Horror scores are for life, not just for Halloween. Don’t believe us? Get to know these 100 chilling horror soundtracks, ranked in order of greatness. If you dare…
The horror business is a broad and polytheistic church: a rowdy congregation of splatters, slashers, giallos, J-horrors and melts. The range of music available on horror scores is similarly kaleidoscopic – funk, electro, EBM, folk, ambient and weirdo electronics have all been used to revolt, unsettle, or scare the LDs out of the unwitting viewer. Yes, you’re never too far away from a brooding analogue synth, but the subculture of horror soundtracks is immensely rich and full of surprises. You can see why people devote hundreds of hours – and thousands of dollars – to hoarding (and, increasingly, reissuing) this stuff.
The following list runs the gamut from curios to blockbusters, from fan-assembled bootlegs to charting LPs. Cult classics and video nasties are amply represented: for every Carpenter and Craven flick, there’s a Surf Nazis Must Die or Slumber Party Massacre. Bear in mind however that this is a list of original soundtracks, which eliminates classics such as The Shining, The Exorcist and, err, The Return of the Living Dead.
It’s been a total labour of love, and special thanks are due to exemplary horror specialists Death Waltz Recording Company and One Way Static, whose assistance was invaluable in assembling this list. Readers of a nervous disposition – look away now.
100. Claudio Gizzi
Flesh for Frankenstein
AKA Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein – a grisly splatter-comedy directed by the great American nose-tweaker. Although cash was evidently tight (as an economising measure, they filmed 1974 Blood for Dracula straight after using the same cast and sets), Flesh was filmed in primitive 3D, and came with a score that’s much more affecting and hi-res than it really ought to be – a selection of rich, romantic compositions for orchestra, with pastoral segues and a touch of B-movie shonkiness for good measure.
99. John McCallum
Surf Nazis Must Die
Notorious Troma-affiliated genre flick Surf Nazis Must Die might not exactly live up to the promise of its brilliant title, but the soundtrack has aged surprisingly well. Finally released this year by Strange Disc, it’s a synth-led collection of trashy burners, with composer John McCallum tapping into his inner John Carpenter, albeit with an even lower budget. Cult trash nerds should be interested to know that McCallum also penned the soundtrack to the bonkers late-night classic Miami Connection – get in.
98. Jerry Goldsmith
With his usual collaborator John Williams hard at work on the score for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, producer Steven Spielberg looked to Jerry Goldsmith to provide the accompaniment to Poltergeist. Goldsmith was riding high on the success of his scores for The Omen and Alien, and managed to capture Poltergeist’s tension between terror and innocence without aping familiar tropes. In contrast with many of the other horror scores of the era, Goldsmith didn’t use any synthesizers, instead using a musical saw, whistles and chimes to create an endearingly creepy atmosphere.
97. Douglas Pipes
Trick R Treat
Comedy horror is notoriously tricky to pull off, so a pumpkinful of props to Douglas Pipes for managing the goofy/spooky balance so carefully. His score for cheeky four-in-one anthology Trick R Treat largely keeps a straight face, presenting stirring orchestral passages and shocker pastiche that’s just too overwrought to be taken seriously. There are winks too: heavy nods to Halloween, and an eerie running motif based around the “trick or treat” nursery rhyme.
96. Richard Einhorn
Einhorn studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky at the legendary Columbia Princeton Electronic Music centre, and it shows in his electroacoustic score for subaquatic Nazi romp Shock Waves. Full of sinister chirrups and oscillator trills, it has a distinctly academic chill, although some snarling synth work pitches for the gut. Einhorn would go on to score plenty more films, including nasties like The Prowler and Blood Rage, although he’s better known for Voices of Light, his alternative soundtrack for Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
95. Paul Ferris
Plenty of confusion surrounds the soundtrack to Michael Reeves’ cheapo exploitation flick – chances are if you saw the film in its VHS run then you’ll have heard the iffy replacement synthesizer score, which wasn’t a patch on the original. Paul Ferris’s ‘Greensleeves’-influenced cues were removed following a rights battle and never made it to the video release until 2007, when they were finally re-attached to the film. It’s surprisingly lavish stuff given the budget (the film apparently cost around £85,000) with orchestral flourishes that belie the film’s schlocky nature and stands confidently alongside the similarly-themed scores for The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw.
94. Stefano Mainetti
The film itself might be mostly worth avoiding – it’s a hack-up of material shot by Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei at different times – but Stefano Mainetti’s Zombi 3 score is way better than it rightly should be. Not only did he contribute the requisite collection of eerie synth-led pulses and themes, but he actually wrote a few real songs which are worryingly enjoyable in a chugging, hair-metal kind of way.
