The door slams downstairs. The girl, alone and in only a towel from her shower, slowly inches down the stairs to see what the noise was. With each step the music expands the tension, your heart beats faster, your palms sweat, and you start yelling for her to run not go into the basement. BAM! The theme music begins, the killer or monster or combination thereof steps into camera, and the chase is on. Our heroine tries her hardest, but in the end, she’s just another victim. The stalking, the chasing and the killing were scary on their own, but not nearly as terrifying as those elements narrated by a genius score.
When a soundtrack fires on all cylinders, nothing comes close. To celebrate the sheer terrifying awesomeness of the movie soundtrack I, Iann, your friend and guide through the dark world of music, have gone into list mode. I’ve spent the last few weeks pouring over all the horror soundtracks in existence to come up with 13 Terrifyingly Awesome Horror Movie Soundtracks.
Dig it - IF YOU DARE!!
13. The Lost Boys - Thomas Newman/Various
Hate all you want folks, but this soundtrack is the bomb. First off, Thomas Newman’s original score was a nice twist on old time horror music with a distinct modern flair. His use of weird orchestrations and creepy organ music was essential to the vibe of Lost Boys. Still not convinced? Well, Newman went on to score films like Wall-E, The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Then we have the pop classics on The Lost Boys soundtrack e.g. Echo And The Bunnymen’s cover of “People Are Strange”, or the tune “Cry Little Sister”, even Roger Daltrey’s cover of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” is killer. Granted the roid saxophone-on-the-beach of Tim Capello’s “I Still Believe” is douche chilling, but overall the soundtrack is killer.
12. Eraserhead - Alan Splet
There are those who would not categorize Eraserhead as horror, and I take issue with that. Sure it might not roll in the same pimped out ride as Michael Myers or his copycat bitch Jason Vorhees, but Eraserhead is creepier, weirder and spookier than you might remember. Made up of some jazz standards, electronic blips and sound effects, white noise, and the creepy-as-fuck song “In Heaven”, The Eraserhead soundtrack is just as weird as the film. David Lynch’s 1977 classic would have been only half as disturbing if not for Splet’s chilling concoction. Not only is Eraserhead one of the first noise records used in film, but the song “In Heaven” has been covered by Devo, The Pixies and Bauhuas. BOO YAAA!!
11. Zombi/Dawn Of The Dead Incidental Music - Goblin/Incidental Music
Few things capture the essence of zombies trying to break into a Mall to eat people like polka music or a-tonal electronic beats that put the creep into creepy. Goblin, the band who brought the serious horror vibe with Suspiria, did a damn fine job raising the tension in Dawn Of The Dead by using dulcet tones and bizarre arrangements. While the Goblin work here is undeniable, the random incidental music director George A Romero implemented helped to create both humor and terror. The Goblin work is available via the Zombi soundtrack, the Italian translation for Dawn Of The Dead, while the incidental work can be found on Trunk Records. Here’s something from both.
10. The Exorcist - Mike Oldfield/The National Philharmonic
Okay, so, let the bitching begin. Why is the Exorcist soundtrack so high up on the list? Well, first of all, this isn’t a countdown where numerical position indicates importance. Second, The Exorcist isn’t really a soundtrack. It’s sliced up pieces of orchestral movements and the use of Mike Oldfield’s brilliant track “Tubular Bells”, which was his own creation not specifically for The Exorcist. Still, it’s a freaky collection to listen to and it does include “Tubular Bells”, which continues to scare the crap out of me.
9. Carnival Of Souls - Gene Moore
Not only do I love this film, I also love the soundtrack, which is an epic tribute to all things that give goose bumps. Moore’s organ work here (okay you filthy bastards get your mind out of the gutter) is on par with Eraserhead or any film using the ancient instrument to drum up terror. While some of the music comes off like carefree incidental music for a travel video, the lion’s share of Carnival Of Souls is rich in spooky textures and dark themes. An absolute must on both a film and soundtrack level.
8. H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator - Richard Band
In an interesting twist, the Re-Animator soundtrack did more to capture the true unsettling nature of H.P. Lovecraft’s original story than the film. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie, but it was pop art mixed with black humor. At no point did it become unnerving or sinister. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is consistently both of those things. Composer Richard Band uses classical ideas from horror scores and adds dissonance and combative strings to bring the tension right up to your face. I also dug Band’s reimagining of the original Psycho theme for the main titles.
