Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Top Ten Horror Movie Scores

This Top 10 stuff can be fun. I'll think I'll go one more while I've got the energy and forward momentum. Here then is a personal list of favorite horror movie scores. The requirement for consideration was simple. The score had to be an original work composed by an artist(s) for the movie that was released. Compilation soundtracks are strictly verboten! I have emphasized films that contain complete symphonic scores (or at least suites) in addition to some prog-rock, minimalist synth works. The list is generated based on the following criteria:

A. The score's relative importance to progressing the genre and its "fit" with the motion picture. Does the score "work" with the film (by working with it, against it, completely 180 degrees from it, whatever) and does the score add anything remotely "new" to the genre with its use of non-diagetic sound? This criterion is much more objective than the following component:

B. My personal identification with the score. This factor not only emphasizes my own love for these scores, but also surveys a representative sampling of what may be deemed very profound, important, or recognized works.

Right then, off we go:

10. Dawn of the Dead (1978) - Goblin

Executive Producer Dario Argento brought in his tried and true Italian collaborators Goblin to provide the score for Romero's third (out of FIVE! now) segment of his ongoing "Dead" series. The result is fantastic. Goblin's score is desolate and creepy; providing a very uneasy sense of dread and claustrophobia that permeates the film. The cues have become so iconic that a few measures can easily cause Pavlovian salivation - as was the effect on me when I fist saw Shaun of the Dead. Edgar Wright knowingly and nudgingly used this cue during his credit preamble. My friends and I just flagged each other with knowing glances, like lighthouses. We loved it. The score resides in the number 10 spot because the music works beautifully within the structure of the film and not so much as a stand-alone score. The cues don't lend themselves to repeated listening, unless perhaps you are barricaded in a fucking shopping mall and have hordes of zombies outside - then, by all means, blare it from the loudspeakers all damn day.

9. Horror of Dracula (1958) - James Bernard

James Bernard's music is knotted into the fiber of Hammer's identity. Unravel it a bit and the whole skein will fray. Hammer reinterpreted the literary characters Universal mined for a much more weary post World War II generation. In doing so, they also reinterpreted the sound. Bernard's motifs, lyrical passages, romantic interludes, and brassy staccato bursts, loudly proclaimed HIS specific signature (which often echoed the syllables of the film's title, for eg: DRAC-U-LA). His romanticism (built largely from his formal, classical training and education) and lyricism were just the right combination for the aesthetic Hammer was developing visually. The fusion really worked. My childhood is riddled with Bernard's energetic melodies. His place in horror film history will, like Count Dracula, live on forever.

8. Halloween (1978) - John Carpenter

Carpenter certainly was the initial all-encompassing creative force behind this franchise. Carpenter stated that the first screening to the execs in charge of production and marketing was a disaster. He then decided he could "save" the film with the score. I don't think the film needed any "saving" whatsoever, it's all there on the screen. However, the score does add tremendous depth. Carpenter's resulting minimalist score is an exercise in the "simplest strategy is the most effective strategy" school of composition. The score is, in reality, a page from Herrmann's technique of short, staccato cells, that repeat ad infinitum and imprint themselves neatly into our consciousness (North by Northwest, Sisters, and Cape Fear immediately come to mind in this regard). These musical statements are never forgotten and also perform the dual function of acting as a leitmotif for heralding a character's presence. Carpenter went on to score many of his films after Halloween - but it's for Halloween that his musical talents are most remembered.

7. Deep Red (1975) - Goblin

This is not only Argento's first real masterpiece, but Goblin's too. The synergy between composers and director was certainly honed to a perfection in Suspiria (1977), but I'll hang with Deep Red's chilling and disturbing melodies as the benchmark between these two creative talents. Deep Red is a prog rock nightmare/dream come true. Unlike Dawn of the Dead, Deep Red virtually commands repeated listening. Moody and atmospheric fugue-like cues propelled with hip, funky percussions provide the center for this score. Even the childish nursery rhyme that intercuts with the main theme is horribly unsettling (as it's meant to be). This is a monumental score for a monumental film - Bach would've been proud!

6. The Fly (1986) - Howard Shore

*SPOILERS* contained herein:
Howard Shore and David Cronenberg have had a long and impressive collaborative relationship, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, etc. For me, however, their greatest work together was 1986's The Fly. Whoooa nelly! There's too much to say about the film, so let's just get to Shore's operatic opus. A score without enough stones would simply be crushed under the weight of Cronenberg's abject re-visioning of this 1958 classic. So, Shore delivers a score that not only stands up to the film but significantly adds layers of meaning and depths of emotion to this, essentially, Greek tragedy. The last scene of the film and the music the accompanies it are just about TOO MUCH. Just as Geena Davis is saying/thinking the same thing No, no, I can't, this is too much - Shore is relentlessly giving us TOO MUCH too. Too much operatic/Wagnerian dark stuff of nightmares. The scene unhinges me - thanks in great measure to Shore's re-working of his earlier cue "The Plasma Pool." There is NO DENOUEMENT to this film, she blows Brundle-Fly's head off and the fucking credits roll. Unbelievable. I gotta mention this. I showed this film for a year straight to my History of Film classes (as a perfect document of the 80s) and MY GOD, they were just utterly speechless. Not only the ultimate abject gross out movie, but also one of the all-time bummer endings - you're knocked completely senseless and in tears to boot! Cronenberg and Shore are one of the all-time great teams.

5. Carrie (1976) - Pino Donaggio

The film marked a beginning for several distinguished talents. First and foremost, Stephen King and Brian De Palma; King's first novel shot him into a fabled sort of stardom and De Palma - yearning for the respect that his peers had earned - finally got a major critical and box-office hit. Donaggio's score is one of the most eerie and powerful scores ever composed for a horror film. From the melancholy, at times almost bucolic, bittersweetness of the Theme from Carrie to the ominous ambient moog and synth textures of School in Flames, the score never fails to entrance, illicit great pathos, and scare the shit out of you. Another highlight is I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love someone Like Me - performed by Amy Irving's sister Katie. Her breathy and sweet rendering of the vocals ALONG with Spacek's unbelievable physical acting (just look at her when she fumbles the kiss during this song - AMAZING!) make for a dizzying and vortexish (not a word I am sure, vortex like then) dance at the prom. All the more fitting since Carrie White brings the whole shit house down shortly afterwards. One also has to admire the intertextual nods that both Donnagio pays to Herrmann and De Palma pays to Hitchcock. Fantastic.

4. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Franz Waxman

Franz Waxman delivered one of the first, complete, fully-developed scores for a motion picture ever. In an era when original film music was sparse and also light, The Bride of Frankenstein is a ten course meal of musical food. This score was a major leap forward in film music composition, it's influence is still felt today. A tear always wells up when Dr. Pretorius proclaims, "The Bride of Frankenstein" and Waxman's wedding bells swell layered in front of the main theme. It's one of the greatest moments in cinema history. The score is a tour-de-force of creativity and originality - providing themes for the Monster, Pretorius, the Bride - etc. In the Old Blind Hermit scene, where we have Christ analogies being drawn, Waxman beautifully captures the isolation, loneliness, and the beauty in their budding friendship. "Friend? Good?" The most iconic horror movie - certainly in Universal's library - arguably in cinema history - thanks in large part to Franz Waxman.

3. Psycho (1960) - Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann. The mere mention of this maverick's name brings a shiver to the spine. Along with Numbers 2 and 1 below, Herrmann's music advanced the genre. Feeding off of his own and Hitchcock's love of gothic thrillers - these two Titans of terror developed (what would become known as Hitchcock's "pure cinema" technique) a cinematic short-hand that proved extremely formidable. It has been told that Hitchcock's brutal firing of Herrmann over 1966's Torn Curtain was, in large part, due to the fact that Herrmann's contributions to Hithcock's work was becoming too enormous and too iconic. Very sad. If you can track down a copy of "Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann" - you will be very rewarded for your efforts. I remember when it came out (and was nominated for an Academy Award as well), I had recorded it off of PBS and then a few years ago (12-13 years later!) dumped it onto DVD for teaching purposes (great for Intro to Film). It is an incredible documentary - profiling and delving deep into the psyche of the man whose first score was Citizen Kane and last was Taxi Driver. A true genius.

2. Jaws (1975) - John Williams

I don't think that I can add anything significant (in terms of analysis) to the most identifiable two note intro to any film ever made. Seriously, "I can name that film in two notes" is very appropriate here. One of the things I truly love about Williams' score are the nautical flourishes it brandies about . Williams really is channeling (as he often did) the spirit of Korngold - morphing Jaws, at times, into a brilliant swashbuckling pirate movie, complete with (Y'aarrr) sea chanties - "Farewell and adieu to you fare Spanish ladies..." It is one of the most enjoyable and exciting soundtracks ever released. The tracks have been fully released and restored with the Anniversary Edition pictured above. It is a must have for any music or film or music from film lover. BUY IT! And, talk about a collective conscious - I'm watching game 6 of the Stanley cup finals as I write this and they ARE PLAYING THE JAWS theme right now; the most predatory musical cue ever written. Brilliant. I never, ever, grow tired of Jaws (in fact, I'm mentioned on the Wikipedia entry for the film) or it's score. I've yet to do my Gone to Bed on Jaws, but it is in my top 3 all-time favorite movies. I've always said it was the most "important" film of the modern era, and without John Williams on the bridge, at the helm of the orchestra - I would not make that claim.

1. The Omen (1976) - Jerry Goldsmith

So Primal. So Powerful. The only score that I have ever had people tell me to turn off because it was upsetting them. Wow. That's power. In my opinion, The Omen rates a very very few small (almost imperceptible) notches above Williams' Jaws, and Herrmann's Psycho (I'd be tempted to make it a three way tie). And I would - but for one small, but significant, reason. Goldsmith's score perfects everything that had come before it. The culmination of decades worth of forward momentum, creativity, ingenuity, and inspired genuis come to a head with this film and its score. Consider, Goldsmith makes great use of the theological and religious themes of the narrative by incorporating Latin chant and choral pieces. This, in and of itself became an incredibly influential strategy for the genre. Additionally, while Goldsmith terrifies and unsettles us he also enchants us with a beautifully conceived love theme. And I mean beautiful. It's shocking how gorgeous a melody it is and how subtly it is re-worked into small minor statements - played by a solitary piano - but now it is a signifier of terror and doom. Brilliant. It's hard to believe, but Goldsmith actually outdoes HIMSELF with his score to The Final Conflict which is even a grander statement than his work on The Omen! I believe this is the most influential horror movie score of the modern era and see fit to place it at number one. I saw Jerry Goldsmith at the Fox Theater in Detroit several years ago (also fortunate enough to catch Henry Mancini at Meadowbrook around 1990) and I will forever treasure the memory. The maestro is missed - there will never be another Jerry Goldsmith (240 films). Every damn one special. One Oscar (out of seventeen nominations) - guess which film he won for.

Very Honorable Mentions:
The Dead Zone (1983) - Michael Kamen. Kamen's score for David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone is a triumph. Talk about hitting the baton out of the park first time at bat - this was Kamen's first original score for a motion picture and boy does it deliver. It is, all at once, haunting, chilling, romantic, dreamy, subdued, and at times otherworldly (to mesh with Johnny's second sight). The romantic theme "Lost Love" is very painful and the now "Kamenesque" second sight phrasing of "The Dead Zone" main title is very very haunting. 1994 saw Milan's release of the cd which is long out of print. A re-issue is waaaaaaaaaay overdue. Incidentally this is my second favorite Stephen King novel - heartbreaking, painful, very sad.

