Blogpost: Andy's Favorite Horror Film Soundtracks

Posted by Andy Armageddon • October 31, 2015

Posted by Andy Armageddon • October 31, 2015

Though usually panned by the majority of film critics – the mainstream ones anyway- horror films seem to be a Hollywood mainstay that just won't go away. This is hardly shocking – if there's one genre of film in which a low budget doesn't seem to be that much of a hindrance, and may actually help a film's chances, this is it. Many of the industry's biggest names got their start in horror – Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson to name but a few – and whole legions of stars were known primarily for their work in films designed to frighten and shock audiences.

The genre has changed substantially over the years, moving through phases where most of the “action” was implied or occurred offscreen, to periods where psychological issues were the focus. Since the 1960s, special effects have not only become an integral part of the typical horror film, but have actually served as a sort of litmus test for genre fans who wanted to see ever more gory and disturbing visuals in these pictures. It's largely the element of one-upmanship that has led to today's (flourishing) “torture porn” subgenre, but the films seem to have suffered as a whole in the process. Horror films are now more reliant on horrific special effects than on any notion of story development or acting chops.

What some people don't realize is that the horror picture has been a part of the bigger history of cinema essentially since day one: Georges Méliès (most famous for A Trip to the Moon) is credited with making the first such picture in 1896. By the 1920s, German filmmakers like F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) had established the visual palette used later in America for films like the original Frankenstein and Dracula films. Soundtracks in film at this time were exclusively orchestral – performed live during screenings for most silent pictures – and even the classic Universal horror films (the aforementioned Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as scores of related films and things like The Wolf Man and The Mummy) used music that was more flowing and unobtrusive than what would come to be the norm later.

Arguably, it was Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho that took the horror genre into the modern age: here was a film that was not only almost intolerably violent for its time, but also introduced very unsavory story material into the mix (fun fact: it the first film to GASP! show a toilet onscreen). Incalculable films have followed suit in the years since, but Bernard Herrmann's intense, jarring music score for the film has to be considered among the reasons the film worked as well as it did.

Sound design is probably one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the typical horror film, and music certainly figures into that design prominently. Though Psycho's piercing strings and Jaws's nerve-rattling two-tone bass are probably the best known horror movie soundtrack cues, having entered the popular consciousness on a level that few pieces of music have, numerous other films have effectively used music to heighten their sinister intentions. Here's are some of some of my favorites:

Extreme warning! Several of the trailers linked in this article are disturbing and very NSFW.

Carnival of Souls (1962) -Made for almost no money by a cast and crew of unknowns, this ghost story's surreal, unsettling atmosphere is complimented by Gene Moore's supremely creepy organ music.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) The original modern zombie picture. Kind of amazing that director George Romero could find library music that precisely captures the sense of dread and doom in the film.

The Mutations (1974) – A gorgeously-photographed (and downright strange) British-made hybrid sci-fi/horror film about a scientist trying to interbreed plants with people. Contains perhaps one of the wildest soundtracks to ever feature in a genre film, created by experimental musician Basil Kirchin.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – A film more horrific for what it doesn't show than what it does. A creaky, almost industrial soundtrack by director Tobe Hooper only cements the distressing mood.

Eraserhead (1977) – The nightmares of a young married man come to life in this utterly unique cult classic. Dark ambient soundtrack ranges from grating industrial noise to the innocent yet worrisome old-time pop song “In Heaven.”

Suspiria (1977) – Hallucinogenic tale about a coven of witches running a dance academy in Germany. A tough choice to pick Goblin's best horror soundtrack, but this one gets my vote...

Dawn of the Dead (1978) - ...yet I can't make a list of this nature without including this one. Second in Romero's Living Dead saga, with an unbeatable combination of pounding Goblin compositions and comical, frequently bizarre stock music selections.

Halloween (1978) – The defining moment of John Carpenter's career, the film that set the ground rules for American-made '80s horror, and one of the best horror themes ever laid down.

Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) – Incredibly bleak Italian-made zombie ripoff that may just one up the Romero films in terms of outrageous violence. Fabio Frizzi's music is one of the best, most influential synth scores of its day.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – The infamous “found footage” film that goes way beyond anything made since. Composer Riz Ortolani has a tendency to use the most pleasant, gorgeously orchestrated themes right when something truly horrible is onscreen – which only makes the film more shocking.

The Shining (1980) – The opening scene of this film is more genuinely ominous than whole films made today despite the fact that it's made up of nothing more than landscape photography and music by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The music selections actually get even more distressing from there.

The Thing (1982) – For my money, the greatest film composer to have ever lived, Ennio Morricone made hundreds of movies better solely because of his participation in them. Every one of his scores is fascinating in its own way, but this is my favorite of his work. The main title gives me goosebumps every time.

Razorback (1984) – Universally hailed as a Jaws ripoff, this super-stylish Australian film is actually most frightening for to its deranged outback characters, not the giant, man-eating boar it centers around. Iva Davies's music, made with then-state-of-the-art synthesizer tech, is definitively haunting and moody to the extreme.

