The sudden flicker in your peripheral vision. The half-seen shadow that glides across the screen. A killer's knife raised, slashing and violent. Horror films rely on a host of tricks to scare audiences, using all kinds of visuals to make you easily believe that the director's dark and frightening vision is entirely possible. But horror films would be nothing without their scores and soundtracks.
Some of those ghostly sounds are so recognizable that they instantly bring us back to the first terror-filled time we saw the film. The Jaws theme is so well-known that humming only a few bars while at the beach brings to mind a giant shark just out of sight beneath the waves. And who could ever forget the Psycho screeching violins? Even a few bars of the iconic Halloween theme can bring us back immediately to the first time and place that we saw the film.
We've skipped over those obvious entries, and while it's impossible for every film to create iconic sounds and songs that lodge eternally in the mind of the viewer, here are our picks for the best horror scores that have stood the test of time.
Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, The Shining (1980)
One of the most psychological horror films deserved a score that matched it intellectually. While director Stanley Kubrick went for classical music and themes throughout, the work of electronic composers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind graced the theme and various other moments throughout the film. In the theme, organ music lilts eerily, bringing to mind the deserted hallways and ancient mysteries of the empty Overlook Hotel where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has brought his family to stay for the winter. When strange events begin to occur, the possibility of escape seems impossible, and this is elegantly mirrored in the music. There are elements of the medieval, and as far as setting a tone, this may be one of the best on the list: fear and perfection in musical form.
Howard Shore, The Brood (1979)
From David Cronenberg comes the disgusting story of a disturbed woman who gives birth to a horde of murderous psychoplasmic midgets who do her bidding. But the film would be less terrifying without the expansive score by Howard Shore, his first feature film score and first collaboration with Cronenberg. Entirely a product of the late '70s, it's easy to hear the influences of the decade and the future-focused sound as well. Endless wailing violins, building up as something terse and axe-like chops through the lingering music, even paying homage to Psycho at times. Absolute dissonance gives you no idea what to expect; every time your mind seeks out a pattern in the music, it changes again. The unique lurching sounds and uneasy aura make it easy to see why the score has survived as a classic.
Goblin, Suspiria (1977)
A weird film requires a weird soundtrack, and the tale of a ballet studio overrun with witches is certainly bizarre. The progressive Italian rock band Goblin handled the score for this horror flick directed by Dario Argento, and have contributed quite a bit of music to his projects since then. Space-age sounds echo along with the human voice, melting into hot guitar tracks and spirited keyboard solos. Definitely one of the wildest soundtracks, and most spacelike, this unique take on a horror score has earned a permanent place in the original-score hall of fame. If only more horror films were scored by rock bands, we might have a whole new take on classic horror themes. For now, we'll settle for Goblin and their fantastic work.
Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Unsettling, nerve rattling and gut churning, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was revolutionary in many ways, not least of all the score. For a film that set the entire horror genre on a new and bloody course, nothing but pure originality in sound and music would do. Irregular sounds echo noisily as a wailing chainsaw shrills nearby, forming the chilling musical backbone of one of the most successful horror films of all time. Director Tobe Hooper and composer/sound designer Wayne Bell worked together, creating the searing soundscape of this low-budget nightmare. While it would be many years before noise and experimental music found more of a following in the United States, this score was a definite departure from the standard overblown horror score of the 1970s.
Kryzystof Komeda, Rosemary's Baby (1968)
This tale of a mother (Mia Farrow) living in fear that her unborn child is in grave danger as the world begins to crumble around her, is perfectly paired with the gentle and harrowing score from longtime Roman Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda. This score is ingrained with a sense of uneasiness and dread, as is the requisite with all horror films, but Polanski's film is notable for being focused more intensely on psychological horror, paranoia and body horror. This theme is almost beautiful at times, all the while being still intensely creepy as the female voice lilts over the top of it, singing a gently but eerie lullaby. A haunting reminder that simplicity often serves more purpose than overblown theatrics, whether in film or music.
Whether a new batch of horror-film scores will rise up to take the place of these classics has yet to be seen, but we're always ready to listen to worthy contenders scare us senseless and serenade us with the sounds of horror.
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