Sounding Out Renfield

Poster for Renfield.

In the movie business typecasting can be as much of a curse for composers as for actors.

Marco Beltrami made his name in Hollywood with his score for Wes Craven’s satirical slasher movie Scream back in 1996. Beltrami’s music, for what would become a four-film franchise, has now been collected on four LPs of blood-red vinyl wisped with black and released last year on the Varèse Sarabande label. There is a defunct idea across the arts that genre is limiting. Beltrami’s work for Scream and his other horror projects proves that conventions can liberate.

The range of effects and affects on the Scream integrale is as impressive as it is fun. No hiding place is safe from Beltrami’s imagination. Prying back the lids on the masterpieces of yore, his razor-sharp technical skill slices off what he needs of what he finds inside— from the lone crystalline lullaby that will surely shatter into terrifying symphonic shards, to moments of dreamy desire blind-sided by convulsive orchestral sforzandos.

From the house of mirrors that is Hollywood’s Horror Hall of Fame, Beltrami’s scores capture deftly distorted images of many of the inductees: John Carpenter’s rhythmically deformed rocking piano from Halloween of 1978 (the director also wrote the music for this Gesamtkunstwerk of Gore); the ominous choral chants and massed frights of The Omen conjured back in the bicentennial year of 1976 by Jerry Goldsmith, with whom Beltrami studied at USC; Ennio Morricone in minimalist mode in The Thing of 1982, John Carpenter having ceded that soundtrack to the Italian master; Bernard Herrmann’s slashing violins from Psycho of 1960—to name just a few of the highlights of Scream’s musical freak show.

In the nearly three decades since Scream, Beltrami has ventured beyond horror to other genres. The first of his two Academy Award nominations came in 2007 for the score to James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

Given the centrality of “Americans” in the Western, whose on-screen characters are normally devoid of European emigrants, it is easy to forget how important Italians have been to the Western’s music. Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West) was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910, two years before Arizona became a state. The widely-spaced opening sonority of Puccini’s overture provided the template for the Silver Screen when conjuring the immense distance traversed by Manifest Destiny. Puccini’s is a conceit employed in almost every Western film since. Beltrami’s Yuma put his musical train on those same (sound)tracks to chug confidently across the desert soundscape.

After graduating from Brown University Beltrami went to Venice to study with Luigi Nono, the avowedly communist composer, who construed his greatest work as a fundamental critique of fascism, war, and capitalism. Although he wrote the music for films, Nono is about as far from Hollywood as one can get musically and ideologically. That didn’t mean that Beltrami couldn’t use the high-minded lessons learned from Nono and run to the waiting arms of Hollywood.

Back in the USA, Beltrami studied composition at Yale with Jacob Druckman, one of the most important teachers of the later part of the twentieth century. Trained in the high modernist, intellectual tradition, Beltrami’s aesthetic convictions are avowedly post-modern and relativist, and thus ideally suited to the marketplace imperatives of the movie industry. His later tuition with Goldsmith was dedicated to the proposition that art and commerce are not enemies.

Beltrami professes a love of working on disparate projects and idioms at the same time. He once claimed that in his ideal creative world “the music of a Jamaican bandleader [would be] of equal importance with the work of a Germanic music scholar.” Think Theodor Adorno banging at a steel drum.

Beltrami’s second Oscar nomination came in 2008, a year after Yuma, for his contribution to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker—also a horror movie of a sort, one all about bombs lurking in the sands of Iraq. With searing electrified orchestral effects Beltrami expertly dramatized in sound the unbearable intensity of defusing an explosive device. Away from the theatre of mortal danger, plaintive melodies and their folksy accompaniments offered escape, however fleeting, from the death trap of time and technology.

Beltrami also did solid service in the last two installments Bruce Willis’s Die Hard series, as well working on interesting independent movies.

His latest effort returns to horror homebase with Renfield, a vampire flick directed by Chris McKay, he of Lego Batman Movie fame. Renfield is an exercise in allusion, feasting on the myriad Dracula movies that preceded it: black-and-white, faux-antiqued motion pictures castles; configurations candelabra and the trajectory of swarming bats among other visual quotations I caught or vaguely intuited as in if in a dream.

The music participates in this romp through the cinematic past. Strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake make reference to Tod Browning’s Dracula of 1931, the first movie of Bram Stoker’s story to have used synchronized sound. McKay even gives us a shot of a gramophone in Dracula’s lair spinning the Tchaikovsky record. Bach’s Toccata in D Minor makes a stormy appearance in the trailer but hardly a peep in the picture itself: that is symptomatic of the short shrift Beltrami’s composition are given in Renfield.

The film provides a gloom-soaked showcase for Nicholas Cage’s campy expressionist gestures and melodramatic diction. Yet Renfield doesn’t so much take big bites out of the carcass of the genre as gnaw at it with sharp little teeth like those donned by Cage. The rejuvenating release of large laughs never comes and our will wanes like a Dracula starved for what he needs. It’s death by a thousand nibbles.

Aside from necking with cinematic history, the movie’s main gag is a tongue-in-powdered-cheek critique of group therapy. Sporting a posh accent from his native England (after the sniveling American gastro-groveling of his outstanding work in The Menu of last year), Brit Nicholas Hoult plays Dracula’s long-time servant and procurer, Robert Montague Renfield. To his support group, Renfield describes his “toxic relationship” with his employer. When that employer shows up at the church hall to join the rap session, the talk stops and the screams start. The funniest exchange comes when Cage’s Dracula gaslights his beleaguered valet convincing him that the vampire master, now set on world domination, has given everything for his manservant.

Much fun is attempted with Renfield’s efforts to group-talk his way out of his job serving up victims to serial murder. These faux-tender moments alternate with action sequences riffing mirthfully and mockingly on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except with exploding heads and ripped off body parts as bludgeons.

Horror maestro Beltrami was presumably hired to lend his polish and pizzazz as much to the content as to the branding of the film. Yet his omnivorous talent is muted as the movie romps from the Old World to New Orleans, that city impressed into service as a cliché of police corruption—one of many elements snatched off the shelf and clumsily shoved into the underpowered plot. Irony and kitsch are meant to keep us captive, but the music reveals the shortcomings of a movie that can’t deliver on its coy contract.

One senses Beltrami magisterial reach and unexploited potential mostly be inference. Sweeping symphonic phrases evoke the epic quality of Dracula’s centuries-long depredations. Guitar grooves consort with harp strains, the hipster oscillating with the heavenly and hellish. Easy Latin grooves give way to Old World heroic horns in the Wagnerian vein: the world is a vampire’s oyster.

Had it been given more of role, had it been brought out of the shadows and made forcefully present in the sonic-visual mix, Beltrami’s score could have provided a hilarious contrast to the movie’s sardonic navel-gazing. More than glib grab-bagging, Beltrami’s music manifests a serious dedication to craft that might have imbued the movie’s anemic quippery with the bizarre and foolish grandiosity it yearned to taste.

In the end the Orffian thrill Beltrami delivers in the rush of light that might spell Dracula’s doom confirms that what this vampire movie needed all along was not more blood but more music.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com