Here at Josey we’ve got a special love for horror film scores and soundtracks. With a number of stellar reissue labels popping up over the last few years (Death Waltz, Waxwork, Finders Keepers, Oneway Static), each more eager than the last to mine the past for delicious obscurities and forgotten classics, there’s no better time than the present to look back over some of the best entries in the genre. Increasingly influential, chock full of provocative artwork, analogue brilliance and thrilling left turns, horror soundtracks and the cult culture that surrounds them have never been more impassioned; take a listen and you’ll see why. Fortunately, the bulk of these records are still available on vinyl – some as new reissues, some used – and many have found their way through the Josey stacks at some point throughout the year; though they tend to get picked off rather quickly. Give us a ring, or better yet come visit us, and we’ll do our best to try to track down a copy for you.
What follows are our twenty favorite horror soundtracks, in reverse order.
20. Razorback (1984)
– Iva Davies
What’s scarier than a wild boar terrorizing the rural Australian outback? Through glacial synths and towering clamor, Davies heightens the anxiety in a film where a 900lb piece of bacon mows down its victims. And here you thought bacon only caused cancer
19. The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
– Giuliano Sorgini
Cackling laughter, drone-y sound design, animalistic moans and yelps –– the sort of breathy groans you can feel slither down your neck bone –– ethereal white noise, psychedelic rock as funereal lounge music, the underrated Sorgini used them all to craft what’s undeniably one of the most tactile and imagistic soundtracks in the horror film canon.
18. Hellraiser (1987)
Unfinished and officially unreleased (the studio canceled Coil’s commission for commercial reasons––in other words, they didn’t approve of director Clive Barker choosing an experimental industrial act for a big budget film), Coil’s music for Hellraiser is atmospheric and peculiar even by Coil standards. Tingly metallic ticks, penetrating high-end bleats and monolithic rumbles collude in what is one of the most unforgettable lost scores in existence. Thankfully, what remained of Coil’s score finally saw release in 1987 under the title The Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser: The Consequences of Raising Hell. The resulting music put the official Hellraiser soundtrack (Christopher Young) to shame.
17. Jaws (1975)
– John Williams
Clearly, swimming in the ocean hasn’t been the same since. Williams’ notorious teeth-rattling score will forever be associated with images of bared teeth and spilled, watery blood. The sound of those hungry tuba bellows alone is cause for panic. A more universally recognizable and immediately canonical horror score does not exist.
16. Lizard In a Woman’s Skin (1971)
– Ennio Morricone
Coming at the composition with something of an avant garde bent –– equal parts conetemporary classical and world music touchstones, and sounding not unlike Miles Davis On The Corner –– The Lizard in a Woman’s Skin score is a syrupy patchwork of droning strings, infectious rythms and unnerving vocals––courtesy regular Morricone collaborator Edda Dell’ Orso.
15. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
– Krzysztof Komeda
In line with Polanski’s lurching, slow-to-boil direction, the legendary Krzysztof Komeda’s work for Rosemary’s Baby is more concerned with mood and tension than abrupt easy pay-offs. Framed by the film’s infamous elfin lullaby and demonic chants, Komeda’s work is all ethereal jazz passages and highly stylized orchestration––’60s pop even makes an appearance. Though Polanski and Komeda had collaborated before (Knife in the Water, The Fearless Vampire Killers, etc), this is where the relationship peaked.
14. Xtro (1983)
More fantastical and spacey then outright dark or disturbing, the Carpenter-indebted score to junky sci-fi alien flick Xtro is a marvel. In the tradition of budget-strapped directors (Hooper, Carpenter, et al), Harry Bromley-Davenport composed Xtro’s music himself. Having since denounced his efforts as “dreadful,” the director, a classically trained pianist, packed the score with enough whirling, woozy synths –– machine-like and unremittingly flighty –– to send it straight off the spectrum from dreamy to bizarre.
13. The Wicker Man (1973)
– Paul Giovanni & Magnet
Worthy of inclusion on account of “Willow’s Song” alone, The Wicker Man Soundtrack is an eerily disarming series of earthy folk tunes, brittle nursery rhymes, and traditional, pagan-flavored vernacular music. Co-composed, recorded and arranged with the band Magnet (a group formed solely for the purposes of the film’s soundtrack), actor/writer Paul Giovanni’s Wicker Man collection finds a way to make the most homely and bucolic of musics sound utterly disturbing.
12. Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch & Alan Splet
A mashup of un-music, crunchy sound FX and ghostly organ samples (Fats Waller), Lynch and Splet’s Eraserhead OST is terribly surreal and unnerving. Cob-webbed textures and sooty sound-design (courtesy the inventive use of things such as glass tubing and random engine parts) form the backbone of Eraserhead’s distinctly hellish soundscapes. Culminating with the memorable “In Heaven”, arguably the musical highlight of the director’s multi-media career, Eraserhead’s soundtrack captures Lynch’s nightmarish, weird-america noir approach at its most fully realized.
11. City of the Living Dead (1980)
– Fabio Frizzi
There’s not much left to say about Fabio Frizzi––the composer’s a horror flick legend. Going out on something of a limb to say that this is his most accomplished score. Fleeting faux choirs, the driving, if pattery, rhythm sections and the sailing high-end scaffolding––all make a good case for City of the Living Dead as Frizzi’s magnum opus.
10. Under the Skin (2014)
Classical modernism and an ear for unsettling motifs inform this score. The work of young composer and pop auteur Mica Levi (of Micachu & the Shapes fame), the Under the Skin soundtrack stirs to life with shivering strings and shadowy, prodding drums. Yet another example of high-art bolstering the intensity of a horror flick. All due respect to director Jonathan Glazer, but without Levi’s elegant compositions the film’s effect would be considerably dampened. An instant classic.
9. Videodrome (1983)
– Howard Shore
Swimming with insectile sounds and AI timbres –– threaded together via frozen funereal synths, echoic percussion and the shrill hum of techno-industrial machinery –– Shore’s Videodrome soundtrack is the crown jewel in the Shore-Cronenberg creative partnership.
8. Candyman (1992)
– Philip Glass
With an unusual gift for scoring and counted amongst the most important composers of the twentieth century, Philip Glass and his film commissions never cease to impress. Betraying the composer’s virtuosic command of mood and drama, the Candyman OST utilizes pipe organs and throaty choir appearances to haunted house effect. Forgoing texture and foggy fidelity in favor of spidery, pristine minimalism, Glass’ music here is at once tension-building and gorgeous. Horror soundtracks rarely sound this large, this beautiful.
7. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
One of the more recognizable horror soundtracks, Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead (or, Zombi as it’s known internationally) is a landscape of throbbing, heart-beat percussion and twinkling synths. While all the Goblin trademarks are here –– proggy late ’70s bulk, spectral synth-work, electronic squiggles throughout –– there’s something uniquely memorable about the band’s work for Dawn of the Dead; the film’s main musical theme is one of, if not the, most persistent earworm in all of horror film cues.
6. Cannibal Holocaust (1971)
– Riz Ortolani
Infamous as one of the most gruesome and controversial films ever released, Cannibal Holocaust was initially so convincing as a genuine snuff film that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested following its Italian premier. In a seemingly impossible turn, Ortolani’s soundtrack somehow matches the film’s intensity and bogus grotesquery, blow-for-blow. Lilting –– almost melty –– electronic threads, chamber passages, and even plodding funk make appearances.
5. Chopping Mall (1986)
Brooding, calculating and cybernetic, Cirino’s Chopping Mall OST is the sound of the ’80s at its most retro-futuristic. Globular synths, acid jazz riffs, twinkling keyboards and archaic personal computer FX fight for the spotlight in what’s become one of the premier cult classics in trash cinema. Think: sci-fi themes meet robotic pop, rendered with all the technology of seminal video game computing.
4. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
– Ralph Jones
Anyone in interested in minimal production needs to (re)visit Ralph Jones’ gloriously monochrome approach on Slumber Party Massacre. Instruments used: Casiotone MT-30, Cymbals and Crystal Glasses. That’s it. Slumber Party is early ’80s horror film music at its purest.
3. Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)
– John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Alien blips, sci-fi bleeps, and delicate, twinkling themes streak the Halloween III score, sounding like an alternate universe where Morton Subotnick and Vangelis joined forces to score the music of haunted houses. Of all the great soundtracks in the horror film genre, this might be the most indicative of the sounds casual listeners typically associate with scary movies: monochromatic, freakshow-like, bubbling over with tension and globby, red-and-black synthesizers.
2. Psycho (1960)
– Bernard Herrmann
Ingenious timing and screeching violins. That’s all it took for Bernard Herrmann to change film music forever. Ignoring Hitchcock’s requests for light, jazzy cues, Bernard Herrmann scored what was to be a silent scene: the shower murder. The rest is history.
1. Suspiria (1977)
The loudest horror score is also the best. Ever. Aptly described as the sound of “500 cats having their tails trampled on in unison,” the Suspiria soundtrack is cacophonous, deafening. Coiling synths, shrapnel bells, and groaning, gurgling witch chants marry to baroque, prog-rock maximalism to suprisingly psychedelic effect. Suspiria produced not just one of the best film scores, but one of the best albums ever released––without qualification.