35 Greatest Horror Soundtracks: Modern Masters, Gatekeepers Choose
Beyond being dark and diverse mood-setters for thriller nights, horror film soundtracks have quietly changed the world like a virus. They’ve established and maintained a teeming culture around analog synthesizers, provided generations with dissonant gateways into the heady worlds of 20th century composition and musique concrète and influenced bands like Portishead, Boards of Canada and Animal Collective. More recently, they’ve become objets d’art thanks to a slew of reissue labels repressing them on colorful vinyl underneath eye-popping sleeve designs. To celebrate the renewed interest, we’ve compiled the 35 greatest soundtracks of all time as chosen by an esteemed panel of 14 reissue record label owners and indebted musicians.
Geoff Barrow (Portishead; Invada Records)
Kevin Bergeron (Waxwork Records)
Kyle Dixon, Mark Donica, Adam Jones and Michael Stein (Survive; Stranger Things)
Ryan Graveface (Black Moth Super Rainbow, Casket Girls; Terror Vision Records and Video)
Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recording Company & Mondo)
Steve Moore (Zombi; composer, The Guest)
Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas; composer, The Place Beyond the Pines)
Sebastiaan Putseys (One Way Static Records)
Jeremy Schmidt (Black Mountain, Sinoia Caves; composer, Beyond the Black Rainbow)
Jonathan Snipes (Clipping.; composer Room 237, Rebirth)
Adrian Younge (composer, Luke Cage, Black Dynamite)
‘Xtro’ (Harry Bromley Davenport, 1983)
Director Harry Bromley Davenport once described his 1983 sci-fi shocker Xtro as "an extraordinary mess," an assessment that the film's many critics would probably view as immodestly generous. Far more coherent than the film itself is its soundtrack, which was also penned and recorded by Bromley Davenport. Whether motivated by budgetary constraints, an admiration for John Carpenter's soundtrack work or both, Bromley Davenport – a trained classical pianist – went the minimalist analog synth route, mixing haunting melodies with whirring electronic effects and woozy waltzes. Soundtrack collectors and synth freaks alike willingly fork over big bucks for copies of the original.
‘Zombi 2’ (Fabio Frizzi, 1979)
This sort-of sequel to the Italian release of Dawn of the Dead includes what may be the most memorable theme song from synth-horror master and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi – a dark electronic plod that makes Goblin seem light-hearted. But the soundtrack also spins in wild directions: noisy electronic gulps, goofy exotica, muffled disco, Reich-ian marimba, lots of frantic drumming and Mellotron moans that he calls "sound of the dead." "Lucio had a special relationship with music," Frizzi says in the liner notes to the Death Waltz/Mondo reissue. "He had a clear idea of what he wanted and a great way of walking me through it, something that every director should be able to do. He would explain to me what he wanted, telling me scene by scene how the music was going to support the picture. It was with Zombi 2 that I enjoyed a more direct and exclusive relationship with Lucio for the first time."
‘C.H.U.D.’ (Martin Cooper and David Hughes, 1984)
Composed by Martin Cooper (the keyboardist from hit-making New Wave romantics Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) and David Hughes (an ex-keyboardist from the same), the C.H.U.D. soundtrack teams its titular Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers with claustrophobic synth sounds that are dreamy, ominous and occasionally a little like Art of Noise. The pair spent time in the early Eighties cooking up synth instrumentals and soon filled Warner Bros.' need for synth soundtrack work in the post-Chariots of Fire landscape. Recorded with an Emulator sampler "borrowed" from OMD and a Roland SH1, the sound was home-brewed. "David and I told [producer Andrew Bonime] we had to record the film in Liverpool with our own equipment, so the poor fella had to endure a number of trips out to the rough areas of the city suburbs, as the studio was situated on the fringes of a notorious housing estate," said Cooper in the liner notes to the Waxwork release. "We were also working the night shift as New Order were usually there in the day working on some of their classics."
