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 looking at the 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:
Part 1: Best Scores
10. Friday the 13th– Harry Manfredini
Manfredini’s score for Friday the 13th is primarily so effective and memorable because of how sparingly it’s used. There are stretches of film where there’s no score, making Manfredini directly responsible for how the soundtrack is used to scare viewers. Inspired by Jaws, Manfredini was intent on creating a motif that would remain scary even when the killer wasn’t on screen, and so the famous “ki ki ki, ma ma ma,” taken from Pamela Vorhees’ line “kill her, mommy! Kill her!” was created. It’s clear that Manfredini’s score also took inspiration from Psycho in its use of stirring string arrangements. While Friday the 13th’s soundtrack never received the same kind of critical acclaim, its lasting impact has proved it to be just as impactful on the genre.
9. Cannibal Holocaust– Riz Ortolani
Whichever way public opinion may sway on this movie, it’s impossible to deny that Riz Ortolani created a fantastic score, one that seems playfully perverse in hindsight. The “Main Theme” is cheerfully upbeat and yet there’s a sinister synthetic echo right underneath the primary melody, which is more than a little nerve-wracking. Before switching back to the upbeat sounds from the “Main Theme,” Ortolani’s memorable “Massacre of the Troupe” has a pulsating beat that almost beats the viewer into delirium and nausea when matched with the images on screen. The artistry of the score transcends the crude filmmaking on display and Cannibal Holocaust is worth a watch if only for that.
8. Godzilla– Akira Ifukube
Sure, we could argue over whether Godzilla actually counts as a horror movie (the 1954 film was at least created with the intention of being one) but to omit the film would be to omit one of film’s finest, and most under-recognized, soundtracks. Ifukube’s brassy score captures the building sense of cataclysm, reaching nearly mythic proportions. The “Main Theme” perfectly captures the sheer power of this creature as it tears through Tokyo. Other tracks, like “Godzilla Under the Sea” avoid booming sounds of triumph, and instead opt for a more reserved and melancholy tone which conveys loss and the devastating power of man, not monster.
7. The Exorcist-Mike Oldfield
The story behind The Exorcist’s soundtrack is a rather interesting one in that no true score was used. Jazz musician, and later Amityville Horror composer, Lalo Schifrin, was hired to score the film, but creative differences led to his release from the project. Director William Friedkin used non-original classic compositions and hired Jack Nitzsche to write original music to be used only for scene transitions. The most famous use of music in the film, and the reason why The Exorcist is on this list, is Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” While one piece of music certainly doesn’t count as a score, the piece is so iconic and so effectively chilling that I would have been remiss not to include it. Regardless of the film’s lack of a true soundtrack, “Tubular Bells” has since become the theme for The Exorcist.
6. The Shining– Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind
Typical of Kubrick, The Shining used a majority of non-original music (masterfully arranged by music editor Gordon Stainforth). But some of the film’s most effective sequences were scored by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Take the haunting opening aerial shots through Colorado, set to Carlos and Elkind’s “Main Title Theme (Die Irae).” The organ music, later mixed with what sounds like someone crying, creates a discomforting disconnect between mood and image, resulting in one of the most memorable horror film openings. While large portions of Carlos and Elkind’s score didn’t make it into the final film, what did formed an interesting blend of new and old that fit right in with the film’s themes. Despite the film’s memorable use of music, the soundtrack was only released on LP because of licensing contracts and has not be re-leased since the film opened.
5. 28 Days Later– John Murphy
John Murphy’s score for 28 Days Later varies between hauntingly quiet piano music, somber percussion, and guitar-heavy rage riffs, perfectly capturing the emotional range of Jim’s journey. The use of ambient sounds in tracks like “Jim’s Dream” are calming, yet uneasy, reminders of a world thrown back into a primal state. Murphy’s most famous track from the score, “In The House-In a Heartbeat” steadily builds in tension before exploding in sounds of panic and hope. While it’s been used in various video games and movies, including a particularly noteworthy scene in Kick-Ass, only 28 Days Later manages to take full advantage of the tune’s complex emotional balancing act. Somehow Murphy manages to find perfect synchronization between his music and Danny Boyle’s beautiful and violent images.
