Sacred Walloween: Top Ten Horror Movie Scores

Last week, I broke down the best songs in horror movies. Today, we’re going to stick with the music and break down the Top Ten Best Horror Scores! The list here is simple enough: I’m looking at the music composed for the films in question with the purpose of adding tension, amplifying themes, or ironically undercutting the story. I’m not quite as concerned this time around with finding the most discomforting or terrifying pieces of music – a lot of these scores are actually fairly tranquil. I just want to judge them based on the quality of the composition. Of course, if the score is completely petrifying, it gets bonus points.

There are a lot of films I considered for this list, and it resulted in a vast field of Honorable Mentions. There are modern horror hits like last year’s Get Out and this year’s Hereditary. There’s the unsettlingly tranquil nature of Deliverance, Eyes Without a Face, and Cannibal Holocaust, as well as the grandiosity of Jurassic Park and The Thing. Near Dark’s score is a masterful blend of horror and Western, while Nosferatu the Vampyre relies on classical Germanic orchestrations. Then there are the artistically complex scores of Rosemary’s Baby and Phillip Glass’ work on Candyman. And while I was tempted to include Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, I eventually decided that the best parts of that score were originally from the television series, rendering it ineligible. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the Top Ten Horror Scores of All Time!

10. The Last House On The Left – David Hess

In a lot of ways, The Last House on the Left is a film that should never have left the 70s. Wes Craven’s exploitative nightmare plays on a whole variety of nasty, disgusting themes just to get a rise out of the audience. However, it is also the best window we have into the 1970s. Craven’s vision is a satiric look into the violent death of the 60s Free Love era under the weight of government ineptitude, the rise of violent sociopaths, and a clueless middle class. And while it is difficult to refer to a film about homicidal sociopaths raping and murdering a girl before being done in by her parents as satiric, it is also incredibly apt. And if you need any indication that this is Craven’s intention, look no further than the score by David Hess. Hess plays on a variety of All-American tropes, including folk and bluegrass, to create a surrealistic irony surrounding the music and the imagery. And not only that, by utilizing these All-American genres, Hess crafts a powerful statement about the false sense of security many Americans had embraced in this era, despite creating a society that allows and feeds sociopaths across the country. My personal favorite pieces include “Now You’re All Alone,” “Wait For the Rain,” “The Road Leads To Nowhere,” and of course, the infamous “Baddies Theme,” an upbeat kazoo song which plays as the villains drive the two girls they’ve kidnapped to their deaths. It’s sardonic, evil, sharp, and off-putting, and it stands out as one of the best horror scores of all time.

9. Friday the 13th – Harry Manfredini

Much debate surrounds what precisely is chanted during the famous score from Friday the 13th. Is it “Cha cha cha,” “Chi chi chi,” or what? It’s a shame that the answer isn’t more well known, because it helps create a logic behind one of the best horror scores of all time. For on top of the dark, atmospheric score Harry Manfredini crafted for the 1980 schlockfest, he layers a quiet chant of “Ki ki ki ma ma ma,” which (SPOILER ALERT) turns out to be representative of the voices inside Mrs. Voorhees’ head, the voice of her dead son egging her on to murder the disrespectful, hedonistic teenagers that let him die. (END SPOILERS). Of course, the secret to Friday the 13th isn’t just the chanting that makes this score so memorable – it’s how Manfredini and director Sean S. Cunningham use it that really makes it sing. For the duo chose to break all the old tropes and create entirely new ones in order to make the film a smash. So instead of a traditional score that plays from beginning to end, Manfredini only unleashes his nightmare-inducing music when the killer is present, no matter what sort of scary material may otherwise be happening onscreen. Furthermore, Friday the 13th allows the score to play throughout the chase sequences, only cutting it off right before the jump scare. While this trait has been done to death by every horror film to come since, its use here was original, unique, and breathtaking. Friday the 13th’s score is not just a knockout, it is a character in and of itself. And for that reason, it comes in at #9 on the list of the greatest horror scores of all time.

8. The Omen – Jerry Goldsmith

It is rare for horror scores to be nominated by the Academy, let alone win. Before The Omen, only two had been nominated (with one appearing later on this list), and only three have been nominated since (four if you count Interview with a Vampire). And of those six, only two have won. Thus is the power of Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting, overbearing score for The Omen, an atmospheric film that preys on our greatest fears. What’s brilliant about Goldsmith’s score is the sheer grandiosity of the music: while most horror films deal with the lives of a few unsuspecting teens and twentysomethings, The Omen’s villain threatens the fate of the entire world. And what’s worse: he’s an unstoppably evil six-year-old raised by a ridiculously rich family. Therefore, he made the score as lavish as possible, stylized as a classic Handel piece. By taking the form of a corrupted Baroque religious piece, Goldsmith both undermines the tranquil family scenes, as well as creates a sense of inevitability, terror, dread, and irony. I mean, listen to the switch from the peaceful piano keys to the upsettingly corrupted sounds of lord knows what instrument during the infamous nanny scene. Of course, the highlight of the score is the incomparable “Ave Santini,” a dark chant that centers the piece in the world of the occult and the spiritual, but next time you watch it, make sure you pay attention to the work Goldsmith is doing here – it really makes the movie.

