A Reflection on Some of the Best Horror Movie Scores in Film History | Music News | Spokane | Interior of the Pacific Northwest
Eearlier this year in the pages of Interior, I wrote about how so-called “elevated” horror films had begun to claim their place in the landscape of summer blockbusters. But now that this spooky season is in full swing, thrillers, slashers, monster movies and the like have risen from their coffins to dominate pop culture for a month. A crucial element of any effective horror film – quite possibly to a greater degree than any other cinematic genre – is a hard-hitting score. The best of the best sticks to the viewer like so many gallons of Kensington Gore (aka fake blood) long after a first watch. So it was the perfect time to explore some of the most iconic horror soundtracks of all time, as well as some underrated gems.
Let’s get rid of the classics first. Sometimes the strength of a score is in the simplicity of its leitmotif – melodies so iconic they transcend the films themselves and tattoo themselves onto the universal psyche. Take, for example, John Williams’ brilliant two-note economic terror Jaws score or the howling violins of the score for solo strings by Bernard Herrmann in the 1960s psychologywhich syncs perfectly with the visuals of Janet Leigh’s excessive stabbing during the infamous shower sequence.
When polymath horror legend John Carpenter first sat down in front of his synthesizer in the late 1970s to compose the haunting, repetitive score for his seminal slasher film Halloween, the music’s lack of ostentation was as much due to his limited means as a scrappy independent filmmaker as to his creative intent. What he landed on was a barebones 5/4 melody his father had taught him as a child, which will now forever be synonymous with late-night heebie-jeebies. This month, Carpenter revisits the unforgettable score via the recent Halloween endswho supposedly serves as the long-running franchise’s capper (proven to be as unkillable as the bogeyman himself, Michael Myers).
The brilliant ’70s horror scores don’t stop there, though. At the start of the decade, acclaimed composer Ennio Morricone took the brilliant step of contrasting the sexualized violence depicted on screen in Dario Argento The bird with crystal plumage (a signature entry into the Italian giallo horror subgenre) with a surprisingly beautiful and innocent theme. freddie and every other subsequent horror film that weaponized childish falsettos owes a debt to the late maestro.
“When I think of the scores that scare me the most, it’s the ones with scary children singing,” says Colleen O’Holleran, who programs the “WTF” series (Weird, Terrifying, Fantastic) for the International Film Festival. from Seattle. .
Later in the 1970s, Argento recruited the progressive rock band Goblin (with whom he had already collaborated on another famous giallo film, Dark red) for the soundtrack of its sumptuous and wizarding Suspiria. It’s a score that is sometimes whimsical, sometimes discordant, and splashed with warbling synths.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre boasts an equally idiosyncratic score composed by its writer/director Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell. Barely musical, it’s an experimental, macabre collage of sound effects, ambient noise and creaking drones of concrete music (music composed from the sounds of the raw material).
Special mention should also be given to the dizzying “ch ch ch ah ah ah” of the Friday 13 candor, which was so indelible that I (and presumably many others) was mocked by it on the playgrounds of my childhood. Apparently, the iconic noise resulted from composer Harry Manfredini sublimating the phrase “Kill his mama” (as spoken by Pamela Vorhees, the assassin from the franchise’s first film) into its most rudimentary syllabic form.
Jumping in time and offering a refined contrast, candy man (1992) exists on the more cosmopolitan side of the horror landscape with a score by hugely influential and adored composer Philip Glass. (Although when asked about the music of candy manGlass’s tone is generally dismissive, unworthy of its masterful fusion of elegiac pianos, soaring choirs and cascading pipe organs.)
Mrecent efforts within the genre also deserves its moment to shine in the moonlight. In 2018, director Luca Guadagnino released a controversial remake of Suspiria, which altered the setting and themes of the original and whitewashed all of Argento’s signature vibrancy. To accompany this radical and more subdued reinterpretation, Guadagnino’s film needed a radically different sound palette to accompany it. To meet this challenge, the director called on Thom Yorke from Radiohead. Yorke’s Suspiria the score is subdued instead of splashy and exudes the kind of minimalist melancholy that characterizes many of his solo releases.
At the other end of the sonic spectrum is Cliff Martinez’s score for 2016’s vicious and opulent satire of the fashion industry, The neon demon. Like his previous collaborations with the divisive Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (ConductThe soundtrack to ranked #19 on Fork‘s “50 Greatest Film Scores of All Time”), the critically acclaimed score is heavy on atmospheric synth sounds, but features an added injection of throbbing club music beats; he proudly wears his electronic musical influences on his high fashion sleeve. Fascinating, Refn had cut The neon demon to a temporary score of compositions by psychology composer Herrmann, but Martinez wisely ignored this completely and followed his own impulses to great effect.
There are far too many quality horror scores to give them all proper recognition, let alone great needlepoint horror soundtracks. You’ll never hear “Hip to be Square” or “Blue Moon” again after watching American psycho and the lycanthrope transformation scene in An American werewolf in London.
Obviously, there are many directions a composer can (and should!) take when composing a horror film. The best stand out from the rest of the (were)wolf pack by their innovation, their ability to make the most of the sometimes limited resources at their disposal, and their willingness to take risks. Others help ground the viewer in a character’s perspective, whether it’s the archetypal final girl or the antagonist stalking the film’s footage.
As O’Holleran says, “In terms of memorable horror movie scores, they work best when they subconsciously connect you to the character.”
The beautiful thing about the horror genre is how wildly divergent it can be adapted. Don’t be afraid to have your Halloween party playlist reflect this diversity. ♦