4. Psycho-Bernard Herrmann
Long-time Hitchcock collaborator and composer of The Twilight Zone theme broke all the rules of the genre when he decided to score the film only with string instruments. The result is a score filled with frantic energy and piercing vibrations that create an auditory sense of what Norman’s blade must feel like when it pierces flesh. While “Prelude,” later used in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, and “The Murder” are the film’s most iconic musical pieces, Herrmann’s quieter tracks also deserve praise for their quiet tension and lingering sadness. It wouldn’t be a leap to say that much of our association of horror with music is because of Herrmann’s experimentation and unmatched sense of timing.
3. It Follows– Rich Vreeland (Disasterpiece)
The It Follows score is a violent assault, one that catches viewers before the screen can even hint at what to expect. That’s right, I’m still not tired of talking about this movie. Vreeland’s score has been named the successor to John Carpenter’s horror themes in the ’70s and ’80s and while that’s somewhat accurate and glowing praise, it still manages to be a disservice to what Vreeland has created. There’s a complexity to the It Follows score, a wide range of sounds and that are non-existent in Carpenter’s best works. The music isn’t catchy and its tracks are more difficult to remember, which makes each time you hear the score unsettling. I’ve listened to this score at least once every couple weeks since the film was released, and there’s still nothing comfortable about it, no period where it simply becomes background noise. Vreeland constantly builds tension to the point where the action onscreen doesn’t always fit the music, effectively catching the audience off guard.
2. Halloween– John Carpenter
John Carpenter has created near a dozen iconic scores for his films over the course of his career, but none is so instantly recognizable like his score for Halloween. Inspired by the next film on this list, Carpenter’s repetitious keyboard tune isn’t the best piece of music he’s composed (that honor goes to his score for Assault on Precinct 13), but its simplicity is its strength. Halloween is very much a bare bones slasher film, the true start of the sub-genre that became increasingly recognizable in the ’80s, and the “Halloween Theme” fits the film’s straightforward, yet memorable intent. Nearly every film that draws inspiration from ’70s and ’80s horror films also takes inspiration from Carpenter’s ability to create effectively memorable soundtracks. He may not have scored anything recently, but this year’s Lost Themes album offers plenty of new tracks for the Carpenter enthusiast.
1. Suspiria– Goblin
Italian rock band Goblin has a long history of scoring films, including their famed work on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but their biggest achievement came from their team-up with Dario Argento. No other horror soundtrack even comes close to distilling the feeling of supernatural terror like Goblin and Dario Argento’s score for Suspiria. The use of classic string orchestration mixed with the more progressive rock beats, the menacing rasp, disembodied whispers, and repetition of “witch” give the music an otherworldly quality that captures Suzy’s dizzying race through the halls of the dance academy. The fact that the score was composed before the film was even shot makes it all the more impressive, especially when considering how paramount the film’s soundtrack is to its legacy.
Part II: Best Soundtracks
While the score may have the most to do with creating tone, a hit single every now and then can add an extra desired element. As you’ll be able to tell from the following list, I’m a big fan of anachronistic music. Clearly I learned nothing Adaptation, and I find it an extremely effective means for keeping audiences off balance as follows:
10. A Clockwork Orange-“Singing in the Rain”-Malcolm McDowell
No film more effectively shakes that audience’s balance more than Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. While the film isn’t a horror movie (which is why it’s not higher on this list), Alex’s break-in, and subsequent rape and torment of his victims while singing “Singing in the Rain,” is absolutely horrific. To Gene Kelly’s dismay, this song can never be heard the same way again after seeing Kubrick’s masterpiece.
9. The Lost Boys-“Cry Little Sister”-Gerard McMann
Gerard McMann’s moody track is pure ’80s soundtrack goodness. While there’s no moment of horror that goes along with it, the song feeds the film’s gothic atmosphere and sense of longing. While the vampires in the film are clearly the coolest people in town, the song taps into the sadder elements of eternal life and darker side of the Peter Pan/Neverland theme at the heart of the film. Also, while researching this post I’ve discovered that a frightening number of people think this song is about incest (it’s not).
8. Sleepaway Camp-“Angela’s Theme”-Frankie Vinci
Just as there’s fun to be had in bad horror movies, bad horror movie songs can be just as entertaining. Frankie Vinci’s song isn’t used in the film; instead it plays over the credits and freeze-framed image of the film’s final shot. As fans of Sleepaway Camp know, it’s a startling shot of one of horror’s best twists (avoid spoilers and watch it now) and the songs’s cheery romantic tone feels incredibly out of place but also perfect for the so-bad-it’s-great film.
