Ye who take delight in ghoulish things, gather 'round! There are many paths into the feared regions of the soul, and it is with pleasure that we shine a helpful torch so that you may find your way to them post-haste!
There are many types of horror stories (including those dealing with: ghosts, vampires, zombies, lunatics, etc.) and various manners of presenting those stories in film; movies can be conservative / straightforward, extreme, campy or surreal. But no matter the style of the film, many aspects of its production contribute to creating a solid effect on audience members. Moreover, the soundtrack of a horror film is just as important in establishing atmosphere as the lighting, the photography or the direction. And though experiencing a horror movie without the sound is to proverbially castrate it, simply listening to some of the best horror film soundtracks is enough to coax the listener into various states of agitation.
Now, for your sick pleasure, the Weekly is proud to present you with a cross-section of some of the greatest horror film soundtracks. Each selection demonstrates its brilliance by delivering willing listeners into a number of regions within the spectrum of darkness. Have fun, kids!
5. The Fearless Vampire Killers (Krzysztof Komeda)
Until his untimely death in 1969 (age 37), Polish Jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda was filmmaker Roman Polanski's go-to man. Many online lists of great horror film soundtracks frequently include Komeda's score for Rosemary's Baby. However, despite the haunting beauty of that film's track “Rosemary's Lullaby” (featuring actress Mia Farrow) and the delirious Satanism of “The Coven 2,” I opted for his soundtrack for The Fearless Vampire Killers. The film, itself, is essentially a parody of the vampire films of Hammer studios, and the light-heartedness of the score quickly gives way to a reverence for an ancient evil which shares the world with us mere humans. It is easy to see that the jazzy yet gothic musical sensibilities of Vampire Killers were a major influence for many of the scores that Danny Elfman was to write, decades later. The motifs of the soundtrack include youthful flirtation, descending swarms of “children of the night,” high stakes chases (no pun intended) and courtly ballroom evil.
4. Jaws (John Williams)
I remember the feeling of shock I experienced the first time someone referred to John Williams as a hack. The fact remains that many of his most memorable film themes are directly adapted from the works of classical composers; however, as Bono sang: “Every artist is a cannibal; every poet is a thief.” And since most people forgive Jimmy Page for ripping off bluesmen like Robert Johnson, I think Mr. Williams can be forgiven for synthesizing the works of Dvorak and Stravinsky. That being said, the soundtrack to Jaws — not unlike many of Williams's scores — is as epic in its orchestration as it is in the emotional journey that it provides. Listening to it conjures the senses of: sinister creeping, frightful expeditions, surprise attacks and violent confrontations.
3. Psycho (Bernard Herrmann)
Before John Williams reintroduced grand, orchestral scores to movies, there was Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann's entire catalog fits nicely into any horror film aficionado's collection, as he composed for numerous horror & sci-fi films, television shows and (are you ready for this, kids?) radio theater shows. Apart from the shrieking strings that most everybody associates with Janet Leigh's death scene in this film, the soundtrack is a masterpiece of suspense. From the unrelenting tension of the opening title track, through the melancholic theme of the plotting heroine, to the accompaniment for the detective's ascension up the steps to solve the mystery of the mad “woman,” Herrmann's score reminds listeners that unnerving mysteries exist in the world — mysteries whose unfathomable secrets are frequently revealed when it's too late to do anything about them.
2. Alien (Jerry Goldsmith)
Since Academy Award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith took the Oscar for the soundtrack of The Omen, I feel that it is necessary to reveal one of the criterion I took into account when creating this list: repetitiveness. Though The Omen is a brilliant soundtrack, the “Ave Satani” (Latin for “Hail Satan”) theme appeared on one too many of the album's tracks. And while we're at it, repetition was also a consideration while deciding to omit the scores for Halloween, The Exorcist and Susperia. Goldsmith's score for Alien, however, begins with a brooding fanfare which infuses listeners with a grand sensation of utter insignificance. Next, the infamous bassy col legno string technique (with delay) permeates a sensation that we are tampering with things that ought not be tampered with. By the time the horns reappear and the rest of the orchestra kicks into high gear, it is obvious that we are trapped in a game of cat and mouse with listeners, obviously, being the latter.
1. The Shining (Various)
It should come as no surprise that the soundtrack for the horror film of Stanley Kubrick, one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the 20th century, is every bit as disturbing as his visual odyssey. Kubrick frequently edited his films using “temp tracks” to help him with the pacing of his scenes. In many cases, including this one, he wound up liking some of the temp tracks so much that he used them in lieu of the scores he had commissioned from his composers. The soundtrack for The Shining is a mish-mosh of modern orchestral pieces by experimental composers, haunting 30's jazz classics and original works by the brilliant synthesizer artist Wendy Carlos with unnerving vocalizations by Rachel Elkind.
Included among the orchestral pieces is Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Movement III); it is probably safe to say that this piece, in its original form or in a varied form, is included in at least 50% of all horror films. Most of the rest of the orchestral works are those of Krzysztof Penderecki, whose experimental pieces are so eerie and disturbing that some of them also found their way into David Lynch's twisted, surreal and brilliant film Inland Empire. Listening to this soundtrack out loud will not only disturb the neighbors, but it will escort listeners down the corridor of an insane asylum with stops in the creepy, the paranoid and the melancholic wards.