Top 10 Scores for Horror Films

phantasm

As my first contribution to the site, Scott Schirmer- knowing I am a full-fledged film score devotee -asked me to come up with this list. But, before we get into my top ten, allow me to first thank everyone behind this site for allowing me to contribute.

Lito Velasco with one of horror's greatest composers, Christopher Young.

Now for the good stuff. First, a few Honorable Mentions: Aliens by James Horner, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge by Christopher Young, Psycho II and Gremlins by Jerry Goldsmith, Signs and The Sixth Sense by James Newton Howard, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare by J. Peter Robinson, and Batman & Robin by Elliott Goldenthal.  Okay, so maybe the last score doesn’t qualify as horror, but the film definitely does.

10.  Phantasm

A trippy, atmospheric score (courtesy of Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave) heightened the nightmarish, hallucinogenic horror of the 1979 cult classic and left the viewer feeling unbalanced and wondering: was it all a dream?  Also, like many great scores that preceded and followed this one, it has a theme that you’ll be humming for days afterwards. [Listen to a sample from Phantasm.] 

9.  I Know What You Did Last Summer 

I know…a B-grade, mostly forgettable slasher flick from the 90’s, right?  Well, it just so happens to be accompanied by a terrific, smart score by John Debney.  Besides the gorgeous main theme (which is eerily reminiscent of Christopher Young’s Hellraiser), the track “Terror Cruise with Ben Willis” is some of the best “action” scoring of the 90’s. [Listen to samples from I Know What You Did Last Summer here (theme)  and here (Terror Cruise).]

8.  A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Charles Bernstein’s all-synth score features an opening that grabs viewers and sets them down firmly on the floor of a disgustingly filthy boiler room.  They watch as grimy, calloused hands assemble an instrument that would soon become synonymous the world over with death.  Then the real terror begins…the nightmare starts.  And Bernstein’s signature eight-note theme in d-minor heralds the arrival of this torturous fever dream: a ninety-minute, inescapable journey through the labyrinthine, industrial lair of Fred Krueger.  Is the score “dated” in its sound?  Undoubtedly, yes.  But every time I listen to it, I marvel at how even today…it takes me RIGHT back to the first time I sat in awe, mouth gaping…and watched the very first tale of one Frederick J. Krueger. [Hear a suite of the film’s music here.]

Lito and his friend: the delightful Harry Manfredini


7.  Friday the 13th (1980)

Harry Manfredini is a true student of music…and he put that knowledge to incredible use when he wrote this score.  Partly an homage to Hermann’s Psycho (who can honestly deny that much of the string writing used throughout doesn’t remind them of such?), partly a tip of the hat to some of his favorite composers of the “modern classical era” (Bartok, Lutoslowski, etc), and partly an homage to John Williams’ Jaws.  Like Williams’ famous “shark theme”, Manfredini used the same musical technique to represent the presence of the unknown assailant, this time ultilizing a vocal approach inspired by composer Krzysztof Penderecki.  And those echoed sounds of “ki” and “ma” sent fear into the hearts of “Generation X’ers” everywhere for decades to come. [A sample of the score is available here.]

6.  Poltergeist and The Omen (1976)

My only tie on this list…and as it is, it was difficult to not also include Gremlins for this entry.  Obviously, Jerry Goldsmith was one of the true masters of film scoring, and when listening to the music for these films, it’s easy to understand why.  For Poltergeist…the innocence of “Carol Anne’s Theme” juxtaposed with the malevolence in “Escape from Suburbia”…the lyrical lines of the former contrasted against the rapid-fire motifs of the latter shows how deftly Goldsmith wrote for both ends of the spectrum.  And how could a horror film score list be complete without Goldsmith’s Academy Award winning effort, The Omen?  The maestro created some of the best film scores of the 70’s and 80’s and this one is truly one of his greatest achievements. [Selections from Poltergeist available here (Carol Anne’s Theme) and here (Escape from Suburbia); selection from The Omen here.]