Certainly, there are many other outstanding horror soundtracks out there. Any number of obscure movies have soundtracks that are fun or effective in their own way, and individual moments of genius occur in many genre films. Though I prefer the stomping, disco-funk main title of Part III to anything in the original, 1980 Friday the 13th, Harry Manfredini's famous “ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha” has to be acknowledged for what it is - brilliant. Other inspired uses of music include the end title theme from 1983's Sleepaway Camp, a film that boasts one of the most jaw-dropping endings in horror movie history, the positively sublime, piano-based “love theme” from Nekromantik, and the use of Iron Butterfly's “In-A-Godda-Da-Vida” in the wild 1986 film Manhunter, the first to include the character of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector. Considering the creative bankruptcy that has strangled the horror genre in recent decades (how many sequels, remakes, and retreads can Hollywood produce?), I suppose it's no surprise that most modern horror films don't quite measure up to the best the genre has offered in terms of soundtrack music. With any luck, a new breed of filmmakers – and musicians - will eventually breathe new life into the genre, one that seems unwilling to simply fade into the ether.

More recent blogposts

Reckless Brewing and Moo Brew’s Gin Boilermaker

Posted by T • July 29, 2021

Thus Let Us Drink Beer – Reckless Brewing and Moo Brew’s Gin Boilermaker   Having honed and refined channelling her alchemy in the creation of craft beers, the quality of which has left an indelible mark on the firmament of Australian craft brews, Reckless Brewing’s co-founder Grace has and continue to contribute to shaping the DNA of one of the … Read more

Beethoven and Wagner vs Nietzsche

Posted by T • July 26, 2021

Beethoven: A life University of California Press   There is no shortage of books dedicated to the life of a composer whose legacy has never ceased to reverberate and impact music at large. Released to commemorate the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth, what sets this biography apart in terms of authority is partly due to the unprecedented access … Read more

Water of Life – Limeburners and Earp Distillery

Posted by T • July 25, 2021

Water of Life – Limeburners and Earp Distillery   Over the last ten years, Australia has firmly established itself on the map of nations that produce quality malt whiskies. Slowly but steadily, rye whiskies created on terra australis have been making a splash on the scene with quite a few distilleries crafting their own incarnations of American style rye whiskey. … Read more

The Formative Years – Rugby and Canterbury

Posted by T • July 24, 2021

The Formative Years – Rugby and Canterbury I’ve covered the mecca that Washington DC proved to be as a hotbed for hardcore and punk as part of this series before, however, missed to shed light onto one of my favourite releases from the 1980s era, i.e. the vitally important split LP of the short-lived bands The Faith and Void.  While … Read more

The Formative Years – Hardcore Classics, pt. 1

Posted by T • July 23, 2021

The Formative Years – Hardcore classics pt. 1   With ZAP magazine playing a pivotal role in promoting and covering everything New York Hardcore related in a pro-active and prominent manner, Europe and specifically Germany have always been prime markets for hardcore emanating from the Big Apple.  The result was that “NYHC” became a veritable label and trademark and almost … Read more

The Formative Years - Ebullition Records

Posted by T • July 22, 2021

The Formative Years - Ebullition Records  The first time I heard about Ebullition Records was when there was talk around the campfire of that a gentleman that was known to me as a Maximum Rock’n’roll / No Answer zine contributor, i.e. Kent McClard, was planning to release a full length of one of my favourite bands from Orange County, California, … Read more

Thus Let Us Drink Beer - Holgate and Six String

Posted by T • July 18, 2021

Thus Let Us Drink Beer - Holgate Brewhouse and Six String Brewing   As we have outlined with our previous coverage of Holgate Brewhouse, over the last twenty years the Victorian brewery has established itself firmly on the forefront of innovative quality producers of ales that honour both the classic styles from the old world and the ever expanding and … Read more

Water of Life – Hellfire / Kilderkin Distilleries

Posted by T • July 15, 2021

Water of Life – Hellfire Distillery / Kilderkin Distillery   If you have followed this series with a modicum of interest and harbour a weak spot for fantastic, artisanal spirits, Tasmania would be doubtlessly be have made it on your to-visit list quite a while ago. Visiting the southernmost state of Australia twice a year, I never cease to discover … Read more

Water of Life – The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Posted by T • July 12, 2021

Water of Life – The Scotch Malt Whisky Society   There is certainly no shortage of whisky clubs and subscription services these days and for anyone remotely into discovering new flavour nuances and variations of their favourite bottlings, joining one can prove to be a viable option. The experience those services offer ranges from basic monthly tasting kits that might … Read more

Water of Life – Milton Rum & Mad Monkey Distillery

Posted by T • July 11, 2021

Water of Life – Milton Rum and Mad Monkey Distillery   Rum has a long and at times chequered history reaching back more than six hundred years to the times dominated by Colonialism, where it did not only serve to make pirates drunk but as a means for trade. Fast forward to the present day and the renaissance that the … Read more