93. Joseph Loduca
The Evil Dead
Like just about every aspect of The Evil Dead’s famously gruelling production, LoDuca’s first score was a haphazard blag job: the jazz-trained composer had no scoring training, and little ear for horror (“Sam would tell me to listen to a score by Bernard Herrmann. I would comment that it resembled a Stravinsky piece to me.”) The gamble came good: LoDuca’s score is a subtle collection of synth-assisted compositions for stings, and bought him the sort of breakout every composer crosses their fingers for. Subsequent work includes Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess – and, of course, numerous Evil Dead sequels.
92. Lalo Schifrin
The Amityville Horror
After Schifrin’s score for 1973’s The Exorcist was rejected – “one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life” – he kept away from horror films, returning to the genre with 1978’s The Manitou, and going on to produce this, a landmark work in his huge canon. It’s a world away from his funk’n’jazz-coloured calling cards – a grand exercise in brassy atonality and nerve-jangling volume. Certainly the finest horror score from the soundtrack majordomo.
91. Danny Elfman
From Tim Burton’s toytown gothic to the Simpsons theme tune, you tend to know what you’re getting with Elfman: sweetened (and, often, over-sugared) pomp. Nightbreed – Clive Barker’s prosthetics-heavy cult fantasy-horror – is a fine example of Elfman’s compositional peacocking coming good, full as it is of colour and melodic flair. Not a schmaltz-free zone by any means, but when said film looks like a GWAR convention, that’s more than okay.
90. Fabio Frizzi
Zombie Flesh Eaters
Italian horror don Fabio Frizzi’s score for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi 2, depending on where you’re located) isn’t quite as memorable as his masterpiece City of the Living Dead, but it’s still well worthy of a look, with the main theme standing as one of the best things he ever penned. It’s typically jaunty, plasticky stuff, with a fat drum machine pulsing through Frizzi’s triumphant, brassy selection of leads. The ‘Underwater’ cue that accompanies Fulci’s notorious zombie vs. shark battle (possibly one of the best scenes in VHS horror history) is a particular high point, too.
89. Mads Heldtberg, Jasper Kee, Kyle McKinnon
It’s befuddling to us why Mads Heldtberg, Jasper Lee and Kyle McKinnon’s refreshing score to recent horror smash You’re Next still hasn’t been released. Unlike many contemporary composers, Heldtberg and friends avoided the obvious canned strings and scares you’d usually expect in favor of electronics and a pleasing nod to the horror films of the 70s and early 80s. Percussive and at times deliciously bizarre, Heldtberg even manages to evoke the ghosts of acid house with the spooky, repetitive synth sequences. Who knew?
88. Paul Giovanni and Magnet
The Wicker Man
Co-ordinated by New York playwright and actor Paul Giovanni, the score for the much-loved 1973 spooker has become something of a set text for the freak-folk set. Performed by Magnet (né Lodestone), assembled by Giovanni from Royal Conservatory of Music graduates for the purpose, it’s as winsome a horror score as you’ll encounter – a charming run of breezy folk originals, jaunty shanties and nursery rhymes, and one of the only picks on this list that, untethered from its accompanying visuals, might not register as a horror soundtrack at all. A hand for the indefatigable Jonny Trunk, who finally gave this a proper release back in 1998.
87. Nico Fidenco
Way better than it quite rightly should be, Zombi Holocaust is embarrassingly enjoyable trash, and its musical accompaniment from Nico Fidenco is all the right kinds of sleazy. Fidenco mashes together exotica and the all-important creeping electronic drones to land on a collection of tracks that end up being surprisingly complex. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Fidenco’s regular gig was dropping cues for cheapo Italian porno flicks.
86. Joseph Bishara
A stand-out contemporary talent, Joseph Bishara has been responsible for a string of successful post-2010 scores, particularly till-ringing demon horror Insidious. The Conjuring OST is a dysphoric set of dark ambient drift and pointed sound design, with a strong industrial literacy – Diamanda Galas features, and Xenakis and Einsturzende Neubatuen are namechecked as influences. Biashara isn’t the type to remain cloistered in the studio either – rather brilliantly, he’s played demons in both Insidious and The Conjuring.
85. Chu Ishikawa
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
If you’re going to make a cyberpunk fantasia with extended bodybuilding sequences, you’re not going to drop Aimee Mann a call, are you? Chu Ishikawa’s pummelling industrial score is the perfect match for Shinya Tsukamoto cult technohorror, playing like an amped-up Nitzer Ebb with added blast beats. Ishikawa’s soundtrack to the first Tetsuo film is great too, but this one really goes for broke – an HVDC cable straight to the adrenal glands.
