The 10 Greatest Horror Film Scores of the Last Half Century
Written by: Matthew Cadman
Taking terror, passion and scares to the next level is what great horror film music is all about. There are far too many great themes, scores and composers to mention them all, so I will be highlighting 10 outstanding, original film scores from over the past 50 years. Allow this list to guide you to some fun and freaky music for the upcoming Halloween season… and throughout the year!
1) Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s Halloween film score boasts one of the most iconic horror themes of all time. I recognize this score not for its complexity, but for its sheer menacing drive and melancholy vulnerability (“Laurie’s Theme”). Carpenter expertly captures the helplessness of the victims and the unstoppable force of the killer aka “The Shape” making this a stand out minimalistic classic. I would also be at fault not to mention that the “Halloween Theme” makes for the best holiday ringtone ever!
Best Tracks: “Halloween Theme – Main Title”, “The Haunted House”, “The Shape Stalks”
2) The Omen (1976) – Jerry Goldsmith
The Omen is a highly imitated score, often mimicked and parodied in television and film.
Goldsmith’s score won him his one and only Oscar. I find this fact both appalling (because Goldsmith was a truly gifted film composer) and admirable (being that horror film scores are rarely ever chosen as Oscar nominees to begin with)! Instantly recognizable, this score still leads the pack in the supernatural/demonic genre. Check out the 2001 Deluxe Edition. Bring on the Latin chanting choirs and get ready to turn it up (and scare your neighbors)!
Best Tracks: “Ave Satani”, “The Killer Storm” and “The Altar”
3) Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – Wojciech Kilar
Mesmerizing. Ominous. Powerful. These three words sum up Kilar’s no-holds-barred masterwork. Though the score features some familiar elements to the genre, such as whispering/chanting choir and severe brass hits (a la The Omen), a haunting soprano voice and forceful drum and brass rhythms make this music incredibly impressive. One track that stands out to me as one of the most disturbing I have ever heard is “The Ring of Fire”. No, this is not Johnny Cash. Chanting, laughing, animalistic growls and grunts make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end every time I hear it. Also of interest, Danny Elfman and Conrad Pope’s The Wolfman (2010) and even The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl by Klaus Badelt paid some serious homage to this score.
Best Tracks: “The Beginning”, ‘Mina/Dracula” and “The Storm”
4) Poltergeist (1982) – Jerry Goldsmith
Supernatural horror really has a way of bringing out the best in composers and Poltergeist is no exception. The memorable, Carol Anne’s Theme, is heartbreaking and creepy. The music that represents “the Light” grows increasingly malevolent as the album progresses. I find it really amazing how Goldsmith is able to allow the sweet lullaby and macabre textures for the spirits to play off of each other. Goldsmith’s ability to change (on a dime) from music that is serene and then back to something incredibly thrilling is nothing short of brilliant. If you love your horror scores to be symphonic and bold, this is the perfect choice for an immensely entertaining and equally frightening listening experience. Pick up the 2010 expanded edition of the album.
Best Tracks: “Twisted Abduction”, “Let’s Get Her – Rebirth” and “Escape from Suburbia”
5) Sleepy Hollow (1999) – Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s score is as over-the-top as Burton’s phantasmagorical slice of Americana folklore, demonstrating why he is Burton’s go-to man. The Sleepy Hollow score is like the culmination of ideas from Elfman’s Nightbreed, Batman and Edward Scissorhands scores, proving why he is one of the current reigning composers in Hollywood, today. Featuring trademark angelic choirs and the chopping/slashing strings that make Elfman so awesome; Eflman captures an infectious gothic tone that is as catchy as it is unrelenting.
Best Tracks: “Main Titles”, “Into the Woods/The Witch”, “Love Lost” and “End Credits”
6) Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) – Christopher Young
Grandiose, commanding orchestral music at its absolute best, Young’s score is the perfect marriage to the infamous Cenobites and their hellish abode. Young continues to write horror scores to this day, but few horror scores, including his own, have topped Young’s inspired work for Hellraiser and most impressively Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. The score is immensely absorbing and the beautiful themes and dread-filled atmospheres are timeless. A prime example of a film score that stands the test of time due to the simple fact that the music elevates the material it was written for and proves to be an affecting stand-alone listening experience on album. This should be your pleasure!
