The Best Horror Movie Scores Of All Time

Let’s not speak of the ridiculous modern day ruse that is Halloween, a capitalist plot by candy corporations to invent a Christmas-like tentpole, and an excuse for adult sluts and drunkards to bare skin, act like sub-mental morons and get laid. Nor shall we discuss the perversion of the horror movie province, once an excellent cinematic genre, now generally turned into a cheap, predictable bang-em-out cash-cow to lure undiscerning sheep into theater seats (see “Saw 17” and that pointless drivel). With that off our chest, horror isn’t what it once used to be and possibly one of the reasons why is the complete eschewing of inspired music choices that helped elevate frightening concepts into something authentically terrifying. Something tonally off-center, unexpected and disarming in the horror genre is all we ask for in regards to memorable scores, and in these following selections lie diamonds in the rough.

Thomas Bangalter — “Irreversible”
From Bangalter, of Daft Punk fame, comes this score, a highly unusual work from, if you stretch the definition, a horror movie in its own right. Gaspar Noe’s haunting story of one night in a tumultuous relationship gone awry takes the beautiful couple of Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci to a party, where Bangalter’s original jams bang throughout the coke-fueled night, but its in the opening and close where the more haunting bits of the score take over. Bangalter’s ominous drones sound not unlike the synthy work in a lost zombie picture from the sixties, creating an artificial sense of unease that hammers home the metacritical aspects of the film as an experience, while also providing inherent chills from the sparse, droning notes.

John Carpenter — “Halloween
One of the most beloved scary film scores is also one of the simplest. “I can play just about any keyboard, but I can’t read or write a note,” says the horror legend, who has shown his mastery of Casio in the majority of his work, crafting some of filmdom’s most memorable dodgy, simplistic scores. He lucked out with the very simple 10/8 progression of “Halloween,” creating a definitive big screen stalking score that, when played, reminds us to always look behind ourselves, lest the shape darken our footsteps.

Krzysztof Komeda —”Rosemary’s Baby”
Roman Polanski’s psychological take on the horror genre was always unnervingly creepy (see “Repulsion”) but eventually a mischievous devilishness started taking over in his style, injecting a sly, yet subtle sense of comedy. The impish strokes were broader in “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” but dialed back ever so slightly for the macabre yet arch, “Rosemary’s Baby,” which calibrated a perfectly queasy pitch and has rightfully gone on to become a horror classic. Utilizing Polish film music composer and jazz pianist, Krzysztof Komeda, “Rosemary’s Baby,” twisted fright cliches with eerie lullabies acting as an incredible, ironic counterpoint to the lunacy on screen. The jazzy, almost sunshine-pop-esque moments are amusing (and chilling in their juxtaposition), but it’s the faux-soothing, cooing motifs, best evinced by the picture’s main theme, that truly inspired this unforgettably sinister touchstone.

More traditional, but still a great contrast to the hilarious insanity therein, Philippe Sarde’s score to Polanski’s “The Tenant” is also deliciously good (what a fucking brilliant work that picture is).

Tangerine Dream — “Sorcerer”
Say what you will about William Friedkin, his tinted-glasses hubris, the possibly very-deserved late ’70s comeuppance and his spotty remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” — an intense thriller about a group of disparate, desperate men hauling unstable nitroglycerine into the perilous jungles of South America to put out an oil fire that threatens to decimate the entire town’s economy — the man knew his music. With “Sorcerer,” Friedkin adapted the French master of suspense’s pins-and-needles drama into a near-psychedelic “Heart of Darkness” journey into madness, thanks in no small part to the creepy, throbbing electronic score by Tangerine Dream. Indeed, the visceral pulsations, like a beating, hurried heart starting to blacken, are so integral to the movie’s success (it’s not perfect, but it is vastly underrated), Friedkin once said, “the film and the score are inseparable.” The director’ tapping the band early on was prescient (it was their first American score), the TD went to to make several more indelible scores for films including, Tom Cruise’s “Risky Business,” “Firestarter,” and Ridley Scott’s “Legend.”

Tubular Bells — “The Exorcist”
What the hell was in William Friedkin’s record collection in the mid ’70s? While every other American film director was smoking grass while listening to Kris Kristofferson or the Stones, the arrogant filmmaker was reveling in his obscurist taste for prog-rock, krautrock and proto-electronic music (and god, did we somehow miss out on scores by Cluster, Harmonia and Faust? Man, dare to dream). Case in point, who would have thought Mike Oldfield’s chiming, experimental Tubular Bells would be the perfect haunting theme for what would go on to be the biggest blockbuster of its time until “Jaws” and “Star Wars” came along. Friedken’s preternatural sense for picking seemingly odd musical choices for his films would serve him well for his remaining and short-lived relevant years (see one of his last masterstrokes, tapping Jack Nitzsche to produce the sleazy score to his scabrous, homophobic serial-killer film, “Cruising”).