Trouble Every Day
The Nottingham group are essentially French director Claire Denis’ house band, having scored seven films for her since the mid-1990s. Erotic horror Trouble Every Day, obviously, isn’t a full-on beasties’n’guts affair, but these richly orchestrated, folk-inflected tracks – and particularly those featuring Stuart Staples’ orotund voice – add reservoirs of feeling to the film. According to Denis, Tindersticks’ score offers a “mutilated kind of romance…[a] contrast between the soft music and the harshness of what we see.” Inhuman acts, deeply human soundtrack.
83. Gino Marinuzzi Jr.
Planet of the Vampires
This absolute belter from composer and electronic innovator Gino Marinuzzi Jr. feels as if it should be way better known than it actually is. A blend of creepy atonal orchestral cues and dazzling early electronic experiments, its connection with Mario Bava’s schlocky sci-fi horror movie Planet of the Vampires is quickly forgotten once you absorb the bubbling synth sounds and eerie warbling strings. It’s top notch stuff that stands so well on its own, we’re left wondering why there isn’t a high quality vinyl release out there already (and yes, that’s a hint).
82. Elsio Mancuso & Berto Pisano
When you get into real video nasty territory, occasionally the soundtracks were produced so quickly and cheaply that the master tapes – considered absolutely surplus to requirement at the time – never lasted quite long enough to reach the era when people decided they were actually a bit special. One such lost classic is Elsio Mancuso & Berto Pisano’s score to cheapo cult zombie flick Burial Ground and it’s so beloved that keen fans have isolated the cues (complete with crunchy sound effects) and made a de-facto album out of them. Even better – the record was bootlegged and released unofficially on vinyl via US noise imprint Troniks a few years back. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it.
81. Martin Cooper & David A. Hughes
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark keyboardist Martin Cooper and his Godot bandmate David A. Hughes teamed up to put together the breathy electronic score for beloved US horror flick C.H.U.D. (an acronym for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller of course). It’s a refreshingly British take on the genre idioms, sounding at times more like incidental music from a mid-‘80s episode of Doctor Who than your usual B-movie fare, which sort of makes sense given that it was recorded in Liverpool.
80. Franco Micalizzi
A favorite composer of none other than Quentin Tarantino (he cherry-picked tracks for both Django Unchained and Death Proof), Franco Micalizzi penned a number of top notch cult Italian film scores over the years, but none hit quite so hard as his work on Giulio Paradisi’s nutso “multi-dimensional warfare” movie The Visitor. Given that the film’s premise is so odd, you’d assume Micalizzi would follow in the footsteps of his peers and go balls-out with electronics for the score. Not so – his treatment is an admirably restrained collection of twangy exotica replete with horns, flutes and tambourines. It’s brilliant stuff, and well worth the recent deluxe reissue on Mondo.
As a horror fan, you get used to eating your fair amount of shit and keeping quiet about it. This is horror – we know what we’re letting ourselves in for and we still keep going back. One thing no horror fan likes, though, is remakes – Rob Zombie pissing all over John Carpenter’s Halloween? No thanks. A new version of Friday 13th? Not a chance – and we’re well aware that most of the sequels weren’t even that brilliant. So the idea of a new version of William Lustig’s Maniac starring Frodo Baggins didn’t exactly have us rubbing our hands together in glee. It turns out we were all wrong – the film ended up being surprisingly great, and the soundtrack (from French producer Robin Coudert, aka ROB) is equally as successful. Coudert leaves the aroma of Jay Chattaway’s heavily synthesized original intact, juxtaposing the throwback electronic cues with epic orchestral flourishes, organ and piano.
78. John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Prince of Darkness
The dream team of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth came up with an absolute winner with their dread-filled soundtrack to one of Carpenter’s most underrated films. Hell, DJ Shadow even used creepy samples to stitch together his unfuckwithable Endtroducing album, so they must have been doing something right. In contrast to their most well known scores, the duo didn’t rely on catchy themes here, instead conjuring up a mood that aptly reflected the movie’s Satanic focus. Fan of weirdo FM sounds and wobbly synth pads? This one’s for you.
77. Javier Navarrete
Keening lushness from Javier Navarrete, who, having previously worked with Guillermo Del Toro on 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, excelled himself on this dark fantasia of Franco-era Spain. More assured than its predecessor, Navarette’s score for orchestra and voice is rich and steeped in secrets – a considered match for Del Toro’s interest emphasis on psychology rather than shock’n’phwoar. Earned a deserved nod at the 2007 Academy Awards – a relative rarity on this rundown.
