I love horror films and I love film music. It follows that I really like horror film soundtracks. Here are six of the best.A disclaimer before I begin. To stop this list being “My six favourite John Carpenter scores” I’m limiting entries to no more than one per composer.
Let’s kick things off with:
6. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) / Music Composed by Goblin
Argento’s Giallo classic stars David Hemmings as Marcus Daly, a pianist turned amateur detective who investigates the murder of a psychic in Turin. It’s a great film that contains surreal visuals, an ever zooming and whip-panning camera, and some very inventive violence. It’s also very funny, visually as well as in the dialogue. I love this nod to Hopper’s “Nighthawks”:
I prefer this score to Goblin’s other great Argento collaboration Susperia because it perfectly matches the giallo ethos. It’s creepy, fast-paced, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The disregard to stylistic unity is admirable. There is the opening horror-rock riff that moves from electric piano to jazzy double bass, the prog drumming that is mainly elaborate fills, and the coup-de-grâce that is the church organ. Over-the-top brilliance.
5. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1980) / Music composed by Ennio Morricone
I’m cheating a bit here as John Carpenter did contribute to The Thing’s score but, in my defence, is uncredited (as you may gather, the likelihood of this list containing another John Carpenter film is quite high).
An Antarctic research centre is infiltrated by an alien life form that is capable of assimilating and imitating any organic being. Tension, paranoia, and viscera build slowly and unbearably as the centre’s communications are cut off and trust between the crew members breaks down.
As sci-fi horror in isolated locales goes, I think The Thing is up there with Alien. The landscape seems vast and freezing. This is the coldest looking film I can think of. The creature effects are still amazing. The blood testing scene (a metaphor for the recently begun AIDS epidemic) is extremely tense.
This is all matched by Ennio Morricone’s great score. I can think of few better match-ups between film and soundtrack. Listen to the main theme (below). It sounds empty and cold. It is a minimalist work that builds on those three synth bass notes. Through phase shifting two bass lines emerge. The added chord refrain over the top also phase shifts, becoming discordant. This perfectly echoes the film’s themes of duplication, authenticity, and disharmony.
4. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982) / Music by Giorgio Moroder
Paul Schrader’s Cat People is somewhat different from Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 original. Tourneur’s version is a noir-tinged, no-budget tale of mental breakdown, where everything is suggested and nothing shown. Schrader’s version is glossy, unsubtle, and everything is shown.
Irena (Nastassja Kinski, stunning) arrives in New Orleans to meet, for the first time, her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowall, creepy). As it transpires, Irena and Paul are the last descendants of a race of cat people. They transform into panthers if they have sex with a human. The only way to transform back is to kill someone; the only way not to transform in the first place is to have sex with another cat person.
This tale of were-cats is pretty trashy, but takes itself seriously enough not to become farcical. It drags at times (a 30 minute section where nothing happens except Irena trying to get a job at the the zoo), but It is genuinely sexy (despite all the incest and bestiality), and has some very strange visual motifs.
This cocktail is seasoned by Giorgio Moroder’s superb score. Parts of it are typical Moroder. This means that at times Cat People feels like Scarface or American Gigolo (two other great Moroder soundtracks). Parts of the score were composed on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the same synth that Vangelis used for Blade Runner and John Carpenter for Escape from New York. This lends certain scenes in Cat People a distinct 80s sci-fi vibe. A mood that perfectly fits a Martian like landscape seen in dreams and flashbacks (see above image).
The most well-known piece of music on the soundtrack is ‘Cat People (Putting out the Fire)’ sung by David Bowie. As that song has since been appropriated (corrupted?) for Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino, I instead give to you the ethereal opening theme, hummed by David Bowie:
3. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) / Music by Philip Glass
Candyman is based on a Clive Barker short story and concerns an urban legend come to life to haunt the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago. The titular bogeyman is a hook-handed killer who appears to those foolish enough to utter his name five times in front of a mirror. I find this a truly frightening film. It also covers urban blight and the legacy and shame of slavery. In my opinion it’s one of the best films of the 90s.
