We all know the power of music. How it fills our souls with joy, pumps us up, or tears us down. For the horror genre, nothing works quite like a robust soundtrack to enhance the suspense and mayhem on screen.
Many can quickly recall the theme from PSYCHO (1960), JAWS (1975), HALLOWEEN (1978), and even FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), but what about the rest of the score?
Movies with music that can carry the entire film beyond a few notes to arouse our senses are key. Otherwise, a soundtrack either becomes forgettable, or gets in the way of the narrative. Yet, the score should marry seamlessly to the entire picture as if had always been a part of the whole.
Quite often, this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Thinking back over the nearly 1,500 horrors I’ve watched, only nine stand out for how well they’ve captured the essence of the film. Here are my favorites:
KWAIDAN (Japan, 1964)
In this anthology of four tales, Toru Takemitsu brings us sparse and ethereal music to highlight each story. Both subtle and mesmerizing, Takemitsu creates an aura for each distinct tale, as if every move from a character ends in an exclamation point, thus keeping the audience on edge. The grand composer had wowed audiences from HARIKIRI (1962) to RAN (1985) to RISING SUN (1993) for nearly forty years. Most chilling is his work in the KWAIDAN segment, “Hochi the Earless” whose biwa and traditional singing call out a ghostly leader and his court. Each note proves to be a suspenseful call to alarm that keeps one from taking a breath as we wait to learn of Hochi’s fate.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (UK, 1973)
The trio of Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and Dudley Simpson conspire to unleash an often fast paced pounding as if a heart ravaged by terror. The notes drive the audience to fear every move, every word, and every scene. Even when the music bubbles like something ready to emerge from beneath the waves, we can’t help but feel the underlying force push against our need for a respite. Instead, we’re carried along, almost unwillingly, into Hell House to strive for life like the characters. The rhythmic score will remain with you long after the credits roll.
LIFEFORCE (UK/USA, 1985)
Henry Mancini’s powerful and uplifting score reminds us that LIFEFORCE is not just another science fiction horror, but an action adventure as well. The orchestral pieces are full of vigor, and blast us through the narrative and its subsequent mystery. Best known for his PINK PANTHER (1963) theme, Mancini is not afraid to unleash his dark side. Better still, his composition is a call for action that enhances quiet, unworldly romantic moments, as well as riveting chase scenes. Tobe Hooper’s movie may leave some horror films disappointed, but for those who love the film, Mancini’s score only adds to the majesty of this intriguing vampire tale.
THE HUNGER (UK, 1983)
In Tony Scott’s first film, he had a vision for tone and atmosphere, enhanced by the original music of Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger. Interestingly, what the composers conjure complements every scene, whether it’s hunter versus prey – or lover versus prey. However, to listen to the score alone, in the dark, without visuals, has proven to be one of the creepiest musical experiences of my life. Besides The Resident’s unnerving “Duck Stab” album, and Tony Cora’s disturbing and haunting original instrumental at the end of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), there is nothing more frightening. Using the very best electronics had to offer at the time, the pair traverses between solemn landscapes and tingling bits of intrigue that will leave one rocking in a fetal position.
THE SHINING (UK/USA, 1980)
Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind are responsible for instilling a sense of coming dread from the moment Jack Torrance’s pale yellow Volkswagen begins to climb the Sidewinder towards the Overlook – and his fate. THE SHINING is a horror masterpiece because of its maze-like architecture, acting, atmosphere, and what may be one of the perfect scores of all time. From kettledrums to howling cries, we are caught in Stanley Kubrick’s trap thanks to the composers who play with our nerves as if flaying us with razors. The saddest element is that the women’s work appeared in only eight films, especially when THE SHINING’s score captures the energy of the hotel as well as Jack’s downward spiral, and the snow drenched frost of the outside world.
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (USA/Germany, 1997)
When a movie is a whirlwind of change, from loving moments to sheer demonic rage, it takes a special composer to capture all the transitions without missing a beat. James Newton Howard accomplishes just that. Composer of nearly 139 titles, including PRETTY WOMAN (1990), THE FUGITIVE (1993), and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), his work always complements the story, and stays well out of the way. But his musical prowess shines bright in Taylor Hackford’s film. Whether ensnaring lovemaking and celebration, or suspense and fear, Howard engages the tale head-on, making certain our sensations match the movie perfectly, chord after chord, giving each frame that extra boost.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (South Korea, 2003)
With only nineteen films to his credit, Byung-woo Lee never ceases to disappoint with scores that captivate the senses. Whether it’s cult favorite THE HOST (2006) or THE RED SHOES (2005), Lee’s compositions keep us in the moment while toying with our mind. In A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, his work takes hold of every scene. At times, his piano seems a juxtaposition to what’s happening on screen, and this only enhances the psychological distortion the Jee-woon Kim’s film exploits. Every note’s a powerhouse combined with Mo-gae Lee’s outstanding cinematography. Not only are we caught in the heart of torrential family angst, we also gain better insight into the distorted mind of the main character, Bae Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim). Without Lee’s score, many story subtleties would be lost.
THE THING (1982)
Ennio Morricone, who has composed music for over 500 motion pictures, including many a Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood fueled western, as well as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966) and THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). In John Carpenter’s THE THING, he truly brings the desolation of the Antarctic and the fearful plight of the men at America’s famed McMurdo Station to light. The sparse, bottom end tones of synthesizers, and high-pitched violin strumming, both create an unsettling experience from start to finish. If not for the Roman maestro’s amazing score, the tone and atmosphere of this great horror may not have felt so damn cold.
ALIEN (UK/USA, 1979)
Isolation and desolation are key ingredients for Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, and its ill-fated crew. Composer Jerry Goldsmith celebrated this despair, with pangs of hope and denial, in his orchestra enthused score. From THE OMEN franchise to the GREMLINS films, Goldsmith turns on his light or dark side like a modern day Jekyll and Hyde. In ALIEN, he captures the grand openness of the cosmos, yet reminds us how alone the Nostromo is in a sea of stars, once the team realizes they have dropped a notch on the food chain. His little playful elements are a tease, but that haunting, somber vibe, like a slow boil, keeps us on our toes, and our backs against the bulkhead. Goldsmith’s music reflects the abyss of space – and he simply reminds us that we don’t stand a chance.
THE NINTH GATE (France/Spain, 1999)
You may not recall the name, but you’ve heard Wojciech Kilar’s brilliant musical compositions many times over. From DRACULA (1992) to THE PIANIST (2002), as well as 163 other titles, his work has enraptured us for over fifty years. As soon as Roman Polanski’s severely under-rated THE NINTH GATE opens, we know we’re in for a treat. Kilar’s score is playful and rhythmic, as if we’re on a carousel. Even so, we know this isn’t fun and games – as Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, may think, and we soon realize there is much more sophistication and power to the music than a mere child’s ride. Of all the soundtracks I have ever listened to, none plays in my head more often because this score comes off like a mischievous smile.
Granted, there are many more, such as Fernando Velasquez’s gripping measures in THE ORPHANAGE (Spain/Mexico, 1997), and Hans Zimmer’s unsettling score for THE RING (USA/Japan, 2002), as well as Maurice Jarre’s mind-numbing enthused composition for JACOB’S LADDER (1990). However, the aforementioned have had a grand effect that permeates. Of course, all of the horrors mentioned are excellent films in and of themselves – thanks to the brilliance of the composer to make the visuals dance, sing, and disturb. Rent, watch, and indulge in the sound and vision.
(Photo from DVD Release Dates.)