Freddy vs. Jason (Graeme Revell)

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After their final cinematic outings in 1993 and 1994 respectively, it seemed that the 1980s Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were completely out of gas. The slasher genre of the 1990s would be defined by movies like Scream, much more subversive and self-aware than its 1980s forebears even at their campiest. Enter directer Ronny Yu, fresh from revitalizing another 1980s horror staple with Bride of Chucky to give the aging horror icons one last hurrah by combining them in the vein of Alien vs. Predator. The resultant Freddy vs. Jason attracted decent notices and box office receipts, but it was not enough to prevent remake-happy Hollywood from “rebooting” both franchises later in the decade.

New Zealand film score composer Graeme Revell had a history in the horror genre with titles like From Dusk till Dawn on his resume, and he had also worked with director Yu on the earlier Bride of Chucky. Revell was faced with the daunting musical history of the two series to inform his attempt to score the crossover; the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in particular had never used the same composer twice, with scores from Charles Bernstein, Christopher Young, Angelo Badalamenti, Craig Safan, Jay Ferguson, Brian May (the Australian composer, not the rocker), and J. Peter Robinson–a veritable who’s who of horror composers for film and TV–each bringing their own distinct style and themes to the wildly varying tone and quality of the films. The much schlockier Friday the 13th films had been much more consistent in their (low) level of quality and their generally overachieving scores by composer Harry Manfredini (save for Fred Mollin’s score and tracked-in Manfredini needledrops for parts 7 and 8 of the series).

Revell chose to tackle the film with a straight-up classical horror score in the vein of many films of the old slasher era, a mostly orchestral and mostly atonal cocktail of effective, rambunctious, and noisy tracks with an occasional role for electronics and electric guitar. There was a time when that sort of score might have been called a cliche, but by 2003 horror and slasher films were increasingly bearing overprocessed scores in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures/Remote Control studios, textual efforts that were more sound design than traditional scoring. In that context, Revell’s music is an impressively entertaining thowback even as it breaks no new ground for either series or orchestral horror scores in general.

Most impressively, the composer pays significant tribute to the earlier films in both series. The orchestral, occasionally gothic sound of his score isn’t a million miles from some of the finer cuts from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, and Revell incorporates singsong children’s voices uttering the doggerel rhyme from Nightmare directly into his score on occasion. He also pays tribute to Manfredini’s Friday scores by using, with full credit, the latter composer’s original (and iconic) echoing “kill, kill, kill, kill, die, die, die, die” samples. These homages are only present in a minority of the cues, Revell being generally content to rely on his own ideas, but they form a very pleasing tip of the hat to the film’s forebears. Compared to Steve Jablonsky’s dire efforts for the “rebooted” Friday and Nightmare scores in 2009 and 2010, though, Revell’s effort is a breath of fresh air.

In 2003, a score like Freddy vs. Jason with occasional references to classic motifs from the schlocky earlier films was easy to dismiss as a weak, paint-by-numbers effort; a decade of awful scores for similar films wound up putting it in context as a much stronger effort than people give it credit for. Graeme Revell would get a few more horror assignments in the 2000s and 2010s, but none of the later efforts (mostly vile “reboots” themselves) approached the same level of satisfying cliche as Freddy vs. Jason, and indeed the composer took on far fewer assignments in the 2010s in general. Due perhaps to weak demand for the orchestral score as opposed to the irrelevant “songs from and inspired by” album, Revell’s music was later remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar discount chain and can occasionally be acquired for as little as $3.

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Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

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