This Friday sees the release of David Robert Mitchell‘s hotly buzzed horror film "It Follows" (review here, some spoilers), a fun, stylish fusion of down-and-dirty genre horror with arthouse aesthetics. But it’s not only visually sumptuous —a significant part of its atmosphere is down to its fantastic score, which is used lavishly and loudly throughout: a heavily John Carpenter-inspired roiling mass of disquieting atonal blares and drones from Distasterpeace‘s Rich Vreeland (check out three exclusive tracks).
In fact, it feels like the fine art of the horror score (and is there any film genre more reliant on evocative soundscapes than horror?) is rallying for a comeback after its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. Recent films like "You’re Next," "Berberian Sound Studio," "The Conjuring," "Room 237" and "Maniac" have each boasted terrific original music, so we thought we’d ride that zeitgeist and take a look and a listen back at the some of the all-time great horror scores.
Marshalling a list of fewer than a hundred scores was always going to be a task (check out the honorable mentions section for further suggestions), and so we decided to make sure the choices below were original compositions for the films. Hence the non-appearance of such iconic soundtracks as "The Exorcist" (its soundtrack, including its iconic theme Mike Oldfield‘s "Tubular Bells," was reportedly a fairly late addition after William Friedkin was unhappy with Lalo Schifrin‘s score), as well as "The Shining," which while featuring some original music, notably Wendy Carlos‘ electronic take on Berlioz, is largely composed of found classical and jazz tracks, albeit arranged with such precision that it’s possible Music Editor Gordon Stainforth deserves his own spot here.
And finally, we’ve also tried to hew as closely as possible to straight-up horror as opposed to thriller or mystery territory (the lines between those idioms we can and do argue about till the cows come home), which is why John Williams‘ all-time "Jaws" theme tune and films of that ilk are not here. So here are twenty amazing horror scores from years past: hopefully you’ll find some old favorites but also a couple of new suggestions with which to scare your ears.
Krzysztof Komeda —"Rosemary’s Baby" (1968)
La-la-la-la-laah… After the chilling psych-horror of "Repulsion" and the impish, spoofy horror of "The Fearless Vampire Killers," Roman Polanski struck a near-perfect balance between those funny/macabre impulses with "Rosemary’s Baby," a deeply unnerving, devilishly insidious creepfest set off by its twist of sly black comedy. If it’s the tension between horror and absurdity that gives the film its unique flavor, it’s a tension that is carried over into the soundtrack, in which Polish film music composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda melds fright-film cliches with eerie lullabies and jazzy late ’60s sunshine-pop moments. The counterpoint is arch and amusing, yet the nonsensical juxtaposition heightens the film’s uncanniness, a trick Polanski would pull off in a more traditional manner with Philippe Sarde‘s great score for "The Tenant." But it’s Komeda’s arrangements of Mia Farrow‘s voice cooing those faux-soothing babyish motifs here that remain a touchstone for Polanski and for the horror genre in general.
Ennio Morricone — "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977)
Demonized (!) by many upon initial release, perhaps inevitably a few defenders have rowed to "Exorcist II"’s defense since, notably Martin Scorsese, who claimed it thematically surpassed the original and then faintly praised: "maybe [John] Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got." But even if it isn’t "the worst film ever made," Boorman’s foolhardy attempt to take a canonized classic in a new, metaphysical direction is still a pretty unholy mess. And yet one element of the change-up is very worthy: Morricone’s tribal drums and bass gumbo deserves credit not just for the music itself but also for the sheer balls it took to not emulate the first film’s already iconic ‘Tubular’ Bells’ theme tune in any way. We are always surprised that a modern filmmaker hasn’t found the desire to reintroduce the world to the rocking "Magic and Ecstasy," which with its whipcracks, prog-rock bass and child choir, sounds like Satan’s surfing mix.
Claudio Simonetti – “Demons” (1985)
Produced and co-written by Dario Argento and the most notable directorial effort of Lamberto Bava, son of horror maestro Mario, “Demons” is a Berlin-set gorefest about an ancient mask that causes a demon outbreak in a Berlin cinema (and eventually the city as a whole). Much of the 1985 film’s absurd chaos is scored with irony-free hair metal of the period from the likes of Accept, Motley Crue and The Scorpions, which somehow feels appropriate given the motorcycle and samurai and sword-tastic action sequences. But the original music, composed by former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti and which mostly bookends the film, is terrific fun: it’s a none-more-eighties ear-worm pavement-thumper, like Harold Faltermeyer covering “Thriller” (and borrowing liberally from Edward Greig’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King”). The film runs out of steam fairly quickly even as it tries to ramp up the splatter, but Simonetti’s score at least sends you out on something of a high.