7. Under the Skin – Mica Levi

Mica Liva is arguably the greatest composer of the 21st century. She has a knack for using music to bring emotions to life, as she did with grief in 2016’s Jackie. However, I’m not sure she will ever be able to top her 2013 magnum opus, Under the Skin. Truth be told, I’m a little lukewarm on Jonathan Glazer’s surreal, methodical alien horror film. It was just too cold and too calculated for me to ever completely connect to. However, if there’s one thing that makes this film worth seeing, it’s Levi’s score. Levi’s score captures the mood of every sequence, whether it’s the terror of murder to the melancholia of humanity’s disconnect. However, above all, it shows us curiosity and empathy. The score allows us to experience things through the Woman’s (the name of the alien creature played by Scarlett Johansson) eyes, most of which are first experiences for her. We see food, sex, murder, love, connection, and evil at the same time as her, and yet these are all curiosities to her, things she cannot fully comprehend without empathy or humanity. By using an altered-pitch viola, the score sounds almost-human, but not quite, creating a droning, unnatural sound that makes us question everything we know, just as the Woman questions everything she knows. It challenges what a score can do and should do, and stands out as one of the best of all time.

6. Saw – Charlie Clouser

Neither before nor since has a score been so make or break as Charlie Clouser’s work on Saw. Not only does it define for the audience exactly how the film should be read, it also helps to execute one of the greatest horror movie twists of all time. For while Saw later became synonymous with the torture porn genre, getting off on the multitudes of citizens ripping themselves to shreds in order to escape a series of insane tasks, the original film was something much closer to a psychological thriller, a mystery wrapped inside a tense drama. While the film does revolve around two people trapped in a room threatened into self-harm or murder, the main plot surrounds the hunt for a serial killer plaguing the city, forcing people to face life-or-death challenges in order to truly understand the vital nature of life. To match this, and to clearly define the narrative as a mystery as opposed to straight horror, Clouser crafts a tense, but mysterious score, keeping it firmly in the realm of tension as opposed to the realm of terror. As the stakes rise, so does the score, building up to one grand reveal, where the score completely flips and shocks the audience, just as the narrative does. This piece, “Hello Zepp,” stands out as one of the all-time great horror pieces, and is more than enough to earn the music a spot on this list – although it also qualifies thanks to “Hello Adam,” “Cigarette,” and “F*ck This Sh*t.” Charlie Clouser didn’t just make a great score for Saw – he helped make Saw, period.

5. Jaws – John Williams

And here it is, folks: the creator of the modern horror score, and the one that created the greatest composer of all time (although he’d been around for quite some time): John Williams’ legendary work on Jaws. What Williams accomplishes with his score for Jaws is unparalleled in film history. I mean, look no further than the way he creates an entire image of a killer shark with the simplicity of two notes played on violin and piano – supposedly, he was influenced by the Man Theme in Bambi. Like Friday the 13th, the villain is represented solely in music for most of the run, in order to create a world of suspense and tension unrivaled in cinematic history. Each violin, each French horn adds layers to the text, and shows us everything, even when there’s nothing to show. Williams’ score is primal, matching the man vs. beast narrative beat for beat, while much of the music for the land sequences implies a morality tale playing out between the politicians and the citizens. And interjected in between notes are sharp jabs, not unlike a shark’s tooth, to mirror the suddenness with which the Shark could ruin the day and lives of the citizens of Amity Island. You can sense the sense of adventure that influenced Williams, as well as influenced his scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and so many scores in his legendary career. However, here, in his first great project, he crafts the classic horror score, and forever changes the musical scene not just for the genre, but for all of cinema.

