Another day, another confusing article title. Hopefully no one misunderstood the heading to mean “my favorite pieces of horror swag that I have procured through various means”. No, friends, when I say score I’m talkin’ music, baby! Instrumentals and soundtracks.
Look: we all know John Carpenter and Goblin are the masters. They’re untouchable. Through the combination of their musical efforts, they’ve single-handedly (or ‘zit double-handedly?) changed the landscape of horror and exploitation scores: their long-lasting and far reaching influences can even be heard today in films like Drive, The Guest, and the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross collaborations on The Social Network and Gone Girl. They’ve even influenced the new age of Bandcamp musicians such as Carpenter Brut and Umberto. In fact, I’d include The Social Network OST on this list if it were technically a horror movie because that score is so damn intense I find it almost nauseating (especially the opening track, good lord.)
The other two heavy hitters are, of course, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho and John Williams’ Jaws. Both are perfect scores for perfect films — they’re spooky, eerie, tense, and unrelenting.
With that being said, here are a few of my personal favorites – ones that I think are actually really scary and that elevate the movies themselves from spooky to downright terrifying. Oh, and CLICK THE PIC to listen to a sample of the score!
Who’d of thought a waltz could be scary? Somehow Elliot Goldenthal managed to pull it off: never has a 3/4 time signature stirred up such feelings of dread. Pet Sematary is a devastating movie about the loss of a child, not being able to cope, and the repercussions that go along with not being able to let go. So when interstitial pieces of a haunting and airy children’s choral fade in and remind you of the toddler’s death, you just wanna bury your head under a pillow. Combined with swelling strings and out-of-tune plinking piano, the score is all at once heart-wrenching and horrifying.
The unsettling score from The Shining was made using a combination of four different composers. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind composed the main score including the opening theme, which is freaky enough on its own. But when you toss in a few symphonic pieces by Béla Bartók and Krzysztof Penderecki, you no longer feel safe – it feels as though anything could happen. The Bartók pieces used in the film are lilting, wavering, string-driven pieces that often have a dream-like (or rather, nightmare-like) quality about them, bouncing between quiet thumping upright bass and huge, jarring strings that sound like a flurry of angered bees. In a way, they have almost a cartoonish feel to them, like they’re being conducted by Raymond Scott in Hell.
And the Penderecki pieces? Forget it. You will not hear more disturbing, bothersome pieces of music than those created by he. They’re chaotic, clanging, disjointed, screeching, claustrophobic, dizzying. You actually feel like you’re running from a madman when you’re listening to them. The influence of his unpredictable and unsettling style of music can be felt in many horror scores since – in fact, Harry Manfredini claims it was a Penderecki piece that inspired him to create the iconic “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sound effect that has become synonymous with the Friday the 13th series. How about that?
Children’s toys, African instruments, pitchforks dragged across tables – all were used to create the rattling and unpleasant score, which was ‘composed’ by director Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell. Hooper states in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre documentary The Shocking Truth that he was essentially misusing the instruments – forcing them to create sounds they weren’t originally intended for, and boy, he gets some freaky sounds to come out of those instruments. And using a farm implement to create sounds for the farm-set movie? Pretty meta stuff.
Much like the fate that befalls the group of youths – wherein they find themselves isolated and stranded on unfamiliar territory – we as the listener are affected in a similar fashion, with the score creating other-worldly sounds we can’t possibly believe were made in any conventional way, leaving us confused, terrified, and alone.
And let us not forget that iconic screech from the opening of the film, aka “the camera sound effect” – possibly the most horrifying sound committed to celluloid. (It would later be used in the opening of Marilyn Manson’s cover of I Put a Spell on You.)
Composer Howard Shore and director David Cronenberg have had a long working relationship, with Shore composing music for all but one of Cronenberg’s films. And while almost all of his collaborations with Cronenberg have produced big, bright symphonic strings with perfectly placed shrieks and stabs, the score for Videodrome is singular and unlike any of his other compositions: it’s understated, throbbing, buzzing and humming with glitchy computerized vocals and stifled screams. Shore has the ability to morph his sound, to mold it to the images we see onscreen – an ability to compliment the visuals – and nowhere is that more apparent than here. James Woods, star of Videodrome, described Shore as “the Bernard Herrmann of the synthesizer”- that should tell you all you need to know. It’s creepy as hell. Lastly, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t inspired by the burgeoning industrial music scene – and if it didn’t inspire future industrial bands, as well.