‘Nightmare City’ (Stelvio Cipriani, 1980)
Nothing about Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City makes much sense, from the lack of a consistent logic (its "zombies" run, wield weapons and sometimes look pretty normal), to its absurd story (men and women are exposed to radiation on an airplane and come out ready to kill) to its tendency to take the scenic route towards plot. Italian composer Stelvio Cipriani, also responsible for the eerie lounge jazz of Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, offers up a score as schizophrenic as the film, including Dracula disco ("Metropolis"), sad-boy beach balladry ("Solitude") and on highlight, "Sustain," a back-and-forth between coked-out synths and saxophone that sounds like a Mike Post TV theme
‘Near Dark’ (Tangerine Dream, 1987)
Few synthesizer artists picked up Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" gauntlet to reimagine the Hollywood score with the gusto of Tangerine Dream, starting with William Friedkin's 1977 thriller Sorcerer, hitting deep stride on the classic 1981 soundtrack to Michael Mann's Thief, and likely best recognized for the non-Bob Seger music of Tom Cruise's debut, Risky Business. Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke and a long list of sidemen created the period film noir soundscape – sexy and moody, energetic but deeply controlled, contemporary yet instantly classic. The score to this Kathryn Bigelow-directed teenage vampire flick that had the commercial misfortune to be released in the slipstream of the inferior The Lost Boys, came at the end of their Eighties high-point (Franke quit soon thereafter). Near Dark is moody, digital, synth-heavy (though hardly exclusive) music, a diverse set of compositions that serve the scenes while also establishing their own personalities. A good-time track that sounds like an instrumental from Glen Frey's Miami Vice period ("Caleb's Blues") exists near a thorny piece of treated-guitar-plus-sequencer film music ("Rain in the Third House") and a brooding, lightly techno-fied piece of Carpenter-like ambiance ("Resurrection 1").
‘Hellraiser’ (Christopher Young, 1987)
Though he'd already done the soundtracks for such Eighties slasher fare as The Dorm That Dripped Blood, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and Trick or Treat, Christopher Young firmly established himself as a top-shelf horror composer in 1987 with his symphonic score for Clive Barker's directorial debut. Barker had originally engaged British industrial experimentalists Coil to do the film's soundtrack, but Young stepped in when the duo's work was deemed too edgy by the film's backers. Loaded with sinister strings, foreboding brass, heavily echoed grand piano and unexpected stabs of dissonance, Young's atmospheric score slowly builds in tone from darkly romantic fantasy to claustrophobic nightmare – then concludes by returning to its dreamy beginnings.
‘Chopping Mall’ (Chuck Cirino, 1986)
Though the Eighties were bleeding with no-budget synth scores to B-movies, Chuck Cirino's jittery, propulsive neon soundtrack to a robot-led mall massacre stands exploding-head and shoulders over most. "I scored Chopping Mall in the basement of Shadoe Stevens' DJ recording studio," says Cirino in the liner notes to the Waxwork release. "At the time I was working for Shadoe directing the Federated Group TV commercials. So, when [director] Jim Wynorski asked me to score Chopping Mall, I took three weeks off from directing and plowed forward recording robot music."
‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ (Sinoia Caves, 2010)
For the sci-fi thriller set in 1983, Sinoia Caves, the solo project of Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, reverently reaches back to the era's icons: It's a sleek, spare and spacey affair deeply influenced by John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream. Recorded primarily with analog synths (as well as a Mellotron, which features prominently on the soundtrack's "flashback" piece, the majestic, Pink Floyd-ian "1966 – Let the New Age of Enlightenment Begin"), Schmidt's compositions are filled with both the thrilling promise of future and the ominous threat of science. "Technically speaking, the entire BTBR enterprise probably could have been identically conceived in the year that it actually takes place, in 1983," Schmidt told Noisey. "I was using old analogue synthesizer gear that dates from right around then. … These tend to be the voices that simply won't vacate my psyche, whether they were, in fact, apropos to the endeavor or otherwise!"
‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell, 1974)
Grimy, outlaw country music spliced with gnarly musique concrète, the score or really, the soundscape to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sits up there with Eraserhead as a rare moment where music, sound effects and other diagetic sound become indistinguishable. Metal scrapes howl like a free-jazz sax solo, rhythmic snaps and crackles recall fevered percussion and whirls of sounds caked with effects are redolent of the dubbiest of dub reggae. Constructed by Wayne Bell and director Tobe Hooper, it is background noise turned avant-garde soundtrack, foley work gone too far. A huge influence on bands like Animal Collective and Wolf Eyes, it's one of many expertly frightening elements that make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so singularly scary.
‘Day of the Dead’ (John Harrison, 1985)
Threading lithe synthesizer work around chintzy faux-Carribean vibes and steely electronica, composer John Harrison – who by the way, played the zombie who gets a screwdriver in his ear – captures the tonal chaos of George Romero's military industrial complex spleen-vent, not to mention the tension between the Reagan Eighties' cheery exterior and its cruel underbelly. Day of the Dead is a movie not too interested in "subtlety" or "tonal consistency" and Harrison's score follows: There's the sneaking nervous theme, the island vibes atop bassy gloom and the baffling ballads of Sputzy Sparacino ("The World Inside Your Eyes") which sound like Frank Stallone doing Lou Gramm doing Luther Vandross. "While the music in Day of the Dead closely follows the action … John takes a slight left turn and meanders along a stylistic path that is completely his own," says Romero in the liner notes to the Waxwork reissue. "His score is just as emotionally evocative as one of those [Turner Classic Movies] oldies, just as mysteriously dark when it needs to be, just as bombastic when a startle is wanted … yet there's an overtone of hope … an odd sort of happiness … a calypso voice that advises us "don't worry, be happy" … even in the face of impending doom. … I play it in my car when I'm drivin' around. To me it's 'easy listening.'"
‘Under the Skin’ (Mica Levi, 2013)
One of the weirder movies starring Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin was made by Jonathan Glazer, who in addition to feature films (including Sexy Beast) had directed music videos for Radiohead, Massive Attack and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For the soundtrack to a mood piece in which alien Johansson lures would-be lotharios to an untimely demise, he turned to Mica Levi, mastermind of U.K. indie-rock upstart Micachu and the Shapes. Her sound in that guise was twitchy and rhythmic and hand-forged, but for Under the Skin she showed off a more industrial and sketchily symphonic side, influenced by composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis. "It does sound creepy, but we were going for sexy," Levi wrote in The Guardian after the fact. In the same remembrance: "If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it's not necessarily going to sound very nice. It's supposed to be physical, alarming, hot."
‘The Boogeyman’ (Tim Krog, 1980)
Pitched somewhere between Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" (as used in The Exorcist) and John Carpenter's score for Halloween, Tim Krog's eerie synth soundtrack for The Boogeyman lent Ulli Lommel's grimy 1980 supernatural slasher flick a much-needed element of class. Recorded by Krog and the Synthe-Sound-Trax duo using various analog synthesizers (and utilizing some nifty digital delay and reversed-tape effects), Krog's minimalist-yet-melodic score is a low-key classic.
‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Ludwig von Beethoven, et al. 1972)
Stanley Kubrick's lurid 1971 realization of Anthony Burgess's provocative 1962 novel about a government willing to embrace mind control to rewire its ultraviolent teen gangs, was anything but a conventional film – so naturally, it required an adventurous score. What the synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos created with collaborator and producer Rachel Elkind fit the super-stylized film precisely: Alongside excerpts of banal pop and the classical music Burgess's milk-doped fiends favor (Beethoven and Rossini most notably), Carlos's groundbreaking electronic distortions eerily echoed the film's (and novel's) theme: the perversion of organic life into mechanical simulacra. It's Elkind's voice you hear on Carlos's triumphal arrangement of the jovial march from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony – reportedly the first-ever use of the Vocoder keyboard on record.