John Carpenter — "Halloween" (1978)
If anyone bestrides this list like a colossus, it has to be Carpenter — his films appear multiple times and "It Follows" wears its Carpenter influence like a badge of pride. His music for "Halloween"is one of the most brilliant horror scores, because it’s among the simplest, to the point of simplistic, and therefore feels like the irreducible element that underlies a whole lot of what came after. Including, for example, the very different, far lusher, more rounded (and arguably even better, if less catchy) score he did with Alan Howarth for "Halloween III: Season of the Witch.""I can play just about any keyboard, but I can’t read or write a note," said Carpenter, who showed his Casio mastery in the majority of his work but lucking out here with an iconically spartan 10/8 progression that feels like the aural definition of "look behind you!"
Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman — "Ravenous" (1999)
Following the untimely death in 2013 of British TV, theater and film director Antonia Bird, her tepidly received frontiersman cannibal horror came in for some reassessment. And deservedly so, as its pitch-black ironic tone and laudably gruesome atmosphere were a little misjudged on first release. But even the film’s many detractors back then voiced admiration for the music, borne of an unlikely collaboration between composer Nyman and Blur frontman Albarn. Though "collaboration" may stretch a point, with Nyman suggesting that "Damon Albarn composed 60% of the tracks, and I did the rest…by the time I came on board, his music was so good and self-contained [already]." Whatever the provenance of the individual tracks, the result is terrific, both as accompaniment to the film, giving it texture and even melancholy at times, and also as a separate album, with twangy backwoods banjo and accordion compositions easily standing on their own as inventive, unusual instrumental songs. Or "licks," perhaps?
Philip Glass — “Candyman” (1992)
In the early ’90s, Glass stepped away from the orchestral sounds that had brought him fame as a film composer (including the “Qatsi” trilogy and “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”) and invaded the horror genre. And wouldn’t you know it, it was a perfect match! Glass honed his grandly harmonious choral and organ sounds and turned them ominous for pieces like “Face To Razor,” resulting in a creepily occult vibe: the perfect backdrop for Tony Todd‘s bone-chilling "Candyman." Then there’s the emblematic lullaby-with-piano, “Helen’s Theme” and the haunting, beguiling cylinders on “Music Box" —it’s Glass’ score that helps elevate “Candyman” to the pantheon of contemporary horror. Shame that while the music is excellent, he couldn’t quite repeat that trick for the otherwise skippable sequel “Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh.” Surprisingly, the unadulterated “Candyman” score was only released last year in full by One Way Static, where previously a compilation of bits and pieces from both films was all that was available.
Jerry Goldsmith — "The Omen" (1976)
The (satanic) church of the horror score is a broad one, as we prove with some of these picks; there’s room for counterpoint, spartan-ness and irony herein. But there’s also a place for blaring, on-the-nose bombast, and in that department, Goldsmith’s score for Richard Donner‘s "The Omen" takes some beating. Essentially the "Carmina Burana" of horror scores, it is a manic choral masterpiece in which hysterical female shrieking gives way to foreboding orchestrations which in turn play into monk-like chants of grammatically incorrect Latin in the film’s signature "Ave Satani" ("Hail Satan"). Goldsmith picked up the only Oscar of his long career for this score (out of a staggering 18 nominations), and while "Alien" (see below) and "Poltergeist" are terrific, subtler examples of his work in this genre, "The Omen" deserves our worship: it’s the music of the damned, of the unstoppable tormented forces of evil, a Hieronymous Bosch painting given audible form.
