tend to avoid them altogether. The Nightmare On Elm Street series, for example, only started exploring soundtracks after the fluke Nightmare On Elm Street 3 success of Dokken’s “Dream Warriors,” filling Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Master with songs from Billy Idol, Sinead O’Connor, and The Fat Boys. But even then, it only bothered licensing the forgotten likes of Sea Hags and Vinnie Vincent Invasion for the actual album. No one expected those kids to be flocking to Sam Goody so they could bump the Nightmare On Elm Street 4 soundtrack, it seemed.


Depending on whether you want to classify The Crow or The Lost Boys as “horror,” in fact, the genre’s most successful soundtrack may well be 1995’s Tales From The Hood, whose hip-hop compilation probably sold more CDs than actual movie tickets that year. Narrowing the artists to one specific fanbase similarly yielded dividends for Queen Of The Damned, along with (the also debatably “horror” films) End Of Days and Resident Evil—all of which successfully mined the industrial-rock and alt-metal audiences that would be most innately drawn to their demons-and-leather nightmares anyway. But as for the kind of mainstream, crossover, MTV-dominating hit soundtrack that so many other genres spawned during the ’80s and ’90s, horror, almost uniquely, doesn’t really have one.

This is especially unusual when you consider a movie like Scream, a film so MTV-friendly that it inevitably evolved into an actual MTV series. Scream was released in 1996—a prime, primordial-internet era for soundtracks—and like the slashers it was both satirizing and stealing from, it featured plenty of young, sexy people, hanging out where popular music could be heard. Indeed, you could have crammed an entire album’s worth of radio-ready clips into the film’s third-act house party alone.

Given the faith that the Weinstein-owned Dimension Films had in it attracting a huge teen audience—which led it to fight the MPAA doggedly for its R rating, then deliberately release it in teen movie-starved December—it’s a little strange that more of its modest budget wasn’t allotted for attracting a few of the bands those kids already loved, especially given how much The Crow’s soundtrack was responsible for garnering Dimension its first hit. Instead, Dimension more or less turned things over to TVT Records, which mostly filled it with slightly more obscure artists from its own label. And without any big names to drive it, Scream: Music From The Dimension Motion Picture failed to crack the Billboard 200, and disappeared into used bin purgatory not long after release. It remains out of print today; you can’t even find it on iTunes.

Again, much of that pop indifference can be attributed to the horror film’s natural emphasis on score. For Scream, director Wes Craven (who never really did the soundtrack thing) brought in first-time composer Marco Beltrami based on a crude demo, and it’s Beltrami’s themes—his dissonant rock guitar jangles, distorted shrieks, and the haunting choral voices that were represented on the album by “Trouble In Woodsboro/Sidney’s Lament”—that came to define the franchise.

It would be a stretch to put Beltrami’s work on the 1996 Scream alongside some of those aforementioned all-time greats; it’s good, but it’s certainly not as instantly recognizable. That said, it was unique, especially for an era awash in so many by-numbers orchestral stings. And it does create an appreciably suspenseful atmosphere—one that Craven was understandably reluctant to break with some pop hit. That the other songs on the soundtrack exist at all actually suggests some sort of compromise between Craven and his corporate concerns, looking to maximize every dollar.


In fact, whereas some directors agonize over the perfect artists and songs to complement their work, Scream’s soundtrack suggests Craven mostly just left background holes to be filled with whatever they could afford, minus a pair of notable exceptions: One of the soundtrack’s more memorable cuts is Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” as covered by Gus Black, who specializes in turning ’70s rock songs into strummy acoustic ballads. The other is Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” whose original version in the film is turned into a goth-jazz freakout on album by The Last Hard Men—a “supergroup” formed by The Breeders’ Kelley Deal, Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin, The Frogs’ Jimmy Flemion, and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, gathered specifically to record this song.

Never one to miss the chance for some cleverly understated wordplay, Craven drops “School’s Out” into the scene where the kids celebrate the fact that—since their principal has been murdered—school is out. Much earlier, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” plays softly in the background as Neve Campbell’s Sidney and Skeet Ulrich’s Billy have their chaste, PG-13 make-out—neither of them fearing that guy who’s been killing people while dressed as the reaper.