‘The Wicker Man’ (Paul Giovanni and Magnet, 1973)
One of the rare horror films to utilize songs as major components of its narrative, Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man features a soundtrack that might easily be mistaken for a charming collection of traditional British folk ballads, jigs, reels, nursery rhymes and drinking songs. It's only when heard within the context of the film – which is set on a fictional, pagan-populated island off the western coast of Scotland – that the ancient-sounding songs, penned for the film by New York playwright and songwriter Paul Giovanni and recorded with the band Magnet, take on a darker, more insidious hue. "On one occasion, Paul suggested we all smoke dope," Gary Carpenter of Magnet told The Guardian. "I'd never tried it; we spent so much time on the floor laughing that nobody could play their instruments." Almost as influential as the film itself, the Wicker Man soundtrack has inspired many covers over the years – especially the erotic "Willow's Song," which has been recorded by Isobell Campell, Doves, the Sneaker Pimps and many others.
‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (Ennio Morricone, 1977)
Chances are you don't recall a single scene from the sequel to William Friedkin's domestic horror classic The Exorcist. With neither Friedkin nor original writer William Peter Blatty onboard, and Linda Blair reprising her role as Regan MacNeil but refusing to don demon paint again, new director John Boorman had his work cut out for him. A box office disaster that's regarded as one of the worst films of all time, its lone saving grace is that they budgeted for Ennio Morricone. In one of his first forays into big budget Hollywood, the Maestro handed in one of his weirdest, eeriest scores. There's the Afro-Cuban tribal thunder of "Pazuzu," the prog-rock stomp of "Magic and Ecstasy" as well as the ethereal voice and orchestra of "Regan's Theme (Floating Sound)," which Morricone would revisit nearly 40 years later for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. "Night Flight" – a mash-up of ritualistic Haitian drumming, strings, moaning and a children's choir – might sound cluttered on paper, but Morricone blends it into a horror film confection of the skin-prickling and sublime.
‘Maniac’ (Jay Chattaway, 1981)
The soundtrack to William Lustig's skeezy serial killer flick sits somewhere between new age and no wave. Pleasant sounds abound – some slick slide bass on the main theme song, crestfallen flutes throughout – but they're interrupted or overpowered by blasts of noise, discordant plucks of strings and slurping synthesizers. "Hooker's Heartbeat," is an exponential piling of electronic buzz like the peak part of the Stranger Things theme looped over and over and over. Chilling, desperate music that scalp-collecting antagonist Frank Zito could love.
‘Maniac’ (Rob, 2012)
Coming from the same French scene that spawned bands like Daft Punk and Air, of course Robin "Rob" Coudert paints with a bigger, bolder, more romantic brush than most. For the 2012 reboot of slasher-era classic Maniac, Coudert, a touring keyboardist for Phoenix, eschewed the gritty, noisy vibe of that creeped throughout the low-budget 1981 original. Instead this soundtrack takes the synthesizer artists that influenced him (John Carpenter, Goblin, Giorgio Moroder) and turns them into enormous gushes of melancholy sound. "I love the way [those artists'] synthesizers are used to make very sentimental music, not just something that's just superficially techno or electronic," Coudert told Complex. "I'm not especially a horror movie fan … With Maniac, I wasn't intrigued by it because it was a horror film, but because there was so much freedom to be creative. There weren't any limits to how much emotion I could put into the music – they kept asking me for power, and more emotion. Everything was more and more."
‘Videodrome’ (Howard Shore, 1983)
As seductive as it is deeply, deeply creepy, David Cronenberg's 1983 Videodrome proposed a media-saturated conspiracy in which sinister forces use exploitative television broadcasts as a means of mind control and mass-scale social engineering. From the moment that James Woods (as television station president Max Renn) sets eyes on the plotless TV broadcast for which the film is named, essentially nothing onscreen can be interpreted as entirely real. Fittingly, Howard Shore's ingenious score – his third for Cronenberg – similar blurs reality and facsimile: Shore composed moody episodes for a conventional acoustic string orchestra, but also programmed the music into a digital sampling keyboard, then recorded both sources in tandem and mixed them in a manner meant to obscure which was which.