Goblin — “Suspiria” (1977)
Italian prog-rockers Goblin were the band for horror fans in the 1970s, their diverse and strangely danceable work accompanying a number of classics, including George Romero’s “Dawn Of The Dead.” But the band’s best-known work came in collaboration with giallo king Dario Argento, and while we love their droney, synth-tastic “Tenebrae” work (sampled by French electro titans Justice for their track “Phantom”), their finest hour is unquestionably via Argento’s best film “Suspiria,” about an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) tormented by a witch’s coven. Virtually unique among the band’s discography, let alone horror scores in general, the music sees Claudio Simonetti & co. take advantage of ethnic instruments like the tabla and bouzouki, almost subliminally eerie voices and a shitload of chimes along with their trademark synths. It’s completely freaky and enormously influential (one suspects that “Berberian Sound Studio” was influenced as much by Goblin’s work here as by Argento in general).
Howard Shore — "Videodrome" (1983)
"Subversive and perverse and unsettling without being obvious" is how David Cronenberg describes Shore’s score for his seminal "Videodrome" on the Criterion Collection commentary, and there’s no real arguing as such. Having scored all Cronenberg’s films bar "The Dead Zone," Shore has subsequently won three Oscars (all for ‘Lord of the Rings‘ movies) and is probably now more known for immense, orchestral scores for Middle Earth or Martin Scorsese. But in his third time out as a film composer, he created an experimental classic in the horror genre in which the musical motifs mirror the devolution of the protagonist by starting orchestrally but being gradually subsumed by electronica. Of course, one would expect from Cronenberg that the music would work on this intellectual level, but Shore’s staticky, scratchy, scuzzy snatches and creeping drones counterpoint the warmth of the more traditional instrumentation on a visceral level as well, contributing to the sense, also embodied by Lynch‘s "Eraserhead," of the score as more soundscape than standard cues and cuts.
Riz Ortolani — "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980)
You know that bit in "This is Spinal Tap" where Nigel Tufnel plays a romantic new piano composition, and when asked what it’s called, says "Lick My Love Pump?" You can re-enact the cinema soundtrack version of that gag IRL by playing Riz Ortolani’s main theme here to a neophyte —it’s a lush, lyrical, borderline syrupy sweetheart of a tune, all flute trills and pretty melodies that only a totally deranged mind could ever think appropriate for Ruggero Deodato‘s notoriously graphic Mondo-style exploitation horror. But then again, it’s hard to imagine what could be appropriate for the scenes of animal cruelty, gang rape and ritualistic murder that comprise the film’s most sensationalist moments, and it’s a problem Ortolani tackles by throwing everything in the mix —picnicky tunes, atonal disco beats and a strings-heavy classical-esque score. It’s not exactly holistic, but even taken individually the tracks are pretty great, occasionally lending even this grotty endeavor a layer of sophistication.
Ennio Morricone —"The Thing" (1982)
We’ve already discussed John Carpenter’s own compositions, but he also could inspire specialist collaborators to distinctly Carpenter-ian heights (or bassy, electro depths).
Here the incomparable, Oscar-winning Morricone created one of his most atypical scores: a barely-there background drone punctuated by a spartan electronic two-note motif lends a deeply uneasy edge to the film by constantly seeming to be on the verge of a crescendo that never quite comes. In 2011, Carpenter’s frequent musical collaborator Alan Howarth re-recorded Morricone’s compositions, occasionally bringing different elements to the fore and changing the instrumentation slightly. Both versions of the soundtrack are pretty stellar, maybe more Carpenter than Carpenter, with Howarth saying later that it had taken Morricone a few passes and a playing of the soundtrack to "Escape from New York" before he came up with a score the director accepted.
Bernard Herrmann — “Psycho” (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock‘s hall-of-fame “Psycho” broke a lot of ground in 1960, including with respect to horror scores. But as so often, it was limitation that released creativity: maestro Herrmann had to settle for a strings-only orchestra thanks to the picture’s low budget. Herrmann’s music is an incalculably large part of that unforgettable shower scene, but what makes it more remarkable is that Hitchcock’s original intention was to have no musical accompaniment therein —it was on the composer’s insistence that the director decided to use the iconically piercing clash of violins and violas. Cut to Herrmann’s name appearing right before Hitchcock’s in Saul Bass‘ opening credits. While Herrmann’s "Vertigo" score is another stunner, it’s "Psycho" that has influenced the horror music landscape most (Harry Manfredini’s “Friday the 13th” and Richard Band‘s "Re-Animator" theme come most readily to mind), remaining to this day a masterclass in sustained suspense with a most unusual addition: a real payoff.
