It’s the most wonderful time of the year, Halloween, and all the kiddies are gearing up in their ghost and ghoul guises while the adults get to ready to hunker down in front of a big ol’ TV with a bottle of wine and watch scary movies (at least that’s how we picture adults behaving). If you’re like most people, chances are you’ll pick a classic flick to watch, and if that flick is like most classic flicks, chances are it’ll have a killer score. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre of cinema, makes proficient use of aural manipulation to conjure the appropriate feelings of fear, angst, and discomfort. So we’ve picked 11 of our favorite horror film scores, for your listening (dis)pleasure.
Note: We only included scores that were exclusively written for the film, so no “Tubular Bells” from “The Exorcist,” no “An American Werewolf in London” (which makes gleefully ironic use of upbeat songs with “moon” in the title, clever clever). We also considered “Eraserhead” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but ultimately decided that both feature sonic landscapes more than proper music. The grinding, whirring, industrial nightmare of Lynch’s film is more sound design than score, and Tobe Hooper’s sunburned slasher flick also favors the cringe of intricately-pleated noises over music. Finally, “Batman Returns” almost topped this list, because that is one mean bastard of a movie, and Danny Elfman basically wrote an opera for it. (Go listen — it’s on Spotify.) But it’s not *really* horror. (Or is it?)
11. “The Silence of the Lambs,” Howard Shore
Before he penned themes for the hobits and orcs and talking trees of Peter Jackson’s 12-hour epic, Howard Shore cut his teeth on darkness. His ’70s and ’80s output, specifically the work he did for David Cronenberg, is seething, scary stuff, full of malice and loneliness. With “The Fly” in 1986, Shore turned to more bombastic orchestral music, and he’s only been growing grander and more grandiose since. (That’s meant as a compliment.) “The Silence of the Lambs” opens with opulent, drawn-out strings and intermittent chimes before getting louder; the entwinement of instruments feels sore, as if the strings were wounded and have built up scar tissue over time. It’s sad and unsettling, a hugely sympathetic score that takes its time developing motifs. You can hear Shore’s horror roots sprouting into the eventual sweeping epics that would become his legacy. The film was nominated for every award under the sun except for Best Score, which Doctor Lecter might consider poor taste.
10. “Videodrome,” Howard Shore
The last of Shore’s wiry electronic scores, “Videodrome” taps the technological paranoia of its source film and melds the modern with the natural. James Woods’ Max Renn is the president of a sleazy Canadian TV network that specializes in schlock and porn; Renn thinks his station’s programs are getting “too soft” and desires something different, something dangerous. What he gets is Videodrome. The invidious, lurking cackle of electronics and mutilated strings really gets under your skin. Penetrative and pervasive, Shore’s music aptly contains hints of algolagnia. The strings fuzz and swell, grow aroused, hit a rapturous climax and slowly fade again. It’s sexual but not sexy, and in Cronenberg’s world, sex is at once dangerous and destructive; and yet, something new is engendered by the collision of bodies, bodily fluids, the ripping of flesh and the mangling of organs. Through the carrion of ugly comes the attractive flesh, the new flesh. Shore’s score extrapolates that disquieting sensation.
9. “Candyman,” Philip Glass
Glass is one of the most influential composers of the last century — you can hear shades of his repetitive, vallecular droning (he dislikes the term “minimalist”) in everything from modern classical music to Beach House and LCD Soundsystem — so tapping Glass to score a slasher flick was a pretty out-there idea. But “Candyman” isn’t a normal slasher flick, and Glass’ score isn’t a normal slasher flick score. The film has a poetic air about it, with Bernard Rose’s considered direction setting an erudite mood that feels foreign to the slasher genre (he loves those long, slow pull-backs). Glass’ score is similarly dreamy and dreadful, hypnotic and unnerving; it conjures all kinds of conflicting feelings. Piano notes eddy and flow around a central rhythmic theme, and vocals carry on in tight ecliptic patterns, rising like unsettled spirits. The unnatural repetition of the score is mesmerizing.