‘Christine’ (John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1983)
It is a sad sort of poetic justice that the piece of music which came to best represent Christine, John Carpenter's 1983 adaptation of a bloated Stephen King car-murder novel, is George Thorogood's then-relatively recent novelty, "Bad to the Bone." Sad because the score by Carpenter and writing partner Alan Howarth is among the director-composer's synthesizer masterworks. Even amidst such gleaming career highlights as the score to Assault on Precinct 13 (which in 1976 predicted the industrial techno of Sheffield and Detroit) or the beyond-iconic theme of Halloween, the music of Christine stands out as a magnificent combination of silicon dread and machine emotion, a soundtrack perfectly aligned to the story. As dark and minimal as many of the film's scenes – lots of white blurred road-lines of nighttime drives – the synths haunt these landscapes passively. The main exception being "Moochie's Theme" and "Christine Attack," two kickdrum-heavy bits of coldwave magic that'd make a Goth club breakout.
‘Kwaidan’ (Toru Takemitsu, 1965)
Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi built a résumé that included samurai stories and The Human Condition, one of the longest fiction films ever made. But with his first color film, Kobayashi pulled from a book of Japanese folk tales and created four stylized ghost stories that pop with hypnagogic color, a mesmerizing film that won a special prize at Cannes and even garnered an Academy Award nomination. The score from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu is as startling as the color scheme. Inspired by the theories and paradigm-shifting sounds of John Cage, Takemitsu applied electronics and indeterminancy to his own scores and soundtracks. For Kwaidan, there's as much silence as soundtrack, but when Takemitsu's cues appear utilizing Japanese folk instruments and reconfiguring them, the atmosphere grows electric. Shakuhachi reeds that sting like winter winds, metal that shrieks like a ghost ship, drums that portend from the shadows, a biwa lute strummed as furious as a sword fight, the sound of splintered wood turned into something blood-chilling, Takemitsu twists these sounds into haunting new timbres. "It's like sneaking up behind someone to scare them," Takemitsu explained in a 1994 documentary about his work. "First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music."
‘Psycho’ (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)
There is no sound more formative and fundamental to horror-movie scintillation than the screeching strings in the shower scene in Psycho. Composer Bernard Herrmann had logged film credits no less formidable than Citizen Kane and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it was his work with Alfred Hitchcock that was the most resounding. He started a run on Hitchcock's prime period with films such as Vertigo and North by Northwest, but Psycho stuck the most thanks to its searing intensity and mysterious moods. It's clear that something is not quite right from the start, when the movie opens in a by no means horrifying mode – and the unsettled, suggestive orchestral music is why. Famously, Hitchcock had wanted the scene with the murder in the shower to transpire without music, just Janet Leigh's screams and the sound of water running down the drain. Herrmann proffered something else. Those strings – forcibly played, seemingly sounding in an alien frequency – have freaked people out ever since.
‘The Keep’ (Tangerine Dream, 1983)
Visually, The Keep from neon-noirist Michael Mann looks like a circa 1983 heavy metal music video and its conceit – Nazis occupying Romania wake up some ancient demon and only a Jewish scientist can communicate with it – is fascinating. Which is to say, The Keep is something of a confusing mess and it's up to Tangerine Dream's expanding, stretchy electronica to hold the thing together. Highlights include the mildly militaristic main theme, the Manuel Gottsching-meets-Miami Vice "Dreamscape" and the full vocoder rumbles of "Talisman." It's an atypically sententious score from the propulsive German synth explorers that sells the melodrama of this high-concept horror flick.