Philip Glass is great at composing music that is at once both sad and unsettling. Working mostly with piano and organ, he has the incredible ability of creating feelings of unease and foreboding, usually layering the repetitious sounds until a wall of insanity has been erected. His work also utilizes fast-paced calliope sounds (and in the case of Candyman, music box twinkles and choral voices) set to a bobbing rhythm, making you feel as though you’re on a carnival ride that’s spinning out of control.
I think the general consensus for Glass’s work on Candyman is that it’s a goddamn masterpiece, and I’m in full agreeance. But Phil was a little sore over his participation in the movie: when asked to score the film, he was under the impression it was going to be more arthouse than the standard slice-and-dice slasher flick it actually turned out to be. He was so put off by the film upon its release that he witheld his consent for the release of the recordings until 2001. But he wasn’t so discouraged as to not score any other horror films: in 1999 he rescored the entire original 1931 Dracula to great effect.
Last but not least, John Harrison’s entire Creepshow score! The music Harrison created for the film manages to be simultaneously scary and playful – much like the horror comics the movie was paying homage to. Harrison also created the music for George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, and he knocked that score outta the park, too! With Creepshow, he mixes urgent piano, swelling and ominous synths, choir vocals, schoolyard taunts, hallucinatory voices, and other random bits like evil laughter and thunder to create the most wonderful mix-bag of a score. It fits the movie so well that you really need to listen to it sans visuals to appreciate all of the nuances it has to offer. Composers of indie horror flicks nowadays may try to recapture the magic that these types of scores created back in their heyday, but it’s a Herculean task that, in my opinion, has not been matched since. Musta been something in the water back then. Who knows.
Before I end my tempo tirade (my musical mania, my soundtrack shill, etc.), I wanted to include two minor bits of music from other flicks that I enjoyed. Specific songs versus whole scores. First up, this track from the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Perhaps out of context it won’t do much for you, but I assure you it’s perfectly placed within the film. There’s a reason it sounds like an alarm: it signals the end of any normalcy for the characters in the film.
Quick side rant: The use of a pop song (or non-threatening tune) used to create unease in either a horror trailer or horror film. In Hills case, they used “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas in the trailer, and Webb Pierce’s yodeling country ditty “More and More” in the film. I can’t say for certain that The Hills Have Eyes (2006) was the first horror film to use an anachronistic song to create an unsettling vibe, but I can’t think of any others off the top of my head prior to Hills that used this technique. But plenty of other horror films would use (see: abuse) this trope: The Strangers (Joanna Newsom), You’re Next (Dwight Twilley), Texas Chainsaw 3D (Mark Lanegan’s cover of the Nick Lowe tune), Insidious (Tiny Tim). Hills was even ripped off by its own sequel — Devendra Banhart’s “Insect Eyes” was used in the trailer. Alright, end rant.
The final tune I wanted to include was “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, on the soundtrack from David Fincher’s Zodiac. Apropos that it’s the last song I included, as it’s the last song in the film. As the film comes to a close, leaving more questions than answers, and those tremolo-laden vocals fade in…you’re assured a serious case of the goosebumps, trust me.
Well, that’s all my ramblin’ for now. Hopefully this article introduced you to some killer stuff you hadn’t heard before, or inspired you to do further research on the artists and composers I talked about!
2 thoughts on “Great Horror Scores!”
Great picks. No love for Jerry Goldsmith? I’m a big fan of his work on Poltergeist.
A recent one that I can’t get out of my head is the soundtrack for Under the Skin by Mica Levi. It’s strange and unnerving, employing classic horror/sci-fi scoring techniques while sounding very modern. I find it genuinely spooky and effective.
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I considered Jerry Goldsmith, but I tried to go with soundtracks/scores that I didn’t even have to think twice about – ones that I could immediately ramble about my love for.
And yes to the Under the Skin soundtrack! If we’re being honest, I think the music was the one redeeming part of the movie.