Horror music gets an unfair maligning, but horror films haven’t done much to help their cause – loud jump scare music is about the sum of it, and that’s such a shame. Horror films have some of the best soundtracks in cinema so, with Halloween just around the corner, what better time to reflect on some of the best soundtracks that horror has to offer?
Psycho – ‘Prelude’ (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)
Bernard Herrmann was one of the masters of film scoring and, when it came to Psycho, he decided to set himself a challenge – scoring the film using only the string section of the orchestra. Although the sharp staccato strings of ‘The Murder’ (intended to evoke the feeling of a knife stabbing) are the most recognisable part of the film’s music, it’s such a rich, rewarding and detailed score in its entirety. I’ve chosen the ‘Prelude’ as my piece to highlight – it lays down a number of the themes that you’ll hear throughout the film, and it’s a mysterious and captivating opening (‘The Stairs/The Knife’ make for a great double cue too).
Halloween – ‘Main Theme’ (John Carpenter, 1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween is a horror classic for many reasons – its incredibly tense atmosphere and the creation of some of the greatest characters in horror history (Michael Myers, Laurie Strode and Dr Loomis are all brilliant) are just two, but we’re here to focus on the incredible score. Carpenter composed and performed the music himself, enabling him to shape the soundscape of his films, and this is especially apparent in the main theme. It’s simple, dissonant, and it immediately sets the tone for the film – it’s quite an unsettling and unnerving piece, using an irregular time signature to establish the unsettling atmosphere. Similar cues pop up throughout the film (‘Halloween 1978’ is another creepy one), and they helped create an experience that remains scary to this day. The themes are used to great effect in the score for this year’s Halloween (‘The Shape Hunts Allyson’ is a prime example), and I also really recommend Carpenter’s theme to The Fog.
Saw – ‘Hello Zepp’ (Charlie Clouser, 2004)
The Saw series is famous for many things – extreme levels of violence, the Jigsaw doll, Tobin Bell and his sinister voice telling his victims that “I want to play a game.” It’s also very big on its twist endings, and that’s where this piece comes into its own. At the end of the film, we’re convinced that hospital orderly Zep Hindle is the Jigsaw killer, behind the events we’ve witnessed – one of the participants overpowers him, only to find a tape recorder explaining that he too was playing a game in order to survive. As all the pieces come together, and the body of John Kramer rises from the floor, this industrial-sounding music starts playing, building and building in an almost inevitable way until we reach the film’s final shot. It’s so associated with the series, and such a dramatic piece on which to end a film, that a version of it appeared at the climax of every Saw film since. Once you hear it, you know something big is about to go down – check out ‘Zepp Eight’ from Jigsaw for the most recent iteration.
It – ‘Every 27 Years’ (Benjamin Wallfisch, 2017)
I know that people get a bit tetchy when talking about It but, whether you found the film scary or not, the soundtrack is undeniably strong, and this piece from the film’s opening is a fantastic example. We kick off with some evil sounding kids singing a nursery rhyme (some classic horror fodder right there), before heading into a piano and string number that knows where to peak and sound a little bit off – it’s almost like a lullaby, but just a little bit wrong, and it sets the tone perfectly. I’m also quite partial to ‘You’ll Float Too’ – it’s from the scene in the basement, where Bill talks to Pennywise (as Georgie), and there’s a great juxtaposition of horror music and the gentle Georgie’s theme.
Hellraiser – ‘Resurrection’ (Christopher Young, 1987)
Here’s a film that I don’t think gets the love it deserves nowadays. Hellraiser tells the story of a man who inadvertently opens a portal to Hell and unleashes beasts that tear his body apart. He is resurrected (the music I’ve selected is from that scene, and it goes from eerie to demonically grand in two minutes) and uses his lover to lure men back to the house so he can use their blood to reconstruct himself. I love the score to this film (and its sequel) – it’s so luxurious and sinister (and, thus, exactly how you’d imagine Hell would be) so, if you can find a suite of the music, I’d really recommend it!