76. Robert McNaughton
Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer
Necrophilia, incest, child-murder…John McNaughton’s case study of senseless killing-for-kicks makes a virtue of sheer unpleasantness (no wonder it hung around in pre-release limbo for years – although this likely had more to do with the producers’ disappointment at the film’s weighty existential tone). The score, courtesy of McNaughton’s brother Robert, is threatening without being showy – a moody theme for synthesiser, some excellent drone passages, and a few taut, percussive interludes that recall early Muslimgauze. Like the shoddy camcorder that Henry and Otis use to film their depravities, the prevailing mood is one of lo-fi grot – and it’s hard to shake.
75. Steven Hufsteter
Kiss of the Damned
When Xan Cassavetes set out to make an erotic vampire movie, he knew very well that the soundtrack would make it or break it. So he signed up Steven Hufsteter to put together a collection of tracks that would stand as an apt tribute to genre classics like Vampyros Lesbos, Le Frisson Des Vampires and Fascination. It’s no mere pastiche either, and while Hufsteter does a great job of recapturing the exact sound of the sleazy exploitation era, his new compositions stand tall in their own right.
74. Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth is very much from the sleeves-up-muck-in school of filmmaking: as per 2004 debut Primer, he directed, wrote and starred in 2013’s arty virus flick Upstream Color. Add scoring to that list – despite having zero composition experience, Carruth produced this dreamy, mist-wreathed OST himself. Made up on synths and acoustic recordings (the pitched-up “hum of underwater sodium lights” features), it’s at its best during passages of cloudy drone, reminiscent of Eno circa Discreet Music, or, more recently, Kyle Bobby Dunn.
73. Simon Boswell
More stylised than Boswell’s acclaimed 1987 Stage Fright OST, Hardware was sequenced on an Apple 2E with a Greengate sampler. As per the film’s scorched desertscapes and cyberpunk tics, the score blends bluesy slide guitar with glowering synths; many are the goth-industrial fans who’ve fallen hard for it (although that might have something to do with Ministry’s appearance on the soundtrack). Even more interesting is the official CD release, which featured a sampledelic version of the score with samples of Iggy Pop and bible readings threaded into Boswell’s compositions.
72. David Hess
Last House on the Left
A rehabilitated chart star and writer for Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, Hess turned to the film industry in the 1970s, cropping up in a number of horror films and eventually directing his own slasher (1980’s To All A Good Night). As well as starring in Wes Craven’s debut – an endlessly depraved vision of hippie promiscuity gone wrong – Hess handled the highly idiosyncratic soundtrack, which oscillates between pretty folk rock, electronic sketches and wacky-zany-goofy instrumental interludes. Later seen emerging from a bog in Swamp Thing.
71. Orville Stoeber
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Psychological horrors, more than slashers or ghoulfests, need a carefully calibrated score, and this one’s spot-on – graceful, subtle, suggestive, textually varied. Orville Stoeber’s OST for John D. Hancock’s cult touchstone – a Turn of the Screw-style story of a woman who may or may not be going mad out in the sticks – centres around delicate Satie-a-like piano figures, swathed in tape hiss and processed environmental noise. Wibbly electronics (courtesy of synth legend Walter Sear) and snatches of folk guitar also fade into view, making for a sensitive and effective depiction of a mind turning in on itself.
70. Rick Wakeman
It might be fun to poke fun at cape-wearing Tory curmudgeon Rick Wakeman these days, but it’s easy to forget that he was responsible for this corker of a soundtrack. The film itself is an ‘80s slasher-by-numbers (think Friday 13th), but Wakeman’s score is inspiringly layered – not surprising considering it’s coming from one of the leading lights of a then-dwindling prog scene. As you can probably guess it’s as bombastic and electronic as anything in the list (save possibly Inferno for obvious reason), with Wakeman camping it up unheeded by the restraining involvement of, say, the other members of Yes. It’s also absolutely brilliant.
69. Philip Glass
Choirs + pipe organs + high drama = Magma-grade silliness, right? Not when Glass is at the tiller. Candyman is no Koyaanisqatsi, but it’s still a wonderful example of his ear for scoring, with abrupt tonal switches and hypnotic phasing techniques creating an instantly recognisable soundworld. Rare is the horror score that sounds this clean and crystalline, and Bernard Rose’s film would be much diminished without it (the graceful ‘Music Box’ theme in particular).