Popol Vuh —“Nosferatu the Vampyre” (1979)
When it comes to avant-garde collaborations, Werner Herzog and Florian Fricke, the main man behind German electronic band Popol Vuh, coyly dances near our number one spot. “Aguirre, Wrath Of God,” Fricke’s first soundtrack for Herzog, may come most quickly to mind, but the indelible power of his work on “Nosferatu the Vampyre” feels like it would be blasphemous to overlook. A central touchpoint for all gothic horror scores, it’s also a score that is completely sustainable on its own without the film’s context, but which enhances it in grand, billowing fashion. Elements from Popol Vuh’s stand-alone albums combine with creative inspirations from Georgian folk songs to create something perplexing, minacious and mystical all at once. Sitars and theremins all play their part in a celestial struggle between good and evil, light and dark, electric and acoustic, ending up in a knife-edge balance between eternally ancient and experimentally new.
François-Eudes Chanfrault —“Inside” (2007)
Happily for horror fans, 21st century world cinema has been bathed in blood, not least due to of a handful of immensely violent horror films from France. Amid the sheer grossness, boundless cruelty and chaos of movies like “Martyrs” and “Frontier(s),” what’s often forgotten is the films’ music, which can makes things a little more artfully scary as in François-Eudes Cahnfrault’s score for “Inside,” likely the most brutal of all the recent extreme French horrors. Atmospheric and subtle during periods of suspense and synthetically distorted in its many WTF moments, it also features a main theme so strikingly beautiful with its string compositions that it almost makes you forget all the different ways a sewing needle is used in the movie. Chanfrault’s already contributed tremendous work to contemporary French horror on Alexandre Aja‘s “High Tension,” but he out-composes himself here, creating music that literally sounds like it was conducted from the inside of a doomed womb.
Mica Levi – “Under The Skin” (2013)
In general, we’ve tried to steer away from the best latter-day horror scores, as it’s always hard to know the extent to which any work will withstand the test of time. But Mica Levi’s music for Jonathan Glazer’s stunning sci-fi horror “Under The Skin” is so innovative and unsettling that we’re sure we’ll be talking about it not just ten years from now, but in 2065. The first film work from the terrifyingly young Levi, the score is both organic and alien, as woozy as a dream and as persistent as a nightmare, living up to the title and digging into your very bones and remaining there for days. At times, it feels like Levi has used otherworldly instruments, their pitch-shifting and distortion ensuring that even when you hear something that could be strings or percussion, it might also be something originating from beyond the stars. An instant classic.
Tindersticks – “Trouble Every Day” (2001)
The unlikely but persistent collaboration between ace French director Claire Denis and Britain’s indie stalwarts Tindersticks has been one of the most fruitful between a filmmaker and musicians in the last few decades, with five scores resulting thus far. Perhaps the most atypical is their second team-up (and last before the band disbanded for much of the ’00s) for Denis’ brutal horror flick “Trouble Every Day.” A fascinating, existential sex-fuelled thriller that digs into Denis’ most familiar concerns while still feeling rooted in genre, the film opens with the title song, a more traditionally lush piece from the band. But the film and score set out to unnerve after that: they’re not reinventing their own wheel, but the minimalist mix of strings and percussion works beautifully at throwing you off balance and works particularly well given how different it sounds from the vast majority of horror scores.
David Lynch & Alan Splet — “Eraserhead” (1977)
Aside from the occasional “Straight Story,” Lynch’s work has always been tinged with horror. But 1977’s “Eraserhead” is the most fully of the genre of his oeuvre and boasts one of the eeriest soundtracks, composed by Lynch himself along with the late Alan Splet. His fever-nightmare of a debut is less a traditional musical soundtrack (aside from a few brief organ jams from Fats Waller) than an ambient delve into the mind of both its central character and the film’s director. The score fits Lynch’s images impeccably, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to it on its own, with its cohesive and rich soundscape somehow taking on a hypnotic musicality despite having few real melodies (the radiator girl’s song being another brief exception). Also a major shout out to Angelo Badalamenti‘s unnerving work on "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Drive" which show Lynch’s flair for music when he’s not composing.