7. Pet Sematary-“Pet Sematary”-The Ramones
The Ramones are one of Stephen King’s favorite bands, so it only makes sense that they would provide the closing track to one of the best adaptations of King’s work. Once again, we have a song that’s ridiculously upbeat given the events in the film’s conclusion, but somehow that makes the song and movie all the more endearing. “Pet Sematary” ended up becoming one of The Ramones biggest hits. It’s an odd song to become so popular, especially when taken out of context, but as someone who listens to it frequently, I have to admit it is damn catchy.
6. The Guest-“Anthonio”-Annie
It’s almost impossible to pick just one track from The Guest, as it’s one of the very best horror soundtracks comprised of singles from various artists. Annie’s “Anthonio”, which plays over the film’s climax, taps into Anna’s feelings of betrayal, while feeling like the perfect song for the film’s ’80s aesthetic and high-school dance setting. Director Adam Wingard’s greatest secret weapon may be his fantastic music selection, which brings us to the next entry on the list.
5. You’re Next– “Looking for the Magic”- Dwight Twilley Band
Wingard pulled out this Dwight Twilley deep cut for the opening of You’re Next, once again establishing an aesthetic in line with horror films from a bygone era. The continued use of the song, stuck on repeat throughout the film, is played partly for humor, but it also becomes an eerie mantra despite the optimistic lyrics.
4. Let Me In-“Burnin’ For You”-Blue Oyster Cult, “Now and Later Jingle”
American remakes of foreign horror films often get a lot of criticism, and rightfully so. But Let Me In doesn’t just attempt to retell the Swedish Let the Right One In, in English. Matt Reeves firmly situates the film in American culture, creating a look and sound distinct from the original. The film’s use of pop music has a lot to do with this. It’s impossible to go wrong with Blue Oyster Cult, and “Burnin’ for You” is not only used to foreshadow the scene that directly follows its use (death by sulfuric acid) but also ties into the romantic tragedy at the heart of the film. Oscar’s repeated singing and humming of the “Now and Later Jingle,” “eat some now, save some for later” is darkly humorous but also an eerily accurate look at the story just beneath the surface of the film.
3. The House of the Devil– “One Thing Leads to Another”-The Fixx
Like his friend Adam Wingard, Ti West understands how catchy songs with thematically relevant lyrics can be responsible for a film’s best and most unexpected moments. Immediately before Samantha’s night turns into living hell, she dances around the Ulman’s house to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.” It’s a fun sequence that allows the audience to feel at ease right before the film’s final act races forward. While many films use ’80s songs to reflect the horror movies of those times, West’s decision to shoot the movie in 16mm allows for the song choice and actual film to fit together seamlessly and create a final product that feels perfectly out of time.
2. Halloween/The Stand– “Don’t Fear the Reaper”- Blue Oyster Cult
Blue Oyster Cult’s most famous single, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” can be heard briefly in Annie’s car as she and Laurie are driving to their baby-sitting gigs in Halloween. It’s played so softly and used so briefly that it’s possible not to even register that it’s playing. The fact that it doesn’t call attention to itself brilliantly reflects Michael Myers’s quiet and deadly deeds throughout the night. Mick Garris’ TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand uses the song for its opening credits sequence, taking a cue from Stephen King who drew inspiration from the song for his novel and quotes it at the beginning of the text. If the upcoming adaptation of The Stand doesn’t follow suit, then it’ll surely be at a loss.
1. The Strangers-“Sprout and the Bean”-Joanna Newsom
Of all the modern horror movies, The Strangers makes the best use of sound, and that element carries over to its soundtrack. A variety of folk songs, new and old, are used throughout the film, but the most haunting is “Sprout and the Bean.” Before Joanna Newsom made waves as the narrator in Inherent Vice, she was creeping audiences out in The Strangers with her distinctive, yet beautiful voice, and her repeated refrain of “should we go outside?” None of the other songs on the list are actually frightening in themselves, but Newsom’s single provides some of the best moments of pure terror in the film.
Featured Image: International Classics