Horror film soundtracks arguably may be the most innovative, complex and creative type of film score. The composer along with the producers and sound engineers have to sonically create a body of work that can unsettle, disturb and intensify an audience as much if not more so than the film it accompanies.
Many of these scores are so effective and memorable that they take on a life of their own and permeate all corners of popular culture. For instance, most people could identify John William’s brooding Jaws theme or the shrieking strings from Psycho by Bernard Herrmann after hearing just the first note. Yet, here are 10 other horror soundtracks that deserve just as much acclaim
10) The Wicker Man- The Original Soundtrack Album– Magnet & Paul Giovani
The soundtrack to Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic is often cited for renewing interest in English folk and acid folk, yet many people don’t discuss just how creepy it really is. The film is centered around a Christian police officer trying to solve a murder on a Hebridean island full of Pagans, so the accompanying music is built out of and influenced by folk songs of Britain’s Pre-Christian days. These strange, often lustful songs pull the audience out of their comfort zone, as no one would expect this kind of music from a film set in a contemporary setting let alone a horror film. Therefore, the audience becomes as lost, uncomfortable and alienated as the story’s devout detective. Furthermore, the songs in the film seem so at home with the islanders that they suck the viewer deeper into their confined world of old gods and ritualistic traditions.
9) The Changeling (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)- Rick Wilkins/Ken Wannberg/Howard Blake
Peter Medak’s superbly frightening ghost story, The Changeling, relies solely on subtlety. The scares in the film are from the classic “less is more” school of terror, so the role of the score is much more fundamental. Through the use of slow meandering piano, tense strings, a phantom-like chorus and a densely packed production, the score here creates a mood so haunted that a listener might expect the voice of an undead soul to come whispering through their speakers at any moment. Listening to just “The Séance/Talk to Us!” alone could make one want to sleep with the light on.
8) Nosferatu: The Vampyre (Original Soundtrack)- Popol Vuh
Like most of Werner Herzog’s films, kosmische band, Popol Vuh, provided an atmospheric backdrop of otherworldly music for his 1979 remake of the silent classic, Nosferatu. The score’s slow, meditative waves of moog and sitar help the unhurried and calculated pace of the film’s action hold the audience in a fixed, hypnotic trance. Combining elements of a darkly spiritual and ethereal sound, Popol Vuh creates a soundscape that is as cold and unnerving as the grave.
7) The Bird with the Crystal Plumage- Ennio Morricone
Any soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is going to be fantastic and his score from Dario Argento’s legendary giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is no exception. With elements of free jazz and even psychedelic flourishes, Morricone’s score at times sounds like a haunted lost late night session from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew days. From one moment, the score is claustrophobic and sends your heart racing with a wash of chimes, snare drum, church bells and eerie childlike voices and then the next it’s gorgeous and sweeping along to a flamenco beat. This contrast only makes the darker parts of the score and the film appear even more disturbing and the lighter parts subversively sinister .
6) The Others (Music from The Dimensions Motion Picture)- Alejandro Amenábar
Completely exceptional. Alejandro Amenábar’s score is tight, lavish and polished while still remaining unhinged enough to shock and surprise at any moment. Amenábar, who also served as the film’s writer and director, perfectly crafted a bed of music that reflects the film’s theme of mystery, delusions and the entanglement of the worlds of the living and the dead. At points, the soundtrack is soothing and lulls the audience into a false sense of security and out of nowhere, it twists into a clashing sound of piercing violins, making anyone in earshot jump five miles.
5) Dracula –Philip Glass
In 1998, the classic 1931 Bela Lugosi version of Dracula was rereleased by Universal Studios with an additional score composed by Philip Glass. Performed by The Kronos Quartet, the soundtrack is not typical for a horror film of the 1930s nor is it typical for any horror film really. However, Glass made the string arrangements for the film sound like a field recording that might’ve actually come out of the Carpathian Mountains prior to the turn of the century. This old world approach so closely matches the setting and mood of the film that the viewer is far more in tune with the undercurrent tension and menace of the famed count and his unholy desires.
4) Suspiria– Goblin
Another Argento film, Suspiria is a brilliantly vivid picture of witchcraft and murder. The whole film is splashed in hyper unrealistic colors and lighting that doesn’t make sense, much like a hallucination. So it only seems fitting that the entire score is a vibrant, paranoid psychedelic fever dream. The repeated main theme jingles and shimmers like a demented magic spell, making the surreal world of the film all the more fantastic and unpredictable. The lysergic quality of the soundtrack and the strange instrumentation (which includes celesta, bouzouki and tabla) is so wonderfully maddening that it holds up as its own entity that can be enjoyed by a listener who hasn’t ever seen the film.
3) Blood on Satan’s Claw– Marc Wilkinson
In Blood on Satan’s Claw, a once peaceful rural community in 17th century England falls under a demonic spell after a plowboy discovers a malformed and slightly furry skull in his field. Mark Wilkinson’s score perfectly mirrors the possessed and corrupted town, as it itself sounds like a soundtrack to a pastoral period piece that has become overtaken by some dark and mysterious power. Through this combination, which consists of a classic orchestral backing being savaged by the strange sounds of a cimbalom and an ondes martenot (an early electronic keyboard that produces a theremin like quiver), Wilkinson’s work here may easily be one of the most unique within the horror genre.
2) Mama-Original Motion Picture Soundtrack– Fernando Velázquez
Much like the film, Velázquez’s score is just as horrifying as it is somber and sympathetic. With a film dealing with a complicated relationship between a mother and her children, even if she’s a nightmarish specter, the soundtrack has to possess an emotional core. Velázquez gets this aspect of his score completely right. Often, the orchestral themes throughout the film are swelling with profound compassion. This is especially evident at the film’s climax, with a track called “Final Reel.” However, when the scares occur, the soundtrack is just as strong with brash and creepily dissonant high notes from various wind instruments, blasting deep brass and shrieking strings. Much like a building temper of a vengeful spirit, the frightening moments of the score grow from a whisper into a mountainous tidal wave of sound. While this formula may not synch well with most horror films, it works like a masterpiece with this Guillermo del Toro executively produced picture.
1) Into the Land of Phantoms– Jill Tracy and The Malcontent Orchestra
Towards the end of the 1990s, San Francisco Bay area artist, Jill Tracy and her perfectly named The Malcontent Orchestra, composed and performed a soundtrack live to screenings of the 1922 original silent version of Nosferatu. After a few years of touring this live score, the majority of the set was recorded and released as this album. Mostly performed on instruments that were available at the time of the film’s creation, Tracy and her gang crafted a chilling yet melodic collection of instrumentals that lovingly and sonically recreated the gothic Victorian world of F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire tale. What makes this score stand out from so many others is that Tracy utilized the fact that despite being silent, Nosferatu is a rather musical film. Much of the acting and pacing of the movie was kept at a rhythm through the use of a metronome on set, so nearly every movement is translated through Tracy’s piano, strings and percussion. Ominous, expressionistic and even at times darkly romantic, Tracy’s score is certainly a stroke of genius that begs to be played in the dark.
If this kind of music interests you or helps you get into the Halloween spirit, then you might enjoy my annual Halloween-themed mixes on 8tracks (which I’ve written about here before). Here’s this year’s mix, featuring tracks from the scores of various horror films like It Follows, The Devil’s Backbone, Insidious and many others.