Paul Giovanni — “The Wicker Man” (1973)
From “Witchfinder General” to “A Field In England,” pastoral horror has been a particularly British concern, one that reached its perfect form with Robin Hardy’s bizarrely terrifying 1973 cult hit “The Wicker Man” and its folk soundtrack by American playwright and director Paul Giovanni. Specially formed for the film, a band called Magnet performs the song-score, which is totally unlike any other horror soundtrack, but then “The Wicker Man,” all daylight cheeriness and creeping dread, is unlike any other horror film. There is something spellbinding afoot in the music, and you can feel yourself, like Edward Woodward‘s stiff sergeant, gradually falling under the sway of the old Celtic gods as it goes on, particularly with its most famous cut, “Willow’s Song.” Among the many things that Neil LaBute’s atrocious remake got wrong, abandoning the music (for an admittedly not-bad Angelo Badalamenti score) might have been one of the biggest errors.
John Carpenter — “The Fog” (1980)
The brace of recent imitators and the director’s recent album “Lost Themes” have reinforced the sense that Carpenter is not just a great genre helmer, but also is a stellar composer for film. And though his “Halloween” soundtrack might be his most influential moment, his score for his follow-up, 1980’s “The Fog,” might have been his finest music. The film itself somehow sells what could have been a silly premise (leprous pirate ghosts shrouded in mists menace a California town in search of vengeance!), and much of that is down to Carpenter’s creepy, atmospheric score. Still leaning on his trademark synths but with a richer and more accomplished bag of tricks than the minimalist shock of awe of “Halloween,” it’s not as instantly iconic as that earlier score, but makes up for it in sheer dread.
Jerry Goldsmith — "Alien" (1979)
If there’s any perfect example of how a score can be less a solo work and more about the team of sound supervisors, director, editor, even studio exec, it must be Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated "Alien" music. Originally Ridley Scott wanted Japanese composer/genius Isao Tomita for the job, but Fox honcho Alan Ladd Jr suggested the more familiar Goldsmith. His first pass, which builds from lyrical to fearful, was rejected until as Goldsmith put it, he rewrote "the obvious thing: weird and strange, and which everybody loved." The score was then cut up and interspersed with temp track cues that the editors had grown attached to. But however patchworky/"obvious" it might seem to Goldsmith, the fact remains the "Alien" score is utterly iconic —bloopy underwater drones underlying skittery noises that hover at the hearing threshold, like a critter lurking in your peripheral vision. In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hear your fear.
Oh the horror! So much bad blood was created and then spilled in the making of this list that we ought to maybe draft in Carpenter or Morricone to score the movie version. Or Tangerine Dream, who nearly made the cut with "Sorcerer" which was deemed inadmissable because it’s really only their awesome music that brings the grimy thriller into horror territory at all. Though we should also shout out their work on Michael Mann‘s "The Keep," which just missed out overall (and here’s a feature on their 5 Best Soundtracks to keep you going).
Additionally, in no particular order, there were vocal supporters of the Ralph Jones‘ incongruously great score to "Slumber Party Massacre"; "Phantasm"‘s heavily "Exorcist"- indebted score from Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave; Danny Elfman‘s channelling of Bernard Herrmann for "Nightbreed"; Wojciech Kilar‘s bombastic, often recycled music for "Bram Stoker’s Dracula"; John Harrison’s score for Romero’s anthology film "Creepshow"; Richard Band‘s better-than-deserved compositions for the terrible "Troll"; the great Lalo Schifrin‘s score for the original "The Amityville Horror"; a more recent example in Climax Golden Twins’ music for Brad Anderson‘s now cultish "Session 9"; Pino Donaggio’s terrific work with de Palma’s "Dressed to Kill"; Gene Moore’s classic church organ scares in "Carnival of Souls"; and while we’ve featured Bava fils above, we could easily have found room for his father Mario Bava, probably with the funky original music by Libra for his final film "Shock."
Elsewhere "House of the Devil," "Chopping Mall" and "Bubba Ho-Tep" are all worth a little earspace, as are the scores for Guillermo Del Toro‘s "Pan’s Labyrinth" (Javier Navarette), Sam Raimi‘s "Drag Me To Hell" (Christopher Young), Romero‘s "Dawn of the Dead" (Goblin again, along with Argento), Tony Randel‘s "Hellraiser 2" (Christopher Young) and the classic "Witchfinder General" (Paul Ferris). But let us know your own favorites in the comments below.
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton & Nik Grozdanovic.