Posted in: Film music, Horror

Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

10. Exorcist II: The Heretic, Ennio Morricone, 1977.

For people who associate Morricone only with astonishingly beautiful or contagiously catchy melodies, the savage music for the Coptic exorcism will come as a blood-curdling suprise. The film has its breathtaking moments of soaring Morriconean melody in a theme that identifies Regan as a gifted redemptress of the world; but most of the score rattles your bones with the ecstasy of primitive evil.

9. The Chosen aka Holocaust 2000, Ennio Morricone, 1977.

Here’s another study in horror from the same Maestro, same year. A forgotten film in which Kirk Douglas does battle with the anti-Christ, The Chosen rode a brief wave of Exorcist and Omen imitators during the ’70s, but was not without its merits, chief of which was Morricone’s orchestration of the emergence of Satan as the ultimate author and beneficiary of a contemporary nuclear plant.

8. The Elephant Man, John Morris, 1980.

The Elephant Man
John Morris: "The Elephant Man"

David Lynch’s commercial feature debut seemed downright conventional after Eraserhead. But here is a film that is only deceptively simple, a period piece that finds the intersection of pity and terror. For bag-headed Joseph Merrick’s shambling walk through a dingy, industrial London, John Morris provides a tinkly bell tune reminiscent of the circus sideshow atmosphere that forever owns Merrick’s consciousness, partly enchanting, partly chilling, altogether spooky.

7. Carrie, Pino Donaggio, 1976.

Tapping the tradition of the haunting melody associated with a female character (Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, Exorcist II: The Heretic), Donaggio created a largely wistful score reflecting the plaintive interior cries of an adolescent Carrie White, cursed with being “different.” But in the finale of the film Donaggio pulled off a musical trick that perfectly matched DePalma’s visual one.

6. Dressed to Kill, Pino Donaggio, 1980.

Another nice Donaggio-DePalma moment: as DePalma imitates Hitchcock in limning Kate Miller’s visit to an art gallery and her ensuing last fatal flirtation, Donaggio delivers a haunting, romantic mysterioso in the best Bernard Herrmann tradition.

5. Dance of the Vampires aka The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, Krzystof Komeda, 1967.

The maestro of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby also scored this earlier Polanski film, a dark comedy of chilling beauty and cheerful fatalism. It was stupidly retitled and promoted to baffled audiences as a laugh-fest; but both Polanski and Komeda filled it with forebodings of things to come.

Wojciech Kilar: "Dracula"

4. Dracula, Wojciech Kilar, 1992.

Kilar wrote the powerful, scary choral score for Coppola’s Dracula, playing it straight, menacing, and majestic. You can hear in it the roots of his more versatile and complex Polanskian horror score for The Ninth Gate (1999).

3. Mulholland Dr., Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch, John Neff, 2001.

Part music, part sound design in the classic Lynch style, the score to Mulholland Dr contains moments of uplifting redemption amid a sound environment that chills to the bone. “Go Get Some,” heard during the climactic sequence of the film, has roots in the music for Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me. At times barely endurable, it resembles nothing so much as the relentless return of the repressed.

2. Crash, Howard Shore, 1996.

People who know Howard Shore only from the Lord of the Rings trilogy don’t know the half of it. Shore has deep roots in jazz and has never been one to shrink from experimental music either. His scores for the creepier films of David Cronenberg merit attention. I’ve chosen Crash, a prime example of Shore’s ability to give us music on the edge to accent film making on the edge. Eroticism, danger, and lurking terror await.

1. Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann, 1958.

Herrmann’s Psycho occupied the number one slot on my Halloween list, and here he is again. It’s hard to choose between Vertigo and Psycho for overall greatness in film scoring (scary or otherwise), and I’m glad I don’t have to. Heavily influenced by Wagner’s lush Tristan und Isolde, Herrmann’s Vertigo music is the seductive and haunting sound of the darkest side of romantic obsession.

Want to suggest some of your own favorite frightening film music? Comments remain welcome.

Music by Bernard Herrmann, art by Saul Bass