68. Michael Perilstein
The Deadly Spawn
When your back catalogue includes the soundtrack to a movie entitled Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers you should be able to die happy. Michael Perilstein’s finest work however was undoubtedly his score for the massively underrated ’80s monster movie The Deadly Spawn. Perilstein’s clearly having fun with this one, and his synth arrangements manage to give a firm nod to the Tangerine Dream school of scoring without ever taking themselves too seriously. You can’t help but think that he was rolling his eyes and quietly shaking his head to himself as he was tapping out the chirpy melodies on his collection of synths.
67. Francesco De Masi
The New York Ripper
When you think about Lucio Fulci films, the name that undoubtedly springs to mind is Fabio Frizzi, but Francesco De Masi’s saxophone-drenched score for The New York Ripper is just as rewarding as many of Frizzi’s greats. As the film itself is a giallo-style slasher, De Masi emphasizes the crime aspect with familiar tropes, but buries his phrases and motifs in delay and reverb, bringing out the seedy sleaziness of pre-Giuliani New York.
66. Marc Wilkinson
Blood on Satan’s Claw
Smutty occult business, and one of the classic ‘folk horrors’ (cf The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General). The score comes from Marc Wilkinson – a respected musical director of the National Theatre, and the man behind a string of iconic TV themes (including Quartermass and Tales of the Unexpected). The string orchestration is prim and precise, full of vertiginous melody lines and surprise glissandos, and an Ondes Martinot and gurgling cimblaom provide further texture. Grubby flick, classy score.
65. Alessandro Blonksteiner
With a name like Alessandro Blonksteiner emblazoned on the credits, you just know that this one’s going to be good. It doesn’t disappoint either – Blonksteiner cut his teeth making horrifically low-budget Euro junk (example: The Fuhrer Runs Amok) and the low-slunk funk of Cannibal Apocalypse is as sleazy and cheesy as they come. It’s the archetypal video nasty soundtrack, with grubby synthesized elements forcing their way through the slippery basslines and omnipresent disco strings. If listening to a cheery soundtrack about cannibals isn’t your idea of a good time, what are you even reading this list for?
64. Susan Justin
New waver Susan Justin was in charge of spicing up low rent Alien rip-off Forbidden World, and she managed to do so with a not-unnoticed degree of panache. Her regular gig was as frontwoman of the band Pink Plastic, and she adapted her specific set of influences to fit the film’s score. What we ended up with was as close as it might be possible to get to a proper new wave/horror/sci fi crossover, with fractured synths and airy vocals tangling through the usual ominous drones and pulsing, electronic cues.
63. Roberto Donati & Fiamma Maglione
Cannibal Ferox star Giovani Lombardo Radice famously detests the notorious cult gorefest, but states the film’s “one good point” is its score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione (aka Budy Maglione). It’s certainly one of the best known video nasty accompaniments with the memorable sleaze-funk theme used not only on Cannibal Ferox but its 1980 predecessor Eaten Alive!. The jaunty score is a long way from most of this list’s gore flicks, and is almost jubilant with porno flick sax, trumpet blasts and oodles of slap bass. Not a bad accompaniment for a film that was sold on the fact that it was so violent it was banned in 31 countries.
62. Richard Band
Yeah, yeah, Richard Band’s soundtrack to Stuart Gordon’s brilliant 1985 Lovecraft adaptation is a massive rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, but it’s one that was always supposed to be acknowledged, with Band asking the producers to include the note “with humble apologies to Bernard Herrmann” in the film’s credits. Sadly that note was never seen, and Band’s been taking flak for the score’s similarity ever since, somewhat unfairly. He uses Herrmann’s influence pointedly and mischievously and it sets the tone of the film in a masterful way – Herbert West is indeed “psycho” and Band’s use of the familiar theme mirrors Gordon’s humorous take on the eerie story.
61. Jeff Grace
House of the Devil
Needling tension from Jeff Grace, a former assistant to Howard Shore, and a fine modern practitioner of controlled malevolence. His House of the Devil score is characterised by clustered legato strings and surging discordance. It’s also a wonderful example of mimetic score writing, with the soundtrack directly representing the architecture of the house which traps Jocelin Donahue’s stricken babysitter – scraped cellos stand in for creaky floorboards, detuned violins evoke turning locks, prepared piano passages mirror the crack and pop of warping wood. Also excellent: Grace’s jauntier 2008 I Sell The Dead OST, and 2012’s insidious Innkeepers score.
