Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth; Hellboy) may now be established as one of the most creative and influential filmmakers of his generation – but production of his 1997 horror Mimic proved so stressful that the director all but disowned it after its release. A story of giant mutated insects that have bred in the New York sewer system, the film was fraught with conflict, Del Toro's artistic sensibility clashing with that of producer Bob Weinstein, who demanded little more than a dumb B-movie creature feature designed to draw the crowds. The end result unsurprisingly pulls between these two very different stools but is nonetheless marked out by its convincingly grimy subterranean atmosphere and impressive creature design. Mira Sorvino stars as scientist Susan Tyler who, in a last-ditch attempt to rid New York of a deadly disease spread by cockroaches, develops a new breed of insect named the Judas. These are meant to eradicate the roaches and die after one lifecycle. But of course things don't go according to plan, and very soon something nasty is lurking beneath the streets of the Big Apple, something with the ability to mimic the appearance of human beings...
One aspect of the production that emerged unscathed was the excellent score by then-fledgling composer Marco Beltrami, working for the first time with Del Toro and fresh off his enormously successful work on Wes Craven's seminal 1996 slasher horror Scream. Beltrami's energetic, aggressive orchestral writing quickly made him a hot commodity in the world of horror films – but while Mimic certainly indulges that side of Beltrami's musical personality, it also allows for an exploration of his sensitive side as well. Melodic material has always been a cornerstone of Beltrami's career, even in the midst of his horror work – the four Scream scores are built around the hauntingly tragic Sidney's theme, which serves to temper the orchestral onslaught. And in more recent years, Beltrami's capacity for lyrical beauty has taken full flight in acclaimed scores like I, Robot, Soul Surfer and this year's choral-inflected The Giver. Likewise, there's plenty of melodic material in Mimic, making for a dynamic listening experience that balances the light and the dark.
That said, things begin on a forbidding note with the "Main Titles", mixing an eerie boy soprano vocal with high register strings and groaning brass that eventually builds to a near-apocalyptic finale. It's an engrossing start, showcasing Beltrami's unerring flair for darkly dramatic horror. Chills of a different kind are on offer in the desolate "Children's Hospital", emotional strings giving off an air of desperation that's quite haunting. "Release the Judas" mixes a host of scittering, Elliot Goldenthal-esque percussive effects (appropriate in a film about giant insects) that eventually build into a spine-tingling choral finale.
Already, there's a sense of grandiosity about Beltrami's writing that's far beyond your typical horror score. Even the quieter sections like "Press Conference/Bathtub" feature lovely, understated sections for woodwind and strings, invested with genuine feeling. However, the following track "Priest Dies" reintroduces those Beltrami-isms so beloved by his fans: growling brass and shrieking strings that he would go on to reprise in his subsequent horror and action scores. But even amidst this, there are wonderfully clever touches – the odd eerie choral moment, suggesting the latent menace of giant insects living among us, or fluttering woodwinds perhaps mirroring the flap of enormous wings.
Grandiose brass chords begin "Investigation/Dark Angels", Beltrami throwing back to the gloriously overblown monster movie scores of old. The burgeoning 'realisation' of "Problems in the Lab", with its undulating harp and choir, is a key moment in the film where Susan realises the scale of the problem she's inadvertently created; the second half of the track introduces a genuine sense of menace with an eerie choral glissando that's genuinely chilling. "Mr. Funny Shoes/Delancey St. Station" presents a deconstructed variation on the main theme surrounded by a host of clattering percussion; the unexpected injection of an accordion in the second half depicts the underground network where the majority of the film takes place (presumably because accordions are often associated with busking).
"Locker Room" builds tension gradually with an encroaching sense of brassy terror before "Susan Meets Chuy" dissolves the sense of threat with a delicate and airy woodwind section. Needless to say, the sense of calm doesn't last long: "Goodbye Boys" is another of those tantalising, tension-building exercises as the strings, brass and distant choir hint at something menacing lurking around the corner. Beltrami then lets rip with the orchestra during one of the film's most shocking sequences, as two kids fall prey to the monstrous Judas creatures. "Susan and Dr. Gates" calms things down with a pensive variation on the main title theme – even in the quieter sections, the music is always anchored to a recognisable idea and never descends into mindless noise.