5.  Scream

The opening ten minutes of this movie were unyielding in a way few horror films are.  When Casey Becker stumbled helplessly along the front porch of her house, reaching out futilely to her oblivious parents…and Marco Beltrami’s score filled the theater speakers with a solo female voice accompanied by a lone C-sharp on muted piano and a descending bass line that surely symbolized Casey’s inexorable walk toward death…I knew I was hearing something truly original.  Steeped in the operatic traditions of scores from Italian Westerns, his music brought to the screen orchestrations and an overall sound unlike any I’d heard in all my years of horror fandom.  The amazing thing about the score is…despite the fact that the film itself is winking and nudging at the audience, the music NEVER does: it takes the proceedings GRAVELY seriously, and that’s one of the things that makes the score one of my favorites. [Selections from Scream here (skip to 8:38 to hear the ‘Casey scene’ described’; and here (Sydney’s Lament).]

4.  Hellraiser

If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to the isolated score for this film, do it now.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie the music was written for: do it now.  Christopher Young’s evocative music is at once terrifying and beautiful…tortured and seductive.  The perfect reflection of the story and characters it was composed for.  The Cenobites and their chillingly charming leader, Pinhead are indeed villainous and disturbing creatures…yet there’s definitely something alluring about their mystique, appearance, and portal.  After all…isn’t that why the people who opened the Lament Configuration were unable to resist the temptation to do so in the first place?  These characters are trapped in time and an emotion, and despite the fact that they know it might be the end of them…they are unable to escape the lure of that attraction.  Young conveys this pained sense of longing with sensual string lines and one of the most beautiful themes ever written for film.  Simply sublime. [Sublime selection from Hellraiser available here.]

 3.  Psycho (1960)

Unforgettable shower music and main titles put this masterpiece of scoring in the top three without even having to contemplate its place on the list.  The only reason it didn’t place higher is because even without the music, Hitchcock’s shocking tale of Norman Bates is still as effective as it is with the music.  And because…I have a soft spot for the top two on my countdown.  [Selections from Psycho available here (main titles) and here (shower scene).]

2.  Halloween (1978)

The almost mythic story of John Carpenter screening an early version of his film- one without music or foley work -for a young exec and her not being impressed with his work…until she saw it with a paying audience (and the complete score) and then realized how great the film truly was is one of the only true urban legends in Hollywood.  Written by Carpenter and rooted mainly in open 5ths, half-steps, and a wicked and haunting 5/4 rhythmic pattern…the minimalistic music and the layer of horror it adds to the film is the perfect example of the power of effectively-written film music.  And those who say the score is too repetitive and plain are missing the point.  The music reflects the film, its story, and the specter of The Shape perfectly: relentless, unforgiving…and simply petrifying. [A sample from the score is available here.]

1.  Jaws

I think I’d have a tougher time justifying my POV that the movie is actually a horror film instead of an “adventure” than explaining why it’s number one on my list.  Williams’ brilliant usage of the “shark motif” in the score as an substitute for the absent visuals of the ever-malfunctioning Bruce the Shark actually served to make the film more effective than it could’ve possibly been WITH the footage.  Call it a happy accident, fate, kismet…both Spielberg AND Williams benefitted greatly in their careers from Bruce continually and repeatedly taking a dive to the bottom of the ocean floor at Martha’s Vineyard.  Hermann’s Psycho is memorable and incredible, but Williams’ Jaws forever changed the way films were scored…and the way people thought of any large body of water.  How many times have you entered the ocean (or a lake…or large swimming pool) and heard the “duh-dum” in your own head?  Admit it…it’s happened at least once.  And that…says it all. [Hear a sample from the score here (Main Title/First Attack/Aftermath).]

Lito with the maestro of the movies: John Williams

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About Lito

Lito is an LA-based aspiring actor, writer, producer, and musician who studied at both Juilliard and the Indiana University School of Music. Lito had a featured role in David Mamet's film RED BELT, and also served as one of the producers of critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentaries such as NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM STREET LEGACY, MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD, and SCREAM: THE INSIDE STORY, which have been featured on A&E networks and in Entertainment Weekly. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his beautiful wife and is just trying to live the dream…all the while staying one step ahead of the supposed impending zombie apocalypse.

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