60. John Scott
Brit composer John Scott is best known for his lavish orchestral scores (Antony and Cleopatra and The Final Countdown, for example) but when he and director Norman J. Warren realized that the budget wouldn’t stretch to pay for actual musicians, he attempted something a little different. What they could afford was studio time, and Scott spent hours upon hours putting together an experimental electronic score that still sounds incredibly unique. Scott mixed down hundreds of tracks to produce specific sounds in an attempt to make the usually weedy synthesizer sound just as imposing and epic as a full orchestra. He wasn’t always successful – it’s still endearingly plastic sounding at times – but you have to admire Scott’s resolve, and it’s a surprise to us that Inseminoid still languishes in obscurity.
59. Keith Emerson
Penning a soundtrack to the spiritual sequel to Suspiria was never going to be an easy task, so it’s not surprising that initial reactions to prog-God Keith Emerson’s galloping score were not exactly positive. Inferno sounds nothing like Suspiria but that’s a good thing, with Emerson digging into his enviable studio arsenal to come up with rampagingly fun cues like ‘Taxi Ride (Rome)’ which is more bombastic than almost anything Goblin have ever committed to celluloid. Prog beards, this one’s for you.
58. Charles Bernstein
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Not Bernstein’s first score by any means, but certainly his best known. Nightmare on Elm Street was cobbled tougher with a range of synths (including an Oberheim OB-SX, Yamaha DX-7, and Roland Juno 106), with Bernstein processing his voice through Boss pedals to achieve particularly unsettling vocal effects. The resulting score is synthetic, tangled, and industrial in spirit – full of depth-charge detonations and queasy, pitch-bent programming. Bernstein’s influences are conventional (he cites Kraftwerk and New Age as influences), but, like the film’s reality-bending villain, this score feels like it can abruptly change shape at any moment.
Coil’s set of cues for Clive Barker’s successful leatherbound exploration of demonic sadomasochism are so bloody good, that if they’d actually been used on the film they’d easily have made the top 20. Sadly, the score remains unfinished, as the studio pulled the plug when they realized that Clive Barker was paying a cult British industrial act to write music for a million-dollar movie. Barker’s assertion that Coil were “the only group I’ve heard on disc whose records I’ve taken off because they made my bowels churn” is all you really need to know. And the existing few cues (which eventually made their way into the world, thank goodness) are a reminder of how bloody brilliant it would have been if they’d been allowed to finish. Christopher Young’s eventual hack-job absolutely pales in comparison.
56. Waldo de los Ríos
Who Can Kill a Child?
Argentinian composer Waldo de los Ríos was reviled in his home country for a series of pop reworkings of classical favourites that hung around the charts like a bad smell, but his tense score for Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s Who Can Kill A Child? shouldn’t be overlooked. Far from a mere set of tired old themes with a fresh lick of paint, de los Ríos blends subtle electronic elements into a familiar Herrmann-esque wailing orchestral setup. It’s a good idea executed with a great deal of skill, and he captures the eerie mood (the film itself isn’t a million miles from Steven King’s Children of the Corn) with children’s voices cutting through the tension with what sounds like a Theremin.
55. Tim Krog
The Boogey Man
Geogaddi enthusiast? You’re lose your nut over this one. Tim Krog’s only film score of note is more of a collaborative effort than the billing might suggest, composed by Krog but performed by his Synthe-Sound-Trax trio out of their California HQ. What it lacks in blazing originality – the title track is essentially the mutant offspring of ‘Tubular Bells’ and the Assault of Precinct 13 theme – it more than makes up for in textural flair, full of flinking synth tones and lucent low-end.
54. Carlo Maria Cordio
Poor Carlo Maria Cordio will probably go down in history as having the misfortune to have scored the notorious “worst film of all time” Troll 2, an accolade that manages to erase most of his other achievements pretty wholeheartedly. Still, his contribution to Joe D’Amato’s Absurd (one of the original 74 UK video nasties banned by the BBFC in 1984) shouldn’t be ignored under any circumstances. As you might expect, it’s a damn sight better than the film itself (most D’Amato joints can be filed under “quick and dirty”) blending frazzled electronics with low-slung lounge and managing to avoid the dreaded funk curse. The soundtrack was even re-jigged for a proper LP release back in the ’80s, but good luck finding a copy.
53. Les Baxter
The Dunwich Horror
If you know your ’60s/’70s ephemera, you’ll be more than familiar with Les Baxter – exotica pioneer, author of the Lassie theme tune, B-movie go-to, and the composer behind hundreds of hours of exploitation fodder. Save yourself the hassle of wading through his (ginormous) back catalogue, and plump for the score for this cheapo H.P.Lovecraft adaptation from 1970 – a brash, psychedelic burst, blending stirring orchestral music with wibbly oscillator tones and kitsch sass. (Spotter’s note: for a more experimental Baxter, hunt down his tricky-to-find Frogs soundtrack, which features manipulated recordings of frog ribbits).