The track "Chuy Steps Out" is representative of the score's intelligent construction: a tinkling, innocent-sounding piano (accompanied by the boy soprano vocal) is gradually overtaken by the dissonant brass representing the Judas bugs. The brief religioso choral moment around the 1:30 mark is presumably indicative of the themes that Del Toro wanted to emphasise more in the film, before Weinstein got involved. The gentle "Pregnancy Test" swells into a quite beautiful string elegy representing Susan's character and it's followed by the even lovelier "Manny's Search", carried on a heartbreaking oboe solo. After this, we're back into horrific territory in "Manny's Underground/Susan Joins the Photos" as the film relocates to the insects' lair for its dramatic second half.
"Mimic Snatches Susan" reinstates the insidious motif from the main titles as a musical embodiment of the insects' ability to blend in with humans, before a host of shrieking brass effects bombard the listener. More scuttling brass is on display in "Scaffolding Falls" and "Alone in the Den", Beltrami brilliantly manipulating the orchestra to give it a crawling, creeping quality. The latter builds tension to a near unbearable level before it's released in the score's first proper action cue, "Chased by a Bug", Beltrami's wonderfully rhythmic use of brass and strings creating a hair-raising sense of terror and suspense. "Josh Bites It" reinstates the skittish effects for choir, percussion and strings – the listener knows something terrifying is around the corner and the track eventually explodes in another instance of brass-led savagery.
It's back to pulse-pounding excitement in the thrilling "Race to the Subway", Beltrami honing his now signature action style; the squealing strings and woodwinds are once more used to create a distinctly unsettling feeling of something insect-like. "Mimics 101" is a pensive moment of doom-laden suspense but even amidst this darkness, "I'll Go" reinstates the gorgeous, tender woodwind theme for Susan. Needless to say, "Fleeing Terror" shatters the idyll, Beltrami using every tool in his arsenal to create the mood the track name so vividly describes. In moments like this and the ensuing "Bug Killer", Beltrami conjures up the spirit of the excellent horror composer Christopher Young, always building on a particular rhythmic idea or motif to keeps the music listenable, in spite of its aggressive nature.
And, exactly like Young, Beltrami is sensible enough to balance the dissonant and melodic sections. The score's gloriously redemptive finale "Reunited" offers a soaring rendition of Susan's theme on strings before the "End Credits" builds the earlier "Children's Hospital" theme into an even more grandiose piece for choir and orchestra. As a little treat, there's a bit of musical pastiche in "Slow Tango" and "Manny's Tango", adding a bit of additional texture to the score, as well as an alternate take on the "Main Titles".
Ironically enough for a composer so proficient at writing for horror movies, Beltrami admits to not really liking them. But whatever his tendencies, there's no denying that Mimic is one of his most accomplished efforts in the genre, building on memorable thematic ideas and intelligently blending appealing and frightening moments to deliver a score that's outlasted its respective movie. It's a shame that the film itself didn't live up to its potential for if it had, Beltrami's music would surely get the attention it deserves. Given that Beltrami works extensively in a genre that's often dismissed out of hand by elitist critics, it's disheartening to see terrific efforts like Mimic not getting more recognition, especially when tediously overblown blockbuster scores can routinely get column inches for simply being associated with a massive tentpole movie. Yet there's no reason why a horror soundtrack should be constructed with less care than any other. Beltrami's attention to detail in the Mimic score – the rhythmic moments, the intricate ideas – demonstrate that he is among the best in the business, regardless of what genre he's working in. If Scream announced his arrival in the world of film scoring, then Mimic confirmed his ability – surely one of the most underrated and brilliant horror scores of the 1990s.
The score is available as a standard 30 minute CD release at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. In 2011, an extended, deluxe version of the score with 60 minutes of music (reviewed here) was released by the Varese Sarabande Club series. Only 1,000 copies were printed and rapidly sold out. The deluxe version achieves hefty prices on the secondary market - check these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
Mimic - 1997 Varese Sarabande release track listing
Mimic - 2011 Varese Club CD release track listing