Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Happy Samhain, everyone! There probably won't be many Halloween parties this year of 2020 but, in the spirit of the season, I have made a spooky list for you all. In no particular order, here are my personal picks for best horror movie scores of all time as well as the accompanying Spotify Playlist.
"...Knowing where you're headed allows you to take an interesting path to get there." - Charles Bernstein
HELLRAISER - Christopher Young
(The Hopeless Romantic)
When Clive Barker was describing to Christopher Young what he wanted the music of Hellraiser to sound like, he used words like "romance" and "childlike wonder". Young certainly succeeded at that, which is why it is only fitting that we start this list off with one of the first horror film soundtracks I fell in love with as a prepubescent monster junkie. You can hear some of that wonder on the track "Seduction and Pursuit" underscoring Kirsty (the charismatic protagonist) and her first encounter with the enchanting yet sinister puzzle box that opens portals to hell.
THE OMEN - Jerry Goldsmith
(The Tell-Tale Choir)
Goldsmith won his only Oscar in 1976 for this soundtrack, but this will not be the only time he will appear on my personal Best of List. Whether you love or hate the scoring with voices approach, no one can deny the recording's unique sound and the iconic images that it evokes.
You can hear the influence on composers like Michael Abels and his score for the film Get Out.
Damien, the preternatural child antagonist of the film, is buoyed by the ominous music Goldsmith has created. Because of this inventive score, we know that Damien is involved in the antics being played out before us—even when Damien himself is not on screen.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET - Charles Bernstein
(The Dream Conductor)
"...music was a vehicle where we could kind of indicate whether or not one of the characters was dreaming..." Bernstein said in an interview with Gibson TV about the film.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, a killer named Freddy Krueger preys on a group of teens in their dreams. I remember I was six years old when I first heard Freddy's taunting nursery rhyme being sung by those little girls jumping rope on my grandma's television screen. It would be years before I could watch that entire movie without running to another room when Freddy's claws appeared, yet the music would always follow me into the other room—daring me to take another peek at grandma's television.
Get Out director Jordan Peele has mentioned in interviews that this score is one of his personal favorites because of the perfect choice in notes and its catchy vibe.
SUSPIRIA - Thom York
(The Boo! Hoo)
I can't talk about this soundtrack without mentioning the elephant in the room. This soundtrack would not exist had Goblin's score of the 1977 version of Suspiria not come first.
In 2018, Luca Guadagnino released his version of the film Suspiria with Thom York as the composer. Guadagnino's version is a more emotional and sensual take on the story of witches running a dance company in Berlin. It explores corruption and the potential of tribal thinking to erupt into violence.
The same can be said about the different scores. York's melancholic approach to creating the atmosphere in Suspiria has a more reverberating effect than the Goblin score—which understandably has a cult following.
Stand out tracks include "Olga's Destruction" which scores one of the most horrifying scenes of the film, as well as the haunting "Volk" that is both as alluring as it is terrifying—making it the perfect music for a dance piece choreographed by witches committing ghastly atrocities under the veneer of art.
The anxiety that I feel while watching the Volk scene is unlike anything I have experienced in film, and it takes a marriage of good directing and music composing to make that happen.
It doesn't surprise me that one of rock music's most emotionally vulnerable male singers can successfully score one of the most disturbing films I have seen in my adult years.
PSYCHO - Bernard Herrmann
(The Big Daddy)
As heard on the track "Prelude", legato violins and counterpoint marcato open Hitchcock's 1960 slasher Psycho. While some of Hitchcock's other films like The Birds manage to create an atmosphere without any music, it's difficult to imagine Psycho without Herrmann's score. Deceptively placid scenes of the character Marion packing her bags in a hotel after an encounter with her lover are enhanced by the unsettling Herrmann music titled "Temptation" playing underneath.
It should be noted that Herrmann was given a limited budget to work with and was forced to only use a small string ensemble to score Psycho. This is an excellent example of a composer using his/her limitations as an opportunity for innovation.
Hermann has influenced countless composers like John Williams and Danny Elfman. The Psycho score is included in the American Film Institute's Top 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time.
HALLOWEEN - John Carpenter
(The Big Boss)
One of the keys to the genius of this soundtrack is in the repetition. The frenetic notes dancing in circles on the piano contrast the steady and cool countenance of the killer Michael Myers as he is slowly inching his way closer on the track "Halloween Theme - Main Title". It feels like Carpenter is scoring the audience rather than the characters on screen because that is the feeling the viewer has while watching final girl Laurie Strode try to fend off the force of nature that is Michael Myers.
Halloween has influenced recent scores like Disasterpeace's It Follows. Listen to Carpenter's track "The Shape Stalks" to hear how both use repeating notes that build with a stabbing motion.
Let's not forget that Carpenter both scored and directed this film, which makes him the boss on this list.
POLTERGEIST - Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith has mentioned in interviews that he wrote many of the musical themes in Poltergeist to reflect a kind of sympathy for the ghosts (Listen to "Night Visitor/No Complaints").
Considering that the American suburbs are figuratively built on top of a violent history, I am right there with you Goldsmith. In the case of Poltergeist, the family house is literally built on top of a gravesite.
The film itself won the 1983 Saturn Award for Best Horror or Thriller Film and Goldsmith was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score but lost to E.T. The Extraterrestrial that year.
One of the most memorable scenes has the character Diane Freeling running down a warped hallway to save her children while the track "Escape From Suburbia" plays underneath.
Both dark and enchanting, Goldsmith's work on Poltergeist is a masterpiece.
ALIENS - James Horner
(The Action Man)
Horner cut his teeth as a film composer on low budget horror movies before scoring Aliens in 1986. He described Aliens in many interviews as being one of his worse composing experiences. When James Cameron moved away from the atmospheric tone of the first Alien film (scored by Goldsmith) to the Aliens on steroids action extravaganza, James Horner was there to add music to the high-octane terror despite being given only a few weeks to complete the score.
Throughout the process, Cameron was constantly making changes to the picture lock, resulting in Horner having to rewrite several cues with not much time to make the changes. The result is still one of the most epic soundtracks on this list.
The cues from this film score would go on to be licensed for many action trailers and influence soundtracks in the late 80s and 90s. Horner once described nontraditional music composing as working in hindsight because you don't know what is going to work until you try it.
JAWS - John Williams
(The Swiss Army Man)
Following in Herrmann's footsteps, Williams is able to use minimalism like a Swiss Army Knife. When you know exactly what you are doing, and know your tools well, you can find a way to do anything with very little resources. William's background as a jazz pianist comes in handy too in his work.
Spielberg has credited the score for being half the success of Jaws in 1975.
Jaws also made the American Film Institute's Top 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time.
The string ostinatos on Jaws would later influence composers like Goldsmith on his score for The Omen.
NIGHT BREED - Danny Elfman
Out of all the music on this list, I have listened to the soundtrack of Night Breed more than any other.
Danny Elfman is at his best when he is scoring for characters that are freaks, ghouls, and on the fringes of society.
Without the work of Elfman on this soundtrack, the world of Midian would probably look more macabre than like a dark faery tale. Listen to the track
"Carnival Underground" to hear the trickster conjurings of this score.
Night Breed has developed a cult following over the years, so much so that it inspired a movement to release an official director's cut of the film (See Occupy Midian).
Thank you for reading my list. You will find all but one of the tracks mentioned in this blog on the Spotify Playlist I have created. I look forward to hearing what your favorite tracks are.