Scream’s most iconic song is equally blunt, but it’s a slightly less conventional choice. “Red Right Hand” hails from Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ 1994 album Let Love In, and by ’96 it had already been used in an episode of The X-Files, in the quirky John Turturro comedy Box Of Moonlight, and, weirdly enough, in Dumb And Dumber. But “Red Right Hand” became most closely associated with Scream, Cave’s cryptkeeper tale about a mysterious figure doling out bloody, biblical vengeance—rendering you all “one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan”—a perfect tonal fit for the film’s tale of a killer with ostensibly moral motives, and who goes to absurdly elaborate lengths just to stab some people.

In the film, Craven deploys the song masterfully, using those jarring chimes and its creeping movie-house organ beneath the scene where a panicked Woodsboro is placed under curfew. It’s little wonder that “Red Right Hand” (despite the best efforts of Peaky Blinders) has become inextricable from Scream, popping up again in Screams 2 and 3, and becoming a lynchpin of Cave’s live sets.


It’s too bad that Scream couldn’t turn “Red Right Hand” into a music video, which was still the best shot a soundtrack had at becoming a hit in ’96. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” by Republica, along with its future car commercial mainstay “Ready To Go,” did feature prominently in the film’s party scene and TV ads, and an alternate video intermingling movie clips was created. But of course, neither song was available to license for the actual album.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s other biggest “get” was a victim of weird timing. Moby had just broken through with 1995’s acclaimed Everything Is Wrong, so securing its deep cut “First Cool Hive” might have been considered a real coup had Scream not been released in the brief, fallow period after Moby’s “punk” album Animal Rights—a time when Moby was, in the words of his own manager, already considered a “has-been.” That said, “First Cool Hive” is one of the soundtrack’s best, its spectral female vocal line providing a neat parallel to Beltrami’s score, and its watery, deep-house rhythms offering a much-needed end-credits cooldown to the film’s frenetic climax.

With all its biggest names out, TVT placed most of its MTV faith in “Youth Of America” from its homegrown signee, the short-lived Boston band Birdbrain—possessor of, quite possibly, the bitterest page on Wikipedia. Despite what that site details as a fatally bungled representation by its TVT-appointed manager, it admits that Birdbrain managed to garner some modest exposure with this song—a slab of angsty alt-rock that would have slotted nicely next to the likes of Filter, and whose “Yooooou’re alllllll deeeeeead” refrain had just the kind of subtlety Craven craved. The band even shot a video for it, with its members dressing in Gale Weathers-esque shiny-turd pleather coats to play news reporters. Though as Wikipedia reminds, their fuck-up manager even “failed to parlay this into national success.”

Still, Birdbrain fared slightly better than its TVT labelmates Catherine, whose Wiki is full of its own TVT-related woes—the label reportedly not even returning its phone calls not long after the soundtrack was released. As such, The Smashing Pumpkins-adjacent Chicago act (which briefly featured Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky, who was married to its drummer, Kerry Brown) more or less peaked with Scream’s use of “Whisper” from that year’s Hot Saki And Bedtime Stories, the song’s fuzzy dream-pop underscoring the scene where the gang gathers around the water fountain to snark about the recent murders of their classmates.

Some similar drama was also happening around TVT’s The Connells, the long-running jangle-pop band whose original Scream contribution “Bitter Pill” provides the kicker to [spoiler, we guess] Rose McGowan’s death by garage door. The Connells apparently spent the years surrounding Scream’s release unsuccessfully suing TVT to be let out of its contract, suggesting that the real story behind this soundtrack may be that, in the ’90s, there was no shittier label to sign to than TVT. Trent Reznor would certainly agree, which is definitely to TVT and Scream’s deficit. There was perhaps no band in 1996 whose sound was more suited to the film—or more sought-after for soundtracks in general—than Nine Inch Nails.