Philip Glass can be divisive, but I find all his music to be very cinematic and think he translates well to film. I think his soundtracks for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Koyaanisqatsi, and The Hours are all superb. His score for Candyman is, admittedly, quite over the top. It is a combination of creepy music box tunes, huge wordless choirs, organs, and occasional soft piano chords. I think this ties into the Southern Gothic roots of the film, and elaborates on the dreamy, fairy tale atmosphere. At times it sounds similar to Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands.
The Cabrini-Green project was slowly demolished between 1995 and 2011. This provides a strange counter-point to another demolished housing project: Pruitt-Igoe. The destruction of Pruitt-Igoe forms the centre piece of Koyaanisqatsi. A scene set to one of Glass’ most famous pieces of music.
2. Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985) / Music by John Harrison
This is my favourite instalment of Romero’s ‘Dead Series’. Zombies have overrun the world save for military bunkers and outposts. In one such bunker tensions rise between scientists working on a cure, and the disgruntled soldiers “protecting” them. It ratchets up a feeling of isolation similar to The Thing and contains serious philosophical questions such as the ethics of performing Josef Mengele type experiments on zombies.
The reader may have gathered that I’m quite fond of 70s and 80s synth soundtracks. I even like Mike Oldfield’s maligned soundtrack for The Killing Fields (I draw the line at Ladyhawke). John Harrison’s music for Day of the Dead is a dream of 80s movie music. It could feasibly soundtrack something like Kickboxer. It is a mix of Tangarine Dream, Moroder, ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, whale noises, video game soundtracks (a combination of Jungle Strike, Chrono Trigger, and FFVII), and occasional motifs from Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead score. Harrison is a director/producer of horror and sci-fi, and also composed the music for Romero’s Creepshow. The soundtrack for Day of the Dead is his masterpiece. Listen below to all twenty minutes of the glorious “The Dead Suite”:
1. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980) / Music by John Carpenter
Number 1! My favourite score, for one of my favourite films. The residents of a small Northern Californian fishing town are menaced by a sinister fog rolling in off the ocean. Could it be connected to the sinking of a ship transporting a leper colony 100 years ago?
This film shouldn’t really work. It’s essentially 80 minutes of people being chased by dry ice. Yet it does work. It’s an unexpectedly creepy film. Silly as it sounds on paper, fog is scary. It is slow but unstoppable. It is claustrophobic and one never knows what evils may be contained within (hint: fog may contain leprous pirates). It’s a very literate film. The curse that afflicts Antonion Bay has Freudian overtones of a return of the repressed, and even calls to mind the “sins of the father” of Ibsen’s Ghosts. The entire presentation has the feel of a classic M. R. James ghost story. Indeed, Carpenter acknowledged an English influence upon The Fog. Namely, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and a visit to Stonehenge one misty morning (other influences include John Greenlead Whittier poetry). Antonio bay is an intriguing setting. Seemingly self-contained, it even has its own radio station run by the heroine, Stevie Wayne. Stevie is a silken voiced DJ who plays smooth jazz from six in the evening until one in the morning. Broadcasting out of the lighthouse, this appears to be the radio station’s only show.
Carpenter spent a large percentage of the film’s budget on shooting in Anamorphic 2.35:1 format. The result is beautiful, and allows for such shots as Stevie’s descent to the lighthouse:
The reason that this all comes together so well is all to do with the soundtrack. And this is partly due to delayed gratification. The first 25 minutes of the film (which is only 86 minutes in total) has no music except for snippets of songs played by Stevie Wayne. We sit through the opening ghost story telling, an evening of poltergeist activity and fog-related murder, and the extremely quick seduction of Jamie Lee Curtis by Nick Castle. Only the next morning, when Stevie’s son finds a piece of driftwood bearing the name of the cursed leper ship, does the main theme suddenly kick in. At once the heart beats faster as you become fully aware that you are watching a John Carpenter film which has masterfully pulled you in and set you up. You sense that the real action is just beginning. It is one of the great moments of Horror film history.
The theme itself is similar, but more complex, to the theme for Halloween. Like Carpenter’s earlier score it is based around a simple piano riff. This is then imitated phrase by phrase on a synthesizer. Eventually this is complemented by crashing organs or heavily modulating synths. The main motif is repeated throughout the film. Sometimes you can here a strange synth sound subjected to extreme delay that resembles a death rattle. At other times a repeated rhythmic high note conjures up a ship’s bell, ringing frantically.
Listen below to my favourite piece of horror film music: