By: Jonathan Patrick
Halloween should be filled with good, albeit strange, music. Horror film soundtracks provide the most suitable gateway to such enjoyment. From grotesque to gorgeous, these represent our ten favorite offerings (in reverse order). Enjoy.
10. Rosemary's Baby
Composer: Krzysztof (Christopher) Komeda
In keeping with Polanski's eerily disarming, slow-to-unravel direction, jazz legend Krzysztof Komeda's score for Rosemary's Baby is beautifully fragile and subtle–more like easing into a warm bath than being hurdled into a spit. Anchored by the now iconic lilting female-sung lullaby, Komeda's work is constructed from airy jazz passages and stylish, almost gothic orchestration. Surprisingly, '60s pop even makes an appearance, though tastefully framed on both sides by shadowy instrumentation and demonic chants. Though Polanski and Komeda had collaborated before (Knife in the Water, The Fearless Vampire Killers, etc), this was the climax of their artistic relationship.
9. Dracula (1931)
Composer: Philip Glass
In typical Glass fashion, the Dracula score is hyper-minimal. Composed by Glass (1999) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, the composition is not particularly scary, but it's immensely mesmerizing in a fashion that perfectly compliments Dracula's elegant cinematography. In keeping with the 19th century aesthetic, Glass uses a string quartet to amass a work that is both graceful and bewitchingly cerebral. The skeletal music dances about a general thematic center, expanding and contracting on an axis that uniquely mirrors the arc and close of the film's narrative. Every aspect of the structure hits just right, revealing Glass' considered approach to music making. Soundtracks don't get much prettier than this.
8. Marquis De Sade: Justine
Composer: Bruno Nicolai
Bruno Nicolai's score for Jess Franco's film adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's Justine is one of the strangest soundtracks in existence. While not strictly a horror film by traditional understanding, this erotic thriller certainly deserves to chart on this list. Instilling a mood of druggy sex, the Justine score plays out like a work of psychedelic lounge music. Structurally, it's a landscape of hypnotic voices and streaming aqueous coloring, all grounded in a bedrock of eastern flourishes and disjointed, jazzy arrangements. At times, on this masterwork, Nicolai – longtime friend and protégé of Ennio Morricone – outshines even the master.
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Composers: Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell
With the film on a shoestring budget, director Tobe Hooper decided it would be necessary to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre score in house. Alongside musical aide Wayne Bell, Hooper chose to eschew traditional score components – such as themes, melodies, and, hell, anything resembling a song – in favor of a highly textured, non-musical patchwork of sound. What resulted was a disorienting mélange of improvisational clamor, analog tape effects, found sounds, and, yes, chainsaw growls. This near-tangible collection of “music” is every bit as gritty and stomach churning as the grotesque visuals they were meant to accompany on screen. Even when divorced from the context of the movie, the soundtrack is alarmingly effective, imparting a sickening feeling of claustrophobia, a sensation hinged on the score's macabre juxtaposition of industrial noise and organic sounds.
6. Lizard In a Woman's Skin
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Forgoing the typical synth-heavy horror score palette, here, Morricone chose an avant garde bent, a sound equally informed by modern classical and world music influences. Sounding at times not unlike Miles Davis' fusion opus On the Corner, The Lizard in a Woman's Skin score is a serpentine collage of droning high-pitched strings, nature chatter, grooved percussions, unnerving whistles, and the haunting vocals of regular Morricone collaborator Edda Dell' Orso. Shrill tonal shrieks and odd instrumental selections are buttressed by remarkably beautiful respites–often delivered in the form of emotionally hefty piano laments.
Composer: David Lynch and Alan Splet
These aren't notes composed for film. This is un-music. An ambient mishmash of sound effects and sampled organ (Fats Waller) meant to enhance a surreal, ineffably dark narrative. Marked by a black-noise of sooty textures and crunchy sound-design, Lynch's and Splet's Eraserhead score conjures images of an industry-damaged wasteland–the groaning echoes and low-end whirls of a world chewing itself apart. An imaginative use of oddly chosen tools, including things such as glass tubing and engine parts, allowed the two masterminds to build one of the most esoterically rarified soundscapes in music history. It all culminates with the unsettling “In Heaven,” the most crystalline example of David Lynch's nightmarish romanticism.
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Blood-curdling timing and screeching violins, these two things changed film music forever. Against Hitchcock's wishes, Bernard Herrmann scored what was to be a silent scene: Psycho's shower murder. After Hermann's bold move, soundtrack music was no longer seen, primarily, as a background feature to film, but rather as an integral component, fully capable of carrying dramatic burden and delivering additional emotional depth. Mere wallpaper music no more, film music was not so subtly catapulted into infamy with Herrmann's effectively monochromatic string-only Pyscho score. In one foul swoop, Hermann's composition helped make showers everywhere the most frightening places on earth. Hell, if it weren't for those horrid, bird-like screams striping every knife-slash, I would've endured infinitely less shampoo-burnt eyes in my lifetime.
Composer: John Williams
What more can be said on this one? Is there a more universally recognized horror theme? Williams' famous pressure-cooker score will be forever chained to the images and mounting dread of Spielberg's relentless, man-hungry leviathan. To write a piece so immediately classic, so instantly canonical, and yet totally devoid of popular-yielding compromise, was an impossible stroke of genius. Those panicked, tuba bellows helped set in motion the birth of a newly found fear of the ocean. It's a terror that has trickled down endlessly, a terror that is perpetually reborn in each new generation. How's that for influential? Here, in these moments, Williams is utterly flawless, a master of horror onto himself.
2. The Shining
Composers: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind, Kryzsztof Penderecki,
Gyorgi Ligeti, Bela Bartok
While comprised almost entirely of pre-existing material, the music on The Shining soundtrack contains some of the most radical and psychologically hellish pieces ever written. Many of these modernist compositions are considered amongst the greatest works of the 20th century. Needless to say, it's weighty stuff. Initially, director Stanley Kubrick commissioned an original electronic score from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, but later discarded most of their efforts in favor of high-art compositions by avant garde giants like Pendrecki, Ligeti, and Bartok. Every moment is a masterstroke; Kubrick knew his music. There's the nerve-searing instrumental wails and flickering madness of Penderecki's “Polymorphia;” and the piercing atonality of Ligeti's “Lontano.” But, perhaps most memorable, are the needling strings and swelling bass of Bartok's “Music for Strings, Percussion, N Celesta”–an unshakable masterpiece that epitomizes the spectral enigma of Kubrick's timeless film.
The loudest horror film score is also the best. Once described as the sound of “500 cats having their tails trampled on in unison,” the deafening Suspiria score is a cacophonous inferno of oscillating synth gurgles, piercing bells, and unholy echoes. The Italian prog-rockers sound is bigger than big and red all over–the visual equivalent of screaming planets, tumbling like molten boulders, shaking every sense in your head. Italian master of horror Dario Argento could not have asked for a better compliment to his notorious, technicolor slasher. This near-unbearable audio assault, one heard, can never be forgotten again.
The Exorcist main theme: “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
Next of Kin: Music by Klaus Schulze
Nosferatu the Vampyr: Score by Popul Vuh
Cannibal Holocaust: Score by Riz Ortolani
Halloween main theme: an annoying earworm to an even blander film. This shit sucks.