Best Tracks: “Looking Through a Woman”, “Skin Her Alive”, “Headless Wizard”
7) Psycho (1960) – Bernard Herrmann
An indelible icon of horror film music, Bernard Herrmann’s string only orchestra brought to life Hitchcock’s game-changing film. The sense of urgency, mystery and fear displayed in the writing is beyond compare and still influences film scores to this day. Composers such as Charles Band (From Beyond), Harry Manfrendini (the Friday the 13th series) and numerous others have lovingly embraced and incorporated into their scores what Herrmann so cleverly composed over 50 years ago. I, for one, am glad that Herrmann did not listen to Hitchock’s original vision of having no accompanying music during the shower sequence. Could you imagine horror cinema without string stingers?
Best Tracks: “Temptation”, “Rainstorm”, “The Murder”
8) Jaws (1975) – John Williams
The two note motif that represents the great white shark will forever live in the minds of those who have heard it. Which is pretty much everyone. John Williams’ first real horror score sees him unleashing a fury and might that has seldom been duplicated in the man vs. beast genre. The terror of the shark as voiced by the imminent approach of the theme has and will always strike fear into listeners (and beach-goers). I really shouldn’t have listened to this before heading to the beach this weekend. Damn it. Check out the more readily available Collector’s Edition which features all the finest Williams’ score has to offer.
Best Tracks: “Main Title and First Victim”, “Man Against Beast”, “Blown to Bits”
9) Aliens (1986) – James Horner
A muscular and unflinching militaristic approach to the Alien series brought James Horner into the limelight way back in 1986. Utilizing techniques from his Star Trek 2 score and his earlier horror film scores, Horner produced a ferocious work that formed one of the most successful sci-fi/action/horror scores of the 80s. Not to mention the accompaniment to dozens of film trailers (“Bishop’s Countdown”).Though many may place Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien above Horner’s effort, due to sheer originality; I believe that Horner’s score is overall a much more satisfying listen. The descending theme, atmospherics and relentless anvil and string stingers let this listener know that escape may very well be futile. Earning Horner an Oscar nomination, this score is sure to please fans of sci-fi horror and fans of the enduring Alien series.
Best Tracks: ‘Ripley’s Rescue”, “Futile Escape”, “Bishop’s Countdown”
10) Carrie (1976) – Pino Donaggio
The Stephen King/De Palma classic features one of the most beautiful and delicate film scores for a horror film. Perfectly representing Carrie’s innocence and pariah status, Carrie’s theme is achingly bittersweet. I feel a little strange using those words to describe a horror score, but the majority of Donaggio’s music is actually not concerned with the supernatural/frightening portions of the film at all. Not until the final handful of tracks, specifically the eminent prom scene, does the music turn menacing in tone. Full-on creepy is not Donaggio’s game for Carrie, but the effectiveness of the score lives on well past the end credits.
Best Tracks: “Main Title”, “The Crucifixion”, “Sue’s Dream” aka “The Dream – The Nightmare – End Titles”
Honorable Mentions: Suspiria (Goblin), The Omen 2 & 3 (Jerry Goldsmith), Nightmare on Elm Street (Charles Bernstein), Poltergeist 2: The Other Side (Jerry Goldsmith)
Let us know what some of your all-time favorite horror film scores are in the comment section below!
About the Author: Matthew Cadman is an avid horror movie and film score fan. He is especially fond of the 80s in all it’s unabashed, cheesy glory; Troll 2 and Pieces being his all-time favorite horror laugh-fests. Little known fact: Matthew is currently working on a piano solo album.
No Shining? I don’t know if anything will ever be as good as Carpenter’s Halloween score…so simple yet hits so hard.
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What about Near Dark, Dawn of the Dead, Interview with the Vampire, Deep Red, The Thing, and Re-Animator? All great scores.
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Reblogged this on Scorecrave's Blog and commented:
Check out an article that I wrote for an awesome new horror movie fan website – addictedtohorrormovies.com!
What about Phantasm or do you only watch mainstream horror? Do yourself a favor – watch Phantasm right now! Also Friday the 13th cannot be left out. Take care.
Phantasm and Friday are both excellent calls. Manfredini is just a true wizard.
It’s funny that you mention Phantasm. I actually just bought the 3rd film on DVD from my local MovieStop, today, and cherish my Blu-ray copy from Scream Factory of Phantasm 2. I literally cannot wait for the release of Phantasm: Ravager. How about you?
Everything about Phantasm was so strangely addictive… and perfect!