Dracula (1979) - John Williams. Williams delivers a fully symphonic, highly romanticized, epic score to John Badham's 1979 variation of the Dracula mythology. Much like the film, Williams' approach is to emphasize the exoticism and foreign otherness of our Transylvania invader. Often treating him as a sympathetic hero (this was a misinterpretation of Langella's - in no place does Stoker ever try to evoke sympathy for his Count, he is at all times a monstrous threat, not a misunderstood hero). Once again, as with Jaws, Williams is reinterpreting the genre from an outsider's perspective. This results in a fully symphonic score - and one that damn near made the top 10. It's that good.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - Wojciech Kilar. Kilar's approach, like Williams before him is to accentuate a highly romanticized version of the Count - taking advantage of Hart and Coppola's "reincarnation" horseshit. Kilar incorporates incredibly realized Eastern European flourishes which are felt in the major themes as well as the major romantic themes, which are gentle and very beautiful. In stark contrast are the brass and bass heavy marches of the Vampire Hunters, which have been used in dozens and dozens of movie trailers. The last two pieces of the film, Love Eternal and Ascension are two of the finest cues I have ever heard in a film, horror or otherwise. A favorite of fellow countryman Roman Polanski's, Kilar is a profoundly deep-thinking composer.

Orca - (1977) - Ennio Morricone. I'll be honest with you. When I finally got a hold of this disc a couple of years ago - I was going through a tough time. Memories of the film, memories associated with the film, and the tough road I was currently on - made me seriously break down and cry. The score is exquisite and classic Morricone, filled with siren-like vocals and chilling, haunting melodies. The lyrics to the achingly sad theme of the two whales "We are one, cried my love, let me lead you through the stillness of the night, deliver dawn's first light, my love" - man, it got me (even though the song is cut from the release), the melody is there. I can't listen to the score anymore. But, you should.

House of Frankenstein (1944) - Hans J. Salter (with Paul Dessau). This amazing score is essentially a Symphonie Fantastique. It is filled with crazy, hyper, thrilling compositons. The Main Titles alone provide enough frenetic statements for a dozen Universal Monster all-star extravaganzas. Crazy brass, furious strings, xylophones approximating skeleton bones, passionate woodwinds, and musical themes for the major characters are what you will be treated to when listening to this AMAZING piece of work. Most highly recommended!!!!

Gods and Monsters (1998) - Carter Burwell. Carter Burwell's Gods and Monsters is ridiculously haunting and sad. Chronicling the life of legendary and openly gay director James Whale, director Bill Condon (using Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein) take some creative liberties connecting the dots of Whale's life, but get the tone and point of it all absolutely spot on. This score haunted me for weeks. It is genius - it is also extremely postmodern in its designs: Intertextual nods to Waxman (tonal cues, open ended cadences), using Waltzes (which works unbelievably well) for tracking painful memories, and so on. The last cue "Friend?" - where we find Brendan Fraser start to walk down an alley - and then suddenly begin to mimic the steps of Karloff's Monster blew my mind for days. Profoundly haunting.

Sleepy Hollow (1999) - Danny Elfman. Stunningly beautiful and lyrically complex (a choir & boy sopranoist solos) Elfman's hugely symphonic score to Sleepy Hallow is, in my estimation, his second greatest achievement (just below A Simple Plan). Remarkably complex, less imitative of Herrmann, and with utterly incredible action cues, Elfman (at that point in his career) had reached a maturity that was inevitable. His refinement has continued since 1999 - so as to emerge as one of cinema's elder statesman. I adore this movie and the score is absolutely sublime. The closing track "A New Day" is old Elfman at his best - magical.

