When we think about horror movies, most often we focus on the lighting, the acting, the effects, and the shocking reveal. But none of these elements would be nearly as effective without the use of music. Whether it be diegetic or non-diegetic, the music featured in horror movies has the ability to masterfully manipulate our emotions, making even the most sub-par elements of horror effective in a way they never would be without it. In a two-part list, we’ll be continuing our conversation of horror music by looking at more best horror movie scores and the best uses of non-scored music that make the genre one of the most musically significant in all of film.
You can find our first list here.
Part 1: Best Scores
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street- Charles Bernstein
Bernstein’s “Prologue/Main Title’ theme for Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street begins with what can be described as industrial sounds, one that makes it easy to imagine dark corridors, and large pieces of machinery, pushing out hot steam. But as it progresses, the theme picks up a slight playfulness, a chanting rhythm that reminds us of children playing. These sounds collide, taking on a property that could only be described as nightmarish. Bernstein, who also did the scores for The Entity, Cujo, April Fool’s Day, and Deadly Friend, has said that when it came to Nightmare, Craven was very open about allowing him creative freedom to find the score that best fit the film. While Bernstein’s recognizable theme can heard throughout the franchise, the original film is the only one he scored.
4. The Fly -Howard Shore
While Howard Shore’s magnum opus are his scores for The Lord of the Rings films, his work on David Cronenberg’s films are also a great showcase of his talents. While he has scored the majority of Cronenberg’s films, his work on The Fly may be his best collaboration. The Fly is a particularly intimate horror film, with an emphasis on the personal, but Shore’s score gives the film an epic sound that tonally blends the sounds of a war film with that of a sweeping romance, which is precisely what The Fly is on an emotional level. Shore gives the film a larger than life quality, that sweeps you up in the passion of the story taking place. While some of Cronenberg’s earlier works may lack an emotional connection between the characters and the viewers, Shore’s score really emphasizes the story and struggle of people within the film’s larger themes, all culminating in “The Finale” which stands as one of his best pieces.
3. Jaws – John Williams
And speaking of composers with magnum opuses outside of the horror genre, no conversation of the power of music would be complete without talking about John Williams. It’s accurate to say that when it comes to the most significantly memorable movie scores of all time, John Williams is behind most of them. You can’t go to the beach, or the pool for that matter, without thinking of, or at least hearing someone reference, the theme from Jaws. There’s a primal urgency and increasing dread to Williams’s alternation between E and F. The main theme from Jaws became the sound of the shark after the summer of ’75, and Spielberg has admitted himself that the film and all of its tension would not have been nearly as successful without Williams. While the film had to famously limit the appearance of the shark in the film, Williams’s score more than made up for it, and wound up creating a more frightening experience than any amount of additional shark footage could have provided.
2. Prince of Darkness – John Carpenter
There’s no way we could make this list without talking about John Carpenter and his frequent collaborator, Alan Howarth, whose scores influenced multiple generations of filmmakers and composers. While the Prince of Darkness is neither Carpenter’s most recognized film or score, the music has a ghostly, ethereal quality, that’s not as hard-hitting or tense as some of his other scores, but carries a sense of mystery that fits perfectly within the film’s story. There’s a beauty to the central theme to Prince of Darkness, one that may seem out of place give the film’s title, but couldn’t be more on point when the film’s religious aspects are taken into consideration. It sounds like the slow collide between heaven and hell over centuries, the tonal distinction between the heavier and lighter sounds mingling and rising or falling over top of each other, mirroring the events we see in the film.
1. Phantasm – Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave
A recent discovery for me personally, Myrow and Seagrave’s Main Theme for Phantasm is deceitfully simplistic, repeating synth sounds in a familiar pattern that becomes recognizable, and ultimately memorable. Influenced by Goblin’s Suspiria score, and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist, Phantasm’s musical influences are clear. But there’s something unique about this theme, in the way that seems to perfectly suggest childhood fears, and adventure. The theme would be repeated throughout the franchise, it’s pace and gravitas changing as maturing as the series central protagonist, Mike did as well. While Myrow and Seagrave didn’t hit the same heights of popularity as the other names on this list, their contribution in the form of the Phantasm score is just as significant as any of Carpenter’s scores.
Part 2: Best Soundtracks
5. Phantasm IV- “Have You Seen It?” – Reggie Bannister
Yeah, we’re double-dipping on the Phantasm franchise, but it’s worth it. Reggie Bannister, who played Reggie in the series, recorded “Have You Seen It?” using Myrow’s and Seagrave’s score for Phantasm IV, and it’s an equally excellent piece of horror movie music history. One of the things I really appreciate about the Phantasm franchise is how much a family Don Coscarelli put together through the making of this franchise, and getting Reggie Bannister to compose an original song, backed by Myrow and Seagrave’s theme just kind of cements that feeling. Plus, Oblivion ends on a bit of a downer, and Bannister’s song is adds a bit of triumph for what was considered to be at the time, the franchise’s swan song.
4. The Ballad of Harry Warden – My Bloody Valentine – John McDermott
My Bloody Valentine may be the only horror movie to end with a folk song. The song, performed by Scottish-Canadian singer John McDermott, was added by the film’s composer Paul Zaza last minute, and there’s never been any clear reason why he thought a folk song should bring the film to an end. But the melancholy of it does punctuate the film with a kind homegrown aesthetic. Sing it to the one you love this Halloween.
3. Freebird – The Devil’s Rejects – Lynyrd Skynyrd
While shouting “Freebird” may get you shut down at a concert, feel free to call it out triumphantly at the end of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. The final sequence in which our family of rejects ride out to meet their maker and end it all on their own terms is the high-point of Zombie’s film. It’s rare that a horror movie leaves the viewer feeling powerful and ready to take on the world, but through Zombie’s antagonists turned protagonists, we’re given a western ending that can stand side by side with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Thelma and Louise. It’s a perfect swan song for these redneck horror anti-heroes.
2. Hurdy Gurdy Man – Zodiac – Donovan
Sure, if we want to be strict about it, Zodiac isn’t a horror movie, but few movies have created a more terrifying scenario or tone than David Fincher’s film. The song, which immerses the viewer in the time period, both opens and closes the film. While Donavan’s pyschedelic rock song seems silly and a bit nonsensical out of context of the film, it’s difficult not to associate the song with something sinister after associating it with Fincher’s use of it. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a kind of invocation to the the uncatchable and undefineable Zodiac Killer.
1. Come to Me – Fright Night – Brad Fiedel
Did you guys know that composer Brad Fiedel of The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day fame also sang? Me neither. But alas, it’s his voice behind the vampiric love ballad “Come to Me” from 1985’s Fright Night. This is lovemaking music right here. ‘Nuff said.
Featured Image: AVCO Embassy Pictures