Posted in: Film music, Horror

Keeping Score – Scary Music for Scary Movies

In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a list of 13 movie scores that stand out as landmarks in the honorable tradition of writing music designed to scare the pants off the movie viewer.

13. Jaws, John Williams, 1975.

Any responsible list of scary movie music has to acknowledge the achievement of John Williams and Stephen Spielberg in making the accelerating repetition of a simple two-note motif into a fundamental component of pop-culture history. By most definitions, Jaws is more a suspense thriller than a horror film, but it gave us one of the most heart-stopping, breath-holding, unnerving musical ideas in the history of cinema.

Jerry Goldsmith: "The Omen"

12. The Omen, Jerry Goldsmith, 1976.

Serial Oscar nominee Goldsmith won his only Academy Award for The Omen’s powerful choral/orchestral score. Simultaneously savage and quasi-religious, it broods, threatens, menaces, and finally stages an all-out assault on the listener.

11. King Kong, Max Steiner, 1933.

For a movie about a big monster, Steiner created a big score, filled with suspense, romance, power, and fear. Steiner repeated—and arguably exceeded—the achievement in 1935’s She. Both scores appreciate the importance of quiet, lush, romantic moods in setting up counterpoint for real musical terror; but for epic scale and innovation, Steiner’s exotic and aggressive music for King Kong set the standard. From the very beginning, the eight-note descending principal motif captures the power of Kong while predicting his fall. Steiner runs this motif through an astonishing chain of variations—romantic, horrific, even the ceremonial dance of an unspecified tribe that exists solely in the realm of imagination. Peter Jackson reprised Steiner’s music to score the Broadway stage appearance of the captured Kong in his recent remake—the only thing in that film that truly honors the original.

10. Bride of Frankenstein, Franz Waxman, 1935.

Moody, dreamlike, romantic, Waxman’s music for James Whale’s masterpiece imparts mystery, awe, and eroticism, while sustaining an undercurrent of palpable fear. For years afterward, its devices and tonalities were the standard language of horror movie music.

9. The Exorcist, 1973.

Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” was not written for the film, and there was nothing particularly scary about his hypnotically sustained experiment with multiple instruments played and remixed by a single performer. But the idea of associating the opening section of Oldfield’s magnum opus with the eerie atmosphere of an uncontrollable presence lurking in a quiet Georgetown neighborhood was a stroke of genius, shaping an entire generation’s notion of what horror-movie music should sound like.

8. The Shining, Wendy Carlos, 1980.

Is there a movie composer who hasn’t used the Dies Irae? You can hear it in works by Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Basil Poledouris—to name only a few. Those eight doom-laden notes of medieval chant are probably still the scariest music ever written. But Wendy Carlos built an entire score out of it for The Shining, variation upon variation hurtling us, even from the opening frames, toward the horror and doom that await Jack Torrance.

"The Night Walker" - creep, creepy, creepy
"The Night Walker": creepy, creeping, chilling music and great art, too

7. The Night Walker, Vic Mizzy, 1964.

This is the least significant movie on this list, one that few have seen or even heard of—but oh, that music! I saw the film when it was new, and today recall little about it beyond the valiant performance of Barbara Stanwyck, ever the trouper despite the film’s unworthiness of her talent. But for 44 years, I never forgot the creepy, creeping, chilling theme Vic Mizzy wrote for the Stanwyck character’s nightmare mental state. Imagine my delight when the score finally became available on CD earlier this year. Mizzy went on to enjoy an estimable career scoring light television shows and Don Knotts comedies; but in this, his debut feature film score, he played it straight (at least as straight as you can play a William Castle film), and if just listening to the thing doesn’t chill you, you’ve got the heat up too high.

6. Creature from the Black Lagoon, Hans J. Salter, 1954.

Powerfully influenced by Wagner and by German expressionism, Salter wrote moody, passionate scores for mostly offbeat little movies. The “Creature” motif, a quick series of three ascending notes in hoarse, rasping brass, is the centerpiece of all three films of the Creature series. It’s both a warning cry and a scream of terror that you never forget.

5. Halloween, John Carpenter, 1978.

Taking a page from The Exorcist, Carpenter went those tinkling bells one better. His minimalist synthesizer score for Halloween is equally tinkly, but where The Exorcist’s use of Oldfield’s bells was subdued innuendo, Carpenter’s bells are as swift as windblown autumn leaves, as relentless as Michael Myers’s gait, and as deliberate as his blade. Carpenter went on to score most of his own films in much the same vein—The Fog, Escape from New York, and Prince of Darkness are standouts—but the Halloween theme is still his most effectively scary musical achievement.

4. The Ninth Gate, Wojciech Kilar, 1999.

Kilar wrote a powerful choral score for Coppola’s Dracula, but he outdid himself for The Ninth Gate, Roman Polanski’s most overlooked and underrated film. His Grammy-nominated score, cryptically based on nine-note figures echoing the film’s theme of nine fatal images needing to be collected from nine elusive copies of a satanic text, is haunting, filled with menace, while never missing the film’s darkly comic undertone.

3. Rosemary’s Baby, Krzysztof Komeda, 1968.

Who can forget the soft, anything-but-soothing female vocal from Polanski’s breakthrough horror film? It’s the perfect lullaby for a baby from hell.

2. Suspiria, Goblin, 1976.

Another bit of Exorcist-style minimalism, and another tune you can’t get out of your head, is the nagging, repetitious, fate-filled theme Dario Argento’s band Goblin created for his Suspiria. In the film’s most memorable set piece, ancient gargoyles come to life and a seeing-eye dog tears out its master’s throat, while the music, catchy and corrosive, both lures and destroys.

1. Psycho, Bernard Herrmann, 1960.

No one but Benny Herrmann could claim the number one spot on this list. When both he and Hitchcock were at the height of their powers, from 1956 to 1964, he created a series of masterful scores, and both The Wrong Man and Vertigo are filled with foreboding, fateful, and genuinely scary musical moments. But for sheer innovation and orchestral insight that cuts straight through to the psyche and the bone, nothing tops Psycho. No film before or since has given us the pounding suspense, the quietly forbidding fear of the unknown, and the sheer visceral power of strings shrieking as if they were being ripped from the necks of their violins. Often imitated, never matched, Herrmann’s Psycho is the pinnacle of musical terror.

"Psycho": the pinnacle of musical terror

Got a favorite scary score you’d like to argue for? Comments are welcome.

© 2008 Robert C. Cumbow