8. “Suspiria,” Goblin
Prog-rock outfit Goblin provides the creepy-cool score to Dario Argento’s masterpiece. They lay down a jazzy entanglement of coos and cries and opaque vocals all threaded together with sinister synths and guitar arpeggios. Its mix of swinging prog-fusion and creepy cries of “Witch!” recall a bacchanalia. Imagine the collective members of Pink Floyd dropping acid and stumbling upon a Satanic cult ritual, during which the musicians are simultaneously tortured and seduced — that’s sort of what Goblin does here. Argento appreciates that the mingling of sex and violence as an intrinsic part of horror, and Goblin captures the intrinsically aural qualities of both. Working as a consort to the gorgeous technicolor terror of Argento’s film, the score makes you want to dance as much as it makes you want to scream.
7. “The Wicker Man,” Paul Giovanni and Magnet
Edward Woodward is sent to a small, remote island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Things get weird. If you haven’t seen “The Wicker Man,” stop reading now. If you have, you know that the licentious plucking of guitars and lackadaisical dancing around the maypole are nearly impossible to get out of your head. (That kid with the mouth harp is ridiculous.) Akin to children’s rhymes, the hooks are as catchy as the clap, and twice as scary. The pysch-folk acoustics of Robin Hardy’s classic are jocular and jovial and brimming with cheerful life; but the best part is how, during the eventual revelation of Woodward’s true purpose on the island, the music never once dips into desolation. Even as the flames writhe around Woodward’s shrieking British face (sounds like Morrissey lyrics), the islanders continue to chant in harmonious joy.
6. “The Fog,” John Carpenter
John Carpenter has created some of the most important American horror films of the 20th Century (more on that soon), as well as some of the most important horror scores. But his best musical work has been, oddly enough, for his lesser films. “Prince of Darkness” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (the much-maligned non-sequel to Carpenter’s classic) both have singular, unsettling scores. And “The Fog,” which has in recent years accrued a devoted following (that following does not include Carpenter himself), features his warmest, lushest, most tragic score. From the gorgeous, somber opening, during which an old sailor tells children the tale of the marooned clipper ship The Elizabeth Dane, Carpenter’s music sets a mournful mood. (The rest of the film never follows through on this promising opening, but whatever.) With piano accompanying his usual assortment of exacting synths and ominous washes, the music in “The Fog” engenders feelings of sorrow, not just fear. Carpenter tells a ghost story with melancholic undertones, and the despondent score exasperates the despondent feeling. Usually Carpenter’s music stands out, gleaming like a knife in the night, but with “The Fog” he recedes to the background and laces the film with a score that you don’t really notice. That’s an artist maturing.
5. “Halloween,” John Carpenter
But for all the beauty of his score for “The Fog,” Carpenter’s iconic 5/4 synth theme for “Halloween” is still his most immediately recognizable, and still sends shivers down the spines of anyone who’s had a suburban slumber party. A few years ago some dedicated cinephile decided to expunge the score from the film to show how integral the music really is, and the scoreless film was astoundingly unscary. Michael Meyers just kinda lurks in the background like that awkward guy at a school dance. That’s not a slight on the film — it’s still one of the scariest movies mine eyes have ever seen (and they’ve seen many), it just serves to show that Carpenter’s marriage of sound and vision is truly remarkable.
4. “Carnival of Souls,” Gene Moore
As with Carpenter’s “Halloween,” Herk Harvey’s 1962 indie flick, made on a dime with a small crew (the director plays the eerie ghost man who periodically pops up), is deeply dependent on its score to sustain a mood. The visual compositions and lighting are stunning, especially for a film made for such little money, but the moaning organ, as much funeral parlor music as it is funhouse music, fills the atmosphere. A young woman (Candace Hilligoss) drives off a bridge and crashes in the churning water below. She swims ashore, unharmed, but things start to get a little weird. The music could be what’s playing in the purgatory lobby, Muzak from beyond.