I know that's a lot of honorable mentions, but I feel very strongly about them not being in the top ten. Lastly, major props to Harry Manfredini for his theme to the Friday the 13th franchise - a wonderful calling card for horror's all-time killing champ
also, to Nightmare on Elm Street's composer Charles Bernstein for his equally iconic, dreamy cue. Last shout out goes to Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab for their Vampyros Lesbos - but, I'm too tired to write any more.

Well, I've got a dissertation to write. I'll be back in several days... And, The Red Wings WON!


Bill Courtney said...


Great post. Very informative. Music of course because something that can be utterly subjective, and yet I think most of find enough common ground for there to be some objective criteria for discussion. i.e., John Lennon wrote some great songs. Milli Vanilli never wrote any great songs.

I feel that in horror films the score become almost more important than in most over genres. I cannot think of much off the top of my head. I would add the Exorcist, but the small sample from Michael Oldfield was not composed for the film I believe. I liked the score Carpenter did for his remake of The thing as well.

I might add the minimalist score for Candyman by Philip Glass as well, but only because I like Glass. He also scored The Secret garden with Johny Depp as well as scored Dracula with Lugosi (the 1st time the film was scored I think). The music was performed by the Kronos Quartet and I am not sure how I liked it scored with the film, but I like the music on its own.

I am trying to download the complete recording and tribute to Goblin over eMule, but man it is sloooooow. I don't know how to do all the fancy settings to get the speed up.

Anyway, all this is off the top of my head and I usually need to research a bit to jog my tattered memory.

Good post. Lots of work involved. The use of the album covers was effective and I save album cover art here and am planning some pages around album art, like the stuff by Roger dean or what came out of the Hipgnosis company in the 70's.


Bill Courtney said...


Sorry to write so much. I just thought of the effective score for the first couple Re-Animater films as well. I am not sure if that was a score that was exclusively compoed for the film, but it was a score that provided horror as well as comedy.

I do some music (do you?) myself and am learning to record onto my PC. I have done some "soundtrack" experiments and will send you some samples via email one day.

JMR said...

yet again, another amazing post. i can't disagree with any of the films listed.

although, i've never seen "carrie". this is due to the fact that, when i was in grade school, i once an ad for the film in tv guide (it was debuting on channel 50 at the time) that showed sissy spacek covered in pig's blood with her hands held up and FREAKING OUT. this, of course, scared the living shit out of me and scarred me. i have never been able to bring myself to see it. trust me, i have no doubt of its prowess. it's just one of those things.

to this list, i would add goblin's score to suspiria. this, in my opinion, is a seminal piece of work. the film would not work without it. (i suspect that this would also be on your list had you not already put two of their scores on there.) also, the soundtrack to alien is quite good (even though mr. goldsmith had quite a lot of friction with ridley scott and terry rawlings). wendy carlos' score to the shining is also brilliant.

i just might have to come up with a few top ten lists of my own.

gilligan said...

You've listed some good quality stuff here - how can you argue with the inclusion of The Omen or Halloween on a list of great horror soundtracks?

I'd like to see a list of some really bad moments in horror movie music. A few come to mind: (1) the Halloween rip-off theme for Phantasm (although, it is kind of catchy), (2) the amazingly bad band "Two Out of Three Doctors" in the film "House on Sorority Row", and (3)"Dream Warriors" by Dokken!easily the worst of all time from some A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.

I seem to remember DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince doing a Freddy movie as well, but I can't remember the name.

Chick Young said...

Hey guys - many many thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed it. I put a lot of thought into the ranking and honorable mentions. Thanks again Bill, Joe and Gil!

Anonymous said...

I have always enjoyed Williams pieces. I have recently started looking at his potential influences. The Jaws theme is very similar to parts of Waxman's Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde (1941) Suite and some of the themes in Star wars are similar to those in Tchaikovsky's: Swan Lake. I have excerpts from many of the soundtracks you mentioned, but did not feel comfortable with The Omen as I did not want my children listening to Hail the Antichrist, but themes about monsters and mass murderers were OK.