52. Walter Rizzati
House by the Cemetery
Not the first Fulci rep on this list (and not the last, either), this 1981 score saw the great Italian gore-teur break his long-term working relationship with Fabio Frizzi to recruit tyro Rizzati, whose credits were limited to a clutch of drossy sexploitation films. House by the Cemetery mightn’t do much that Frizzi hadn’t already laid claim to, but it’s undoubtedly a strong set: colourful and dynamic in the manner of Morricone, charmingly sentimental, and blessed with ‘I Remember’ – a gothic theme of the first (holy) water.
51. Jay Chattaway
Jay Chattaway’s soundtrack to William Lustig’s original Maniac is something of a horror staple. It’s packed with the kind of spine-chilling electronic cues (heartbeat percussion, detuned synths, high pitched leads) that have become synonymous with the genre and never falters from its goal for the duration. It’s masterfully composed (unsurprisingly Chattaway ended up being a heavyweight in the game, even penning cues for Star Trek), yet also takes risks at almost every turn, accenting the gross noisiness of his arsenal of synthesizers to mirror the sleazy NYC cityscape and psychotic subject matter.
Le Frisson Des Vampires
This wouldn’t have been much of a list without at least a nod to French horror-porn director Jean Rollin. The scores for his best films Fascination and Requiem for a Vampire are a little too brief for inclusion (they were paired together for a Finders Keepers release which is well worth seeking out), but Le Frisson Des Vampires fits the bill perfectly. Weirdly given the sheer amount of boobage in the film itself, Acanthus’s accompaniment is fairly straight faced, avoiding the lounge funk that’s commonly associated with the genre in favor of artsy atmospherics and art rock structures. There’s even a massive nod to Black Sabbath in the theme, which doesn’t go unnoticed around these parts.
49. Klaus Schulze
Next of Kin
Rarely seen Aussie horror movie Next of Kin is most notable for the fact that they managed to sign up Kraut legend Klaus Schulze to pen the soundtrack. For some reason, it’s a score that’s been near impossible to get hold of since the film’s release in 1982. It was bootlegged (of course), and dedicated Schulze junkies will probably already have some kind of copy, but given the sheer quality of the material (this is peak Schulze stuff) you’d think a vinyl release would be on the cards. It might be one of the least obvious horror soundtracks on the list too, with Schulze neatly avoiding the usual tropes by simply doing his thing.
Berberian Sound Studio
The shock of Trish Keenan’s early passing still hangs over Berberian Sound Studio: begun with her input but completed after her death, it’s hard not to hear it as an epitaph for one for the the period’s most creatively footloose pop groups. Taken on its own terms, it’s an effective set of postmodern scoring, well suited to Peter Strickland’s stylish meta-horror. Picking up where 2009’s Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age left off, Berberian Sound Studio offers a sort of horror decoupage – 45-second bursts of chamber music, environmental noise, synth squeals and throttled dialogue, composted together with joy and ingenuity.
Dawn of the Dead
When Dario Argento helped shepherd George Romero’s sequel to The Night of the Living Dead into existence, he did so with a few accompanying demands: control over the European cut, and the freedom to commission regular collaborators Goblin to produce an alternative score. Zombi is the Italian legends’ last recording before the fragmentation of the classic line-up, and, although it’s not their finest work, it’s arguably the best point of entry into their unique soundworld – groovy prog with a viperous streak, fizzing with energy and flair.
46. Riz Ortolani
It’s a curious world where a film called Cannibal Holocaust can have a theme that sounds like a Camera Obscura ballad, but, hey, it’s the one we live in. Ruggero Deodato’s beyond-infamous Cannibal Holocaust is so depraved that the director was charged with making a snuff film following rumours that actors had been genuinely murdered on camera. It’s been out-crassed numerous times – A Serbian Film, anyone? – but the score stands up a treat: some anaemic boogie passages aside, it’s a killer mix of stirring chamber pop and spooked rhythm tracks (the latter not a million miles away from Craig Leon’s rattling 1981 LP Nommos).
45. Ennio Morricone
Umberto Lenzi’s accomplished 1974 giallo benefits no end from one of Morricone’s quirkiest scores. Spasmo is a proper Cerberus affair, split between three returning cues – the tuneful ‘Bambole’, teased out on fingerpicked guitars; the mournful string-led ‘Spasmo’ passages; and, best of all, the freakier ‘Stress Infinitio’ passages, full of detuned melody lines and fingernails-on-blackboard moments. Morricone the cheeseball, Morricone the trouble romantic, Morricone the avant-gardeist – they’re all here, and on fine form.