3. “The Thing,” Ennio Morricone
That the guy responsible for the twangy flamenco scores for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns is also a prodigious composer for horror movies is kind of funny. (His prolific work on giallo films is worth seeking out, especially “The Cat O’ Nine Tails” and “Woman in Lizard’s Skin.”) Morricone’s music always has that strange discernible quality, that watermark telling you it’s a Morricone composition (his work on Italian films in particular is steeped in that Morricone feeling). But “The Thing,” one of the very few Carpenter films not scored by the director, doesn’t really sound like Morricone. Which is fitting, given that this a film about the deception of appearances. The film opens with a wide gaze at the vast nothingness of the arctic; Morricone’s synth notes, exact and exacting, hit with calculated precision, spaced out just enough to make you uncomfortable. The negative space between those wobbling, warbling, manipulated bass notes echoing in the frozen tundra is where It might lurk. The idea of doppelgängers and impersonations is already implicit in the music within the first five minutes. It’s a mean and lean score, as rugged as the manly-men who turn a fight for survival into a pissing contest. (Carpenter provided some electronic filler, as Morricone scored the film without having seen any footage.) Morricone always has a keen sense of irony, and his masculine score for “The Thing” is fully aware of its own barrel-chested futility. There is no Final Man in “The Thing,” and the music knows that.
2. “Rosemary’s Baby,” Krzysztof Komeda
Krzysztof Komeda had such a promising career ahead of him. The Polish jazz pianist and composer was just four days shy of his 38th birthday when he was knocked off an escarpment by his drunk Polish writer friend at a party, and subsequently developed a hematoma in his brain. He died shortly thereafter. His crowning achievement is “Rosemary’s Baby,” which he’d composed barely a year earlier. From that gorgeous opening shot, the camera drifting forever leftwards across the concrete landscape of the Upper West Side, Komeda’s jazz-tinged music casts a spell unlike anything else. Horror and jazz don’t normally seem like good partners, but Komeda makes it work. Mia Farrow’s daydreamy, hopeful “La la la” feels so hopeful in spite of, or perhaps unaware of the gloomy strings and desiccated piano. The music at once reflects the optimism of a young woman (Farrow) who’s ready to start her life in the Big Apple, but also the ineluctable loneliness and paranoia of moving somewhere new, making new friends, and being a house wife in modern America (all of which are truly scary without the addition of witches and Satan rape). It’s as varied a horror score that has ever been composed — something Pauline Kael erroneously said of John Williams’ (yes, that John Williams) score for Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” — with the opening theme, and the lovely lounge jazz Rosemary listens to while reading, and the villainous bass walks, and the Phil Spector-esque rock n’ roll, and the cultish chanting. Komeda makes pianos and horns and strings sound like entities from Somewhere Else.
1. “Psycho,” Bernard Herrmann
No other score has been as inexplicably linked with the film from whence it came. Those violent bursts of string, which mimic Mother’s volatile personality so well, have been lifted for or referenced in (with varying degrees of subtlety, or lack thereof) “Carrie,” “Friday the 13th,” “Scream,” and a multitude of other movies with knife-wielding masked madmen. But Herrmann’s score is so much more than those sharp staccato strings: Marion’s theme, which plays while she drives through the night in her new used car, allows the stabbing bows to have such pervasive effect; you can feel the terror percolating beneath the music, the strings ready to strike like Mother’s arm slowly rising on the other side of the shower curtain. The amazing thing is how the pop-culture ubiquity of Herrmann’s score, and the permanent ruination of the twist (which Hitch so fervidly protected), have done nothing to diminish the music’s effectiveness. The stark, single-tone ostinato stays in your mind like a splinter. Herrmann rightfully got the penultimate slot in the film’s opening credits, with only Hitchcock topping him.