‘Tenebrae’ (Simonetti-Pignatelli-Morante, 1982)
Goblin had previously scored Dario Argento's Deep Red and Suspiria, splitting the difference between over-the-top prog and atmospheric instrumentals, but here three Goblin members – Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli and Massimo Morante – deliver dead-eyed Italo-disco. It's like earlier Goblin given a Todd Terje edit so it can groove and bump endlessly, matching Argento's extended, ostentatious setpieces. "Flashing" is like a sprawling Lindstrøm track smoothed out into just six minutes while "Waiting Death" offers up a lengthy organ freakout with lots of vocoded hiccups and belches. Fizzy French house crew Justice sampled the main theme to this florid giallo on their tracks "Phantom" and "Phantom II," ultimately sampled by Swizz Beats on Gucci Mane's "Gucci Time."
‘Phantasm’ (Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, 1979)
Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave, both classically trained composers and rock music fans, combined their collective influences for a slow, sinister version of prog bombast. Based mostly around that memorable eight-note theme, their battery of organ, piano, Mellotron, clavinet and synths ran the gamut between moody rock, church organ, drone and noisy atmosphere where director Don Coscarelli says they were, "employing almost the entire percussion section" to get an array of scrapes and booms. "We have a lot of melodic stuff that worked with the action, but just some bizarre sounds that were harder to get back then," he told IGN. "The synthesizers we used back then were so primitive that you couldn't repeat something; you would program the synthesizer, which means setting all of these dials to create a sound, and you went back and tried to get it again and forget it – it was impossible."
‘The Beyond’ (Fabio Frizzi, 1981)
Master of the moody, gore-filled Italian giallo, Lucio Fulci pivoted from westerns and farcical comedies to make some of the grimmest horror films of the Seventies and Eighties: The Beyond reigns one of horror's bleakest. The story of a portal to hell creaking open underneath a New Orleans hotel is full of face-melting, eye-gouging gore that's offset by the score of frequent collaborator Fabio Frizzi. Frizzi's dramatic cues teeter on the ludicrous, full of Mellotron lines, choirs and unseen forces. It's a crazy mix of rubbery bass, flutes and prog-orchestral ominousness, but as the film nears its grim end, Frizzi's score also darkens, growing heavy, underlining the inescapable fate of the characters. "The distinctive aim of the film's soundtrack was to achieve an old goal of mine," said Frizzi in the notes to the recent Death Waltz reissue. "I wanted to combine two different instrumental forms I had always loved: the band and the orchestra. When I started writing music some years before, I had learned to combine these two sounds; but for many reasons, the roles of strings and wind instruments were mainly created by keyboards. This time I decided to get serious."
‘The Shining’ (Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Krzysztof Penderecki, et al., 1980)
Lightning failed to strike twice when electronic-music trailblazer Wendy Carlos and her producer and collaborator Rachel Elkind reunited with director Stanley Kubrick after the success of A Clockwork Orange. Most of the music Carlos created, with Elkind credited as co-composer, went unused apart from the title theme (a syrupy reworking of the traditional "Dies Irae" liturgical chant) and a second cue, "Rocky Mountains." But you hardly can complain about the way Kubrick and music editor Gordon Stainforth cherry-picked maximally queasy passages from works by a clutch of Eastern European mavericks: "Lontano" by György Ligeti, the Hungarian genius whose music gave 2001: A Space Odyssey its unearthly atmosphere, and even more importantly Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish radical whose strangulated strings, barbaric brass yawp, clatter-bone rhythms and hissing choruses in "Utrejna," "De Natura Sonoris," "The Awakening of Jacob" and more provided the Overlook Hotel and its denizens with an appropriately unhinged environment.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (Krzysztof Komeda, 1968)
The main theme of Rosemary's Baby would seem to be innocent enough – just some slowly loping strings or harpsichord and lovely la-la-la vocals sung by a young Mia Farrow. However, innocence is not in high supply in director Roman Polanski's breakout hit. The music was scored by Krzysztof Komeda, a Polish compatriot of Polanski's who made his name as a progressive mind in Eastern European jazz. Some of that is evident in Rosemary's Baby, including in the lilting saxophone ballad "Making Love in the Apartment," but subtle otherworldliness is the main register as Komeda mixes styles with wild imagination and control.
‘The Omen’ (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)
Much of the reputation of Jerry Goldsmith’s Academy Award-winning score to this 1976 box-office smash can be attributed to its main theme, “Ave Satani,” as well as the Gregorian and choral chants that are this soundtrack’s dark backbone: They’ve become among pop-culture Satanism’s all-time greatest hits. Goldsmith, whose Hollywood work spanned five decades (and included such classic, tense scores as Planet of the Apes, Chinatown and Alien, among dozens), penned a handful of Latin phrases that pervert those of the Catholic mass, gave ’em to an evil choir and seeded them underneath screeching, tension-filled sautillé strings and brass fanfares. Still, the ascending opener “Ave Satani” (naturally, “Hail Satan” – and a nominee for Best Song) is the unquestioned centerpiece, wherein the National Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, armed with questionable Latin grammar and Wagnerian pomp, usher in capital E evil unto the Earth. Said Goldsmith, who was nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar eight times earlier with zero victories, “I was very surprised when I won for The Omen since I didn’t think it was the kind of film Academy voters would go for.”
‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’ (Popul Vuh, 1979)
While director Werner Herzog would later go on to seek out the horror inherent in nature and the human condition, in 1979 he recast F.W. Murnau's Expressionist vampire classic as Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring the manic Klaus Kinski as the rat-toothed blood ghoul. Some of the film's shot are explicit homages to Murnau, but the film's score is a distinct break. Known for their serene and elegant album work, Florian Fricke and his Popul Vuh bandmates contribute a most somber and evocative score that works with sinister reads from Wagner's Das Rheingold and Georgian folk songs. For horror soundtrack fans, Nosferatu is atypical: garlands of acoustic guitar, sitar and Fricke's piano make for a cyclical, meditative piece that anticipates their move towards new-age placidness by the end of the decade. As a study in contrasts though, it is classic, a beautiful tracing around Kinski's grotesque vampire that provides sympathy and pathos for the most monstrous.
‘The Thing’ (Ennio Morricone, 1982)
With his intense 1982 sci-fi flick about researchers in Alaska succumbing to parasitic alien DNA, director John Carpenter broke from the tradition of scoring his own films. To capture the paranoia the researchers felt, he hired one of his heroes to pen the score: king of spaghetti westerns and giallo veteran Ennio Morricone. The main theme, "Humanity (Part 1)," begins with understated swelling strings and horns playing melodies that swoop upwards, adding to the anxiety. Elsewhere in the score, sweet melodies play against discordant chords, violinists pluck their instruments chaotically and more than a few progress from sparkly quiet notes into spooky, funereal sounds. Morricone, who later won an Oscar for his music for The Hateful Eight by repurposing leftovers from The Thing, told Rolling Stone that Carpenter had played him the film but left before they could discuss it so he had to figure it out himself. Carpenter has said the one thing he did ask for was "fewer notes," and it's that minimalism and the slow-moving tension that made both the soundtrack and its effect on the film masterful.
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (Riz Ortolani, 1980)
The dreamy, lazily romantic orchestral swoon of Italian composer Riz Ortolani plays in sharp contrast to the ludicrously bloody Cannibal Holocaust, a film that made waves for its "found footage" look in the pre-Cloverfield Eighties. It wasn't the first time Ortolani's used the trick – director Ruggero Deodato loved how his songs anchored the "mondo" shock docs of the Sixties – but Cannibal Holocaust's merciless gore, mistaken by Italian authorities for film of actual murder, made the juxtaposition one of the most unsettling in horror history. There's also no shortage of porno-funk, sinister synth pulses and errant pounding here – but the bittersweet beauty of orchestral swells and acoustic guitar remain the most iconic part. "The soundtrack to Cannibal Holocaust almost surpasses the film itself," says Deodato in the liner notes to the Death Waltz/One Way Static reissue. "Many of my fans tell me that they were engaged or married to the music Ortolani created."