Instead, that slot went to Reznor’s industrial-rock contemporaries in Sister Machine Gun, part of the mostly Chicago-based collective that found itself swallowed up by TVT after it acquired Wax Trax. Although, this actually seemed to work out okay for them: The band had even scored some soundtrack success the year before, when “Burn” appeared on the TVT-released Mortal Kombat. Like that song, “Better Than Me” appears on 1995’s Burn, and it features a sort of mellower, dance-oriented take on gothic industrial—more akin to Depeche Mode than its Chicago brethren like Ministry or My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, but still, just edgy enough. It’s the kind of music that would come to dominate soundtracks for the next six years or so; it’s sort of a wonder that Scream would be Sister Machine Gun’s last. (Then again, given that the band also left TVT shortly thereafter, maybe it’s not such a wonder after all.)

Scream also brought in another soundtrack veteran, only to totally waste her: Julee Cruise, the Twin Peaks songstress whose ethereal, atmosphere-setting tones are, bafflingly, buried here under the electronic farts of Deee-Lite’s Supa DJ Dmitry in their “Artificial World (Interdimensional Mix),” a bit of easily ignorable rave music that’s briefly heard in McGowan and Neve Campbell’s post-attempted homicide sleepover. It’s actually one of the film’s few suggestions that these pop culture-savvy kids have any musical taste at all, other than the Indigo Girls poster in Campbell’s bedroom—a bit of set dressing that perfectly telegraphs Sidney’s overly sensitive blandness, much like her uniform of baggy Gap sweatshirts and stonewashed jeans.

Finally, following the icy chill of “First Cool Hive,” the end credits roll on “Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly),” a cover of The Icicle Works’ hit contributed by the British band’s fellow pan-flashes Soho. Best known for 1990’s infectious, slightly irritating, Smiths/Soul II Soul-nicking earworm “Hippychick,” Soho had mostly languished as the decade quickly turned away from its Day-Glo/neo-soul/New Jack Swing sound. Theirs is also a bit of a pointless cover. smoothing out the original’s chest-beating, New Romantic melody a bit with some cascading female harmonies, and turning its tribal rhythms into a dated house beat cut up with laser-scratches, but otherwise mostly keeping it intact.


Still, “Whisper To A Scream” sent movie audiences out into the night on an appropriately epic, if slightly narcotized note that provided an ameliorating distance from all the bloodshed they just consumed. Plus, it has “Scream” right there in the title, which was presumably good enough for Craven.

That said, who knows if Craven gave it, or the rest of the soundtrack, much thought at all? There’s plenty of extant info about and insight into Craven’s work with Marco Beltrami, but nothing (or at least, nothing that was preserved for the internet) seems to have been said about his input on the soundtrack. By all appearances, no one expected much from the Scream soundtrack, and it delivered.


But by the time of 1997’s Scream 2—after the film had become a box-office hit and the cult phenomenon that moved a million Ghostface tchotchkes—Dimension was kicking itself over not taking it more seriously, throwing itself fully behind the sequel’s soundtrack on its newly minted Capitol Dimension imprint. It laid out millions for blanket radio, TV, and in-store promotions, and, more importantly, it booked 14 of the biggest contemporary artists it could find—a mid-’90s dream roster that included Foo Fighters, Master P, Everclear, Sugar Ray, D’Angelo, Eels, Collective Soul, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Dave Matthews Band, and, uh, Kottonmouth Kings. Turning Scream 2 into a B-side clearinghouse for the day’s hottest acts helped the soundtrack finally land on the charts.

That said, it didn’t make the album any less disposable, or feel more connected to the franchise. Even with all that star power behind it—and videos for Master P’s “Scream” and Kottonmouth Kings’ “Suburban Life” hitting up MTV—the Scream 2 soundtrack peaked at a middling No. 50 and cratered quickly after. It really wasn’t until 2000’s Scream 3 that the series would finally find a way to capture its audience’s stereos too, and then only by adhering to the nu-metal blueprint that kept the soundtrack format afloat in those waning days of CDs. Ultimately, yes, Scream’s audience liked scary movies, but didn’t really care about listening to them. And as movie soundtracks have only become a scarcer commodity, while horror films continue to look to the classic sounds of Carpenter, Goblin et al. for inspiration, the horror genre’s best hopes for a hit soundtrack died with it. Now, where is today’s Dokken to resurrect it?


Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.

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