4. It Follows – Disasterpeace

Technically speaking, It Follows is the least original score on this list. It’s Carpenter-esque, hearkening back to the 70s and 80s with its throwback feel and piercing tension. However, while it may be the least original, that doesn’t inherently make it unoriginal. What makes Disasterpeace’s score so incredible is how new it feels despite drawing on the legacy of B-movie horror classics. For Disasterpeace understands that great horror scores don’t need to be complicated or overbearing, they just need one or two clever hooks, an ominous presence, and a release at the proper moment. Listen closely to the foreboding, unceasing pattern present in “Heels” or “Old Maid,” which mirrors the creature’s never-ceasing quest to kill. Or the sinister, yet soothing nature of “Title” or “Detroit,” which contain a sense of nostalgia and dread that drives to the heart of the story. Underneath the classical, retro score are the experimental tones of techno and electronica, firmly telling the viewer that while this film and story are ageless, this is the definitive 2015 spin that it deserves. It’s a memorable, stunning score, and easily one of the best the genre has ever offered.

3. Psycho – Bernard Hermann

If Jaws is the forbearer to horror scores, Psycho is the grandfather of them all. Bernard Hermann’s score is a master class from beginning to end. It should come as no surprise that one of the greatest composers of all time managed to create one of the greatest scores ever, so much so that Alfred Hitchcock believed that “33% of the effect of Psycho was the music.” However, it’s truly shocking to truly break down the score to its roots and discover how brilliant it is. As most of Psycho is structured to be a mystery/thriller, misleading the audience until the shocking twist, so too does Hermann’s score mislead the audience. For much of the first half of the film, Hermann’s score implies an enigmatic story not unlike Vertigo and North by Northwest. However, lest you think the director and composer are engaged in an act of outright lying, Hermann layers his theme with a sense of impending horror, as if something is coming, even if the audience isn’t sure quite what. And when the Shower Scene finally occurs, Hitchcock goes against his “better judgment” to leave the scene scoreless by allowing Hermann to insert what may be his crowning achievement, a piece of music that forever influenced the genre: a short stinger, filled with sharp violins harshly screeching as a kitchen knife stabs over and over into a poor, unsuspecting blonde. When even the music can shock and upset you, you know you’ve got a legendary piece on your hands. Without Hermann’s work on Psycho, the horror music genre might very well be a cultural wasteland.

2. Suspiria – Goblin

The giallo genre is a truly strange, truly intense crosscut of filmmaking. Essentially, giallo is a style of Italian horror/mystery films that amount to an all-out assault on the senses, overwhelming the audience with color, sound, and violence. For this very reason, the importance of a great film score is crucial. And that’s exactly what progressive rock band Goblin accomplished with the shocking, different, unnatural composition they created for Dario Argento’s Suspiria. How great is this score? The band wrote it before the movie was even made, and released it as an individual album, which became their best-received, best-reviewed album ever. Goblin’s score is an assault on the brain, a masterful blend of drama, suspense, nightmare, and lullaby. They use everything from guitar, piano, drum, synth, organ, table, bouzouki, and mellotron to create a rattling, haunting relic of the subconscious. Goblin consistently builds tension, adding in layer upon layer of chanting voices, grunting monsters, and shrieking witches to fill each shadow, each doorway, and each star-stained night with an ominous presence, ready to strike the protagonist – or even the audience – at any given moment. What they have accomplished here is nothing short of miraculous. And while it seems that Thom Yorke’s score for the remake will be wonderful as well, there is very little that can truly match the work Goblin did here, forever changing the game.

1. Halloween – John Carpenter

As if there was any doubt what would be #1 on this list – it’s pretty much the only reason I made it. John Carpenter’s score for Halloween is the culmination of every horror score to come before and every score that has been made since. Inspired by the works of Psycho, Jaws, and Suspiria, Carpenter was interested in using music as a way of conveying tension to his audience, to represent his nameless, faceless Shape of a villain, and of creating an all-around atmosphere of dread, in order to hold his audience captive in tension and suspense. And working as his own composer, he did just that, using two notes (just like John Williams in Jaws) tapped out on the piano and layering different ideas on top of it, never losing that original theme as he does so. It creates a slow-building effect that just wants to explode, but never does – inevitably terrifying the audience. To complicate things even further, Carpenter composed the entire score in a 10/8 measure, a complex time signature for such an unsophisticated score. The result is terrifying, even without the visuals – although hearing the brooding, angry piano chime in as Michael Myers walks silently behind an unsuspecting teenager is indeed one of the most iconic uses of song in all of cinematic history. And it’s not just the iconic theme, either – every piece is haunting in its impending sense of terror, from “The Shape Lurks” to the more silently scary “Laurie’s Theme.” There’s a reason every horror movie since, from Friday the 13th to It Follows to Get Out has tried to mimic this score: John Carpenter’s haunting composition is simply the greatest horror score of all time.

That’s it for this week’s Sacred Walloween! I’ll be back later this week with another Halloween-based list, this one non-music based. Until then, stay spooky out there!

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