‘Suspiria’ (Goblin, 1975)
Before filmmaker Dario Argento began work on Suspiria, his nightmarish and gory 1977 portrayal of a dance school that is hiding a sinister secret, he needed music that would set the mood. He'd previously worked with Italian prog-rockers on Profondo Rosso, so he read them his Suspiria script and gave them three months to write a soundtrack that would make the film's witchy theme linger with audiences and could be utilized on set to establish the tone of the film. They experimented with instruments atypical of soundtracks at the time – tabla, bouzouki, Moog synthesizer – and came up with the movie's iconic, chilling music-box–like main theme, as well as tense exercises in rhythm, dissonance and bizarre funky prog, before ending on the original LP with its creepy "Death Valzer." Over the years, the music has become horror canon and would give horror-soundtrack reissue label Death Waltz its name.
‘Candyman’ (Philip Glass, 1992)
Music by classical composer Philip Glass has been used in so many movies (and ripped off in so many more) that it’s surprising Candyman and the franchise it spawned has been his only serious brush with contemporary horror – surprising, that is, because his trademark hypnotic repetitions and remorseless momentum feel especially well-suited to a genre that thrives on chases, wrong turns and traps. Glass, it’s reported in the liner notes to the Candyman CD that inaugurated his own Orange Mountain Music label, was disappointed by the film: What he’d presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher. Still, there’s no question his score – an unusually creepy mix of huffy organ, choral chanting, wistful piano and chilly glockenspiel – is potent and appropriate … and, with characteristic pragmatism, Glass concedes even now in interviews that having scored Candyman continues to yield fiscal benefits.
‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ (John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1982)
You can trace synthesizer sophistication in the early Eighties by how John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's Halloween themes changed with each sequel. For 1981's Halloween II, the iconic theme got baroque with a little bit more synth-pop, and for 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the theme is a screwed smear of dread that doesn't even touch on the original's famous melody. It's fitting for an installment that doesn't feature Michael Myers and was originally penned by sci-fi fatalist Nigel Kneale (writer of Quatermass and The Stone Tape, a horror movie all about acoustics) involving Celtic rituals, Stonehenge and space. Other tracks similarly reimagine Carpenter and Howarth's sparse style: rushes of electronic noise on "Starker and Marge"; metal-on-metal murmuring on "Robots at the Factory"; and ambient burps on "The Rock." And the familiar Halloween melody gets contorted on Vangelis subtweet "Chariots of Pumpkins," a jittery version that turns theme into a jagged anxiety attack.
‘Halloween’ (John Carpenter, 1978)
In 1978, when nascent “horror master” John Carpenter made Halloween, the slasher flick that upended the genre for the next decade, he was 30 years old but still running things like a college student, doing everything himself. He co-wrote the script, directed the actors and wrote one of the most chilling, minimal scores in all of horror. Taking inspiration from Goblin’s eerie Suspiria music and Bernard Herrmann’s expressionistic Psycho score, he built tension from the onset with a rattling piano melody for the main theme, played in 5/4 time, a rhythm he learned as a teenager from his music-professor dad on bongos. “In thrillers or horror films, you’re trying to create suspense,” he told Rolling Stone of his minimal approach. “Think of the Jaws theme. It’s two notes. It keeps you in suspense.” Other sections of the score contain what he calls “cattle prods” – piercing keyboard stabs to make moviegoers jump – as well as sparse, descending piano lines, contemplative melodies and fuzzy, off-kilter discord. The main theme would get drastic facelifts throughout the series and it would be adopted by hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. but it has always maintained an uneasiness rooted in its scary simplicity. “It has to be because I’m playing it,” Carpenter once said. “I have minimal chops as a musician.”