7. The Shining - Stanley Kubrick/Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind
The Shining soundtrack is one of the more interesting soundtracks in horror cinema. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind assisted Kubrick in taking the Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” and arranging it become the sequence “The Shining”. Carlos and Elkind also had a hand in “Rocky Mountains”, the song heard when Jack Nicholson and his family are driving to the Overlook Hotel. These pieces, and a few others, are deeply unsettling, almost brooding in their tension. For the music happening within the more 20s era vibe of the film, Kubrick turned to bands like Jack Hylton and His Orchestra, Henry Hall and The Greyeagles and a few more to give it an authentic swing feel. What’s so interesting is how the 20s music and the orchestral movements come together to great a staggering feet of terror without beating the hell out of any one piece of music.
6. Halloween - John Carpenter
As much as the antagonists may want to, you just can’t have a horror soundtrack list without Halloween. Second only to Jaws, the theme for Michael Myers is the most instantly recognizable theme in horror film soundtracks. Outside of the theme, Carpenter’s use of single notes in a repetitive fashion absolutely saved the film. WhenHalloween was first shown to movie execs, they laughed, saying it wasn’t scary. After the music was cut in, they agreed they had a horror masterpiece on their hands. It’s not just a testimony to the power of music, but to the power of a killer soundtrack.
5. Suspiria - Goblin
Suspiria was another triumph for the band Goblin. Again, likeDawn Of The Dead, Goblin used musical cues that were way ahead of what other people were doing. The music that underscored Dario Argento’s epic tale was centered on drums and synth but also included witch screams, Mellotrons, Minimoog, thick bass riffs, electric and acoustic piano as well as organs and a string machine. Susperia is an occult themed slasher flick that is so much more than the sum of its parts. The soundtrack follows the same ideal. Dense and haunting, often scary and able to make you feel utterly alone and cut off from the world, Suspiria’s soundtrack added new textures to horror music that were often imitated but never duplicated.
4. The Fog - John Carpenter
Oh yeah, that’s right, I have two John Carpenter joints on this list. Why? Well, because both of these soundtracks are above reproach. Halloween might be the most recognized and iconic, but The Fog is nothing short of spectacular. Carpenter again turns to his love of minimalism, this time using stark piano and dull drones to create the feel of a dark fog creeping through a small town. There’s nothing as epic here as on Halloween but that’s the genius. The entire soundtrack to The Fog works together to create and overall sense of terror, it’s one of Carpenter’s absolute best.
3. Jaws - John Williams
Really? Do I need to explain this one? There is no other theme in music history, not just horror, which is as instantly recognizable as the Jaws theme. Almost forty years after the movie hit theaters, the theme is still part of the American vernacular. Playing with your friends in a pool, if somebody you hate starts walking towards you, if you’re creeping up on anybody for any reason, every one of us has used the Jaws theme as the soundtrack to all kinds of life events. As wonderful as the theme is, the rest of the soundtrack is just as well done. Composer John Williams vaults between fun, upbeat, pirate music and white-knuckle suspense.
2. Psycho - Bernard Herrman
Sit back for a second and imagine the shower scene in Psycho without Bernard Herrman’s striking string section. While there’s no denying how far ahead of the curve Alfred Hitchock was, he even admitted that 37% of Psycho’s power came from Bernard Herrman. Using a very standard approach to writing the score, Hermann managed to strike something primal in us, much the way John Williams did with Jaws. Every horror score that came after Psycho owes a huge debt to Bernard Herrman.
1. Hellraiser - Coil
Okay, I realize this is a curve ball, but to me this is the greatest soundtrack you’ve never heard. When Clive Barker was putting the first Hellraiser film together, he wanted industrial noise, avant garde band Coil to compose the soundtrack. The band finished their contributions but pulled out when the movie studio decided the work wasn’t commercial enough. Coil had created ambient, layered and very tense soundscapes. The music was perfect for the subject matter and would have made Hellraiser a scarier film. It’s very hard to find copies of this soundtrack, but they are out there.