13 Killer Horror Soundtracks
“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make,” intoned Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula. Ironically, this much-lauded Tod Browning film suffers terribly today because of its lack of music; except for the excerpt from Swan Lake heard over the titles and an orchestra playing at a concert hall, Dracula does not feature any other music, making it a bit of a slog for modern audiences. This example illustrates the importance of music in horror; could you imagine Psycho without those shrieking violins in the shower scene or the opening of Jaws sans John Williams’ immortal Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun…?
So fire up the hi-fi as we put forth our favorite horror movie soundtracks on the turntable of terror. (List arranged according to year of film’s release.)
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Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Like the same year’s Dracula, very little music made it onto the soundtrack of James Whale’s Frankenstein. For this sequel, Universal Pictures overcompensated (in a good way!) and assigned Franz Waxman to compose a lush, sweeping score to sonically give life to a world of “gods and monsters.” Backed by a 22-man studio orchestra, Bride’s Creation sequence still electrifies audiences. Universal greedily cannibalized Waxman’s Wagnerian Bride of Frankenstein score for years to come for more monster movies and cheapie sci-fi serials.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
An Oscar-winning screenwriter turned film composer, James Bernard gained musical acclaim for his bombastic scores on a string of Gothic horror hits for Britain’s Hammer Films. For Horror of Dracula’s main title melody, Bernard establishes the malevolence of the Count (Christopher Lee) with a unique three-note ostinato. The orchestra almost literally pronounces Dracula’s name with their instruments, the motif (derived from the word’s three syllables) repeated throughout the film (and on many sequels) to announce the vampire’s presence. Bernard’s frenzied Dracula theme utilized opposing harmonies, which he created by doubling a motif a tone higher. This over-the-top melodic approach gave definite gusto to the Hammer lineup for decades.
New Yorker Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho music remains one of the most recognized horror scores of all time. Hard to believe that director Alfred Hitchcock at one insecure moment toyed with the idea of using jazz tunes for the movie and no music at all for the landmark shower sequence. Fortunately, trusted collaborator Herrmann convinced Hitch to allow him to create a score composed of nothing but strings, his screaming violins and creepy cellos jangling our nerves like no other film before or since.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
In director Roman Polanski’s satanic sensation, star Mia Farrow’s own singing serves as a haunting accent to composer Krzysztof (a.k.a. Christopher) Komeda’s dreamy “Rosemary’s Lullaby” heard during the credits. Though the two Poles previously collaborated on Polanski’s Knife in the Water and The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby would be the one to give audiences and expectant mothers nightmares forever. Komeda’s score drew inspiration from films of the French noir and New Wave periods, as opposed to traditional fright flicks. His instrumentation has jazz inflections, with the results generating unease and rising tension. Tragically, a fall from a cliff cut Komeda’s promising career short at age 38.
Our primal fear of the deep was everlastingly exacerbated by John Williams’ relentless and unambiguous shark theme from the first-ever summer blockbuster. Director Steven Spielberg admits that much of Jaws’ monumental success is owed to the work of Williams, whose main motif consisted of a simple alternating pattern of two notes—variously identified as “E and F” or “F and F sharp.” Tuba player Tommy Johnson gave his breath to this classic piece of suspense music, which alerted us to the unseen but approaching danger of a hungry Great White. Williams’ Jaws music won him a shelf-full of awards, including the Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy and BAFTA.
The Omen (1976)
A year later, composer Jerry Goldsmith took home a Best Score Academy Award for this devilish delight. He also earned a Best Song nomination for his chilling black mass ditty “Ave Satani” (Hail, Satan!). Goldsmith’s memorable Omen recording rates as one of the scariest scores ever. That oppressive liturgical Latin chant can be noticed throughout the choral-related soundtrack, especially when something ghastly is about to happen. Goldsmith’s bass string progressions and inventive use of the choir elevated The Omen’s music to horrific heights.
Italian progressive rock band Goblin’s sonic assault helped gore great Dario Argento achieve his biggest international popularity with this bloody bonanza, about a coven of witches making mischief at a German dance academy. For their symphony of terror, Goblin (captained by composer Claudio Simonetti) combined howling electric guitars, whooping Moog synthesizers and screeching, disembodied cries (repetitively intoning “Witch!”). Even listening to the bombastic soundtrack without Argento’s accompanying images of bloodletting will fry your nerves and keep you up late at night.
Master of horror John Carpenter admits that he composed the music himself for his early films out of necessity, including for this slasher trendsetter, because the productions couldn’t afford an orchestra! Halloween’s unforgettable “earworm” main title theme consists of a piano melody played in a 10/8 or “complex 5/4” meter, which Carpenter’s father once taught his student son how to perform on a set of bongos. The director, who can’t write a note of music but can play any keyboard, composed Halloween’s score on a cheap synthesizer in just three days. Though he has had very little to do with the Halloween sequels and remakes since 1981, Carpenter collects a big fat check every time they sample his indispensible theme music.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Would you believe that one of horror’s most brutal films also features one of the most beautiful scores ever recorded? What a contrast! This notorious Italian film follows an ill-fated Amazonian expedition, in which a group of NYC filmmakers wind up as the main course at a native cookout. Director Ruggero Deodato’s shocking imagery (including real animal slaughter) will have you hiding your eyes, but your ears will appreciate the haunting and bewitching score by Riz Ortolani. Incorporating a full orchestra and electronics/synthesizers, Ortolani’s sumptuous soundtrack incorporates a variety of styles: from the gentle main theme to mournful melodies to tracks of frenzied intensity. Perfect dinner music!
Friday the 13th (1980)
In this franchise starter, composer Harry Manfredini’s whispering “ki…ki…ki…ma…ma…ma” theme (derived from the summer-camp slasher’s words, “Kill her, Mommy”) kept us on the edge of our sleeping bags. To no surprise, this iconic and harrowing ditty, signifying another mangled body would soon hit the floor, carried through all of the Friday films. Though Manfredini’s music never nabbed any awards, you probably won’t find anyone who doesn’t know that unmistakable death chant.
New Jersey-born composer Christopher Young wound up as a last minute replacement to score British author Clive Barker’s directorial debut. When the jarring music by industrial band Coil proved unsuitable, studio New World brought in Young to create a bold, orchestral and synthesizer soundtrack that echoed the best of Hollywood maestros Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and others. Young expanded on Hellraiser’s Gothic themes with even richer compositions to Hellbound: Hellraiser II the following year.
Barker’s dark fiction inspired another horror smash with this story of an urban legend come frighteningly to life in a Chicago project. Aiming for a non-typical horror score, director Bernard Rose turned to avant-garde/classical composer Philip Glass for his music. Glass accepted the challenge and wrote a distinctive Gothic score that largely relied on an unsettling chorus and exquisite pipe organ. The composer’s dreamlike, redundantly powerful tones emerge as equal parts transfixing and bleak, just like the titular, hook-handed ghost played by the towering Tony Todd.
It Follows (2014)
John Carpenter freely admits that he borrowed some of his musical styling from the Goblin catalog. Today’s composers return the “favor” by taking from Carpenter, whose output inspired Rich Vreeland/Disasterpeace’s music in David Robert Mitchell’s indie sleeper about an unstoppable supernatural entity that acts like a virus. Using a modern synthesizer technique called chiptune but incorporating a retro sound right out of the early ’80s, Disasterpeace’s brooding soundtrack perfectly complements the movie’s chilling moments of uneasy calm and chaotic tension.
Any other films with amazing soundtracks? Tell us below.