Philip Glass — “Candyman”
Bringing a touch of class to the story of an inner city bogeyman was Glass, enlisted to put aside his normal affectations to craft an evocative string-heavy score. Eschewing the overlapping crescendos of his previous work, Glass still uses many of his musical motifs, creating a borderline romantic theme that sounds not unlike the older monster movie scores of yesterday. This score is unavailable, for the record, as the studio only thought to produce a compilation of bits and pieces from the first two films in the “Candyman” series (see the first, even if the second is from Oscar nominee Bill Condon), but if you’re crafty online, you can procure the entire unedited film edit. Also of note is the latter-day score for “Dracula” Glass composed that gives the film an added dimension of elegance.

Krzysztof Penderecki/Wendy Carlos — “The Shining”
Yes, Stanley Kubrick was a genius, but tapping Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960s terrifyingly dense, droning and discordant tone clusters was a masterstroke up there with Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” benchmark score for Hitchock (that titan of music would really need an entire piece dedicated to him to do him any kind justice; the film also uses nightmarish pre-existing cues composed by György Ligeti and Béla Bartók as well). The second maneuver of ingenuity was embracing electronic musician Wendy Carlos’ (post sex-reassignment surgery Walter Carlos, who had already added brilliant musical texture to “Clockwork Orange”) odd baroque, chamber music-like synthesizer score, both actualizing mood and atmosphere, alarming, distressing and paralytically arresting. The film and its phenomenal music moments — including the rather wry use of 1930s jazz crooner Al Bowly — never ceases to raise the hair on the back of our necks and petrify in fear.

Goblin —”Tenebre”
Goblin had carved out a pretty formidable niche for themselves scoring some of the biggest horror films of their era, including much of the material from “Dawn of the Dead” to the unforgettable chime-fueled witch chants of “Suspiria.” But we prefer this highly danceable synth score from Dario Argento’s latter day whodunit, a gory murder mystery with a number of fairly unpredictable twists. The highlight, however, is this wahawaha wahaha wawawawawahawaha drone that carries through the film, a beat that is impossible to resist and bound to turn any horror movie theater into a dance floor. French electronic rockers, Justice, recently sampled the main theme for “Phantom” off their first album, but they kept it fairly untouched, since how do you improve on a groove like that?

Goblin — “Suspiria”
OK, these crepuscular twinkling tintinnabulations are just too good to pass up.

Ennio Morricone — “Exorcist II: The Heretic”
“Exorcist II” is kind of a mess, an ambitious but foolhardy attempt to take one of the most successful horror franchises of all time to a new place. Its attempt to take the spirituality of the first film into a metaphysical direction was met with scorn from most fans of the first (though we recommend Martin Scorsese’s words on the film in Film Comment circa ’78 where he praises the sequel effusively). Still, we credit the decision to eschew the popular theme from the first film and opt for Ennio Morricone’s tribal drums and bass gumbo, echoing the film’s insane desire to flip the script on the established history of the first film. We are always surprised that a modern filmmaker hasn’t found the desire to reintroduce the world to Morricone’s totally rocking “Magic and Ecstasy,” which is sort of like outré bizzaro music for Satan going surfing.

Ennio Morricone —”John Carpenter’s The Thing”
While multi-hyphenate John Carpenter liked to score his own films, his best work probably benefited from his time spent away from the makeshift keyboard in his garage. Turning to the incomparable Morricone, Carpenter ended up with an atypical turn from the prolific Oscar winner, who provided an uneasy edge to the film with a near-silent, constantly-on-the-verge-of-crescendo score that creeps up with a two-note motif and seems to peer in on the abandoned Arctic outpost from around the darkest corners, looking to infiltrate Kurt Russell’s snowy beard.

Riz Ortolani/Cannibal Holocaust
As infamous as “Cannibal Holocaust” is, with the realistic gore effects, real-life animal killings and status as one of the first in the suddenly-hot “found footage” subgenre of horror, most forget horror vet Riz Ortolani’s oddly schizophrenic score. He goes with atonal disco beats in search of a melody in some tracks, where they contrast with a string-heavy classical score that gives the sleazy exploitation picture a layer of sophistication. Most perverse is the folky, picnic-like setting main theme, which almost promises a romantic epic in its flute and intersecting woozy theremin-like melody.

Claudio Simonetti/Demons
Most of the absurd chaos of Lamberto Bava’s “Demons” is scored with irony-free hair metal from the likes of Accept, Motley Crue and the Scorpions, which makes sense considering the action sequences in the film, where zombies attack a theater filled with horror fans, involve samurai swords and motorcycles. Credit must be given to the work of Claudio Simonetti, however, a former member of Goblin who composed the hard-pressing very ’80s, Harold Faltermeyer-like score to the film. The pavement-thumping score mostly bookends the film, but during a few moments, we forgive you if your mind wanders from the fairly skimpy story to jam out on your own.

– Gabe Toro