Every self proclaimed fan of horror cinema is familiar with certain musical scores of the genre that have pervaded the public consciousness and gone on to become staples of the particular art. John Carpenter’s Halloween, Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen, and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho are all more or less immortal. Even novices to the genre will hum the opening bars of John Williams’ Jaws when trying to freak out their friends during a day at the beach. Many of these compositions; lyrical, moving, and powerfully frightening have transcended horror, and are in their own rights classical pieces of music. Some, however; have remained in relative obscurity; and while their composers have gone on to varying degrees of success, the scores themselves are often times glossed over when reviewing the best of the best. But in the interest of recognizing some of the most chilling, menacing, singular, alternately baroque and beautiful horror film scores the genre has to offer, they will be included here.
While it’s true that the film itself was nothing short of a financial giant, for some reason James Newton Howard’s phenomenally eerie score for M. Night Shymalan’s aliens in the cornfield summer blockbuster, “Signs”, is very rarely given it’s due credit. From the film’s opening titles, Howard establishes an atmosphere of almost palpable dread riding on the strings of a scathing chorus of violins. As the slyly elusive threat of encroaching alien invasion becomes increasingly suffocating, so does Howard’s score, adding rich bass notes and threateningly brazen brass horns. It’s a score at once thrilling and deceptively sweet, in the mold of some of Herrmann’s best work for Hitchcock, a comparison I doubt Howard or Shyamalan would object to.
Fans of Dario Argento know full well how potently the musical element contributes to his nightmare worlds, as has been generously acknowledged in his collaborations with rock band Goblin on such works as Suspiria and Deep Red. For his first few giallos, however; Argento was working with the masterful Ennio Morricone, and they happened to work together tremendously well. In his astonishingly artful genre debut, Argento created a seductive and venomous environment with shockingly deadly trappings, accented perfectly by Morricone’s frightfully discordant, jazzy composition. The best track has a child like chorus of soft voices singing playfully in juxtaposition with an art curator’s tale of an ominous painting.
The entirety of this film is never spoken of highly enough. From a series of subtly nuanced performances from a troupe of A-List thesps, to the gorgeous autumnal cinematography of Victor J. Kemper, to the downright creep factor of Fats the ventriloquist dummy, there isn’t a sour note in the whole production. The very same can be said of genre vet Jerry Goldsmith’s gleefully menacing score. Featuring a particularly evil sounding harmonica, it’s a fractured series of musical progressions that perfectly convey the quiet insanity unfolding on screen. Just listen to the way Goldsmith confidently integrates the main theme throughout the body of the film, using it to such striking effect each and every time. It’s the trademark of a true master.
I can’t say enough about Coraline, suffice to say that it is the best horror movie for both kids and adults to come out since Joe Dante scared the wits out of unsuspecting kiddies with Gremlins back in 1984. Just as impressively, French composer Bruno Coulais combined various European dialects and refreshingly unconventional composition to bring to the screen the musical equivalent of a dream, or more accurately, a nightmare. Especially terrifying is his track entitled “The Amazing Mr. B”, a cacophonous orchestration that will revert even the most steadfast horror fan to a state of infantile discomfort, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Pino Donaggio is one of the biggest horror genre underdogs in the business. Despite his delicately intelligent work on such films as Carrie, The Howling, and the grossly underappreciated Tourist Trap, he never really rose above B-status. It’s a shame, because his work on Nicholas Roeg’s achingly beautiful Don’t Look Now is a challenging masterpiece that rivals, and actually surpasses, a great deal of the stuff to come from Hollywood’s A-listers. A parent’s loss is perfectly encapsulated in his softly tragic main theme, and the way in which it is used alongside the film’s shockingly brutal finale is nothing short of genius.
Every horror fan knows that Creepshow is a ton of fun, a horror lover’s playhouse, a veritable ode to the genre and its various incarnations; and part of the reason for that is John Harrison’s delightfully cornball film score. There’s a totally singular series of almost inexpressible emotions that he elicits from his striking use of synthesizer, Theremin, and choir. Each story in the gruesome, giggly anthology has its own perfectly suited theme, and the main overture is horror fun house incarnate. The entire score is an absolute joy and should be required listening around Halloween.
Shirley Walker is perhaps the unsung hero of film music, having served as the conductor on several of Danny Elfman’s most memorable scores, later taking over as the composer of the majority of “Batman: the Animated Series” lively accompaniments. With Glen Morgan’s remake of “Willard”, starring the always bewildering Crispin Glover, she created a creepy, kooky tour de force highlighted with heavy brass and an extremely powerful central melody. On the whole, the incredibly uneven but undeniably earnest production is a difficult film to immerse oneself in; but Walker’s score is a rousing endeavor unto itself, well worth checking out.
There is a predominant feeling of extreme loneliness, a terrible isolation in Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. It is this loneliness that the always reliable Hans J. Salter chooses to accentuate in his heart rending, boldly tragic score. There is a sense of shock and wonder in our central protagonists situation as well, one that grows as his condition worsens, becoming ever and ever smaller, making it increasingly impossible to relate to the established world around him. The fact that studio work horse Salter was precocious enough to incorporate these themes so readily into his score is one of the many reasons “Incredible Shrinking Man” stands as a towering monument of the genre, surpassing most expectations of sci-fi pulp.
Silvestri is no stranger to dark fantasy, and with Robert Zemeckis’ mostly forgotten ghouls and gags gem “Death Becomes Her”, he delivers a crackpot mixture of pitch black irony and paralyzing jolts to rival Zemeckis’ eye popping sight gags in the tale of two perfectly vain femme fatale rivals who go on competing for the upper hand even in death. The jarring horns and pulsing strings typical of his orchestrations are put to perfect use here, making every bizarre turn of events that much more viciously amusing. For good measure he adds a generous helping of old Hollywood bombastics to act as an introspective satire not seen in most special effects laden event pictures of the time.
“The Wicker Man” has been referred to as the “Citizen Kane” of horror movies. In all fairness I’d say it’s more like the “French Connection” of horror movies, introducing a raw quality to the proceedings never before seen up to that point. Whatever your opinion on the matter, there is no denying that Paul Giovanni’s song score was something completely new, and entirely effective. The Celtic inspired tunes, ranging from the joyous to the sensuous, are disturbingly atypical, transporting us to a place as strange and extrinsic as the music itself. Giovanni created the very sound of Summerisle, where the seemingly innocent was masking a truth beyond your most paranoid nightmares.