44. Rick Ulfik
Written to ‘democratically offend every group on the planet”, Street Trash is the quintessential “melt movie” – a screwball story of hooched-up hobos turning into neon goo after drinking toxic moonshine. The score, courtesy of career screen composer Rick Ulfik, has an appropriately viscous quality – smudgy synthesised tones, bathed in reverb – and plenty of humour. Highlights include the gorgeous ‘Viper’ theme (essentially sophisticate pop played in a foundry) and a goofy cover of ‘My Way’ (Sample lyric: “you’re gonna be sleeping with the fishes, you little fuck”)
43. Sam Waymon
Ganja & Hess
Unlike the legions of pastiche-y blaxploitation horror films which emerged in the wake of 1972’s Blacula, Bill Gunn’s vampire fable Ganja & Hess is a proper auteur effort – a psychedelic, impressionistic horror, spotted with dream sequences and bristling with threat. The soundtrack, overseen by Nina Simone’s brother Sam Waymon (who has a sizeable role in the film) is truly one-of-a-kind – a muggy blend of Afrobeat groove and psychedelic drone, subjected to all manner of dub chamber hoodoo. Genuinely unique.
42. John Harrison
Day of the Dead
While Romero’s previous Zombie soundtracks had been cobbled together using stock music (Goblin’s soundtrack to Dawn of the Dead was initially only on the Argento-cut Italian version) he signed up his assistant director John Harrison to create the synth-laden Day of the Dead score and it paid off. More bombastic than anything coming from the Italian set, Harrison’s set of cues threw in a patently American rock bent which worked surprisingly well with the canned percussion and mid-’80s synth selections. It’s not the most instant score in the list, but Harrison’s clever use of themes and motifs slowly spreads and takes hold, if you let it.
41. Fabio Frizzi
Lucio Fulci’s surrealist horror masterpiece The Beyond is a high point not just in his catalogue but for Italian horror in general. It might not get the same spotlight as Suspiria but it’s unmissable stuff, even just for the gobsmacking ending (no spoilers here, but watch it and you’ll know what we’re on about). Frizzi does sterling work with the soundtrack too, opting to mirror Fulci’s bizarre Lovecraftian nightmare with ugly choral loops, choppy percussion and his now unmistakable synth stabs.
40. Jonathan Newton
In this 1982 slasher, three young women are marooned in a mansion with a Mrs Haversham matriarch and her – ahem – daughter. Newton’s score for synth marries Carpenter-style moodiness with unusually dynamic drum programming, and, simply put, ticks all the boxes: genuinely killer theme, impressive atmospherics, occasional moments of unsignposted lunacy. Newton never really got a proper break – other lowkey scores include 1985’s Shadow Play and another Gronquist film, 1995’s The Devil’s Keep – which is a shame, considering the obvious chops on display.
39. Stelvio Cipriani
A cheapo monster movie that’s only a hair away from Jaws, Ovidio G. Assonitis’s Tentacles can undoubtedly be avoided despite its talented cast – Henry Fonda and John Huston star – but its soundtrack is among prolific composer Stelvio Cipriani’s very finest. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cipriani’s interest wasn’t into artificially creating dread moods from an arsenal of newly-built synthesizers – he was a real musician, and relied instead on familiar jazz and lounge grooves. There’s cocktail-hour electric piano all over the score and, fair enough, a little bit of synth, and for our money there are few better examples of his lounge excesses. If the theme’s familiar, it’s been round the block a few times – Cipriani has re-used his successful La Polizia Sta a Guardare theme here, and Quentin Tarantino threw it on his Grindhouse offering Death Proof.
38. Pino Donaggio
One-time pop star Donaggio (his 1965 single ‘Io Che Non Vivo’ sold over 60 million copies, and was covered by Elvis and Dusty Springfield) was on particularly playful form on this prim, quirky score, apparently loathed by the film’s producer (and accountants – Donaggio’s commission supposedly gobbled up a sixth of the film’s entire budget). More so that other Donaggio scores, there’s a pointillist quality, an emphasis on chill pinpricks – creeping harpsichord riffs, music box melodies, and, on the theme tune, rattles like bones being crunched or necks being snapped. Mr Slaussen’s army of fucked-up mannequins would be infinitely tamer without it.
37. Giuliano Sorgini
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
When Death Waltz gave The Living Dead… a reissue a year or so ago, they presented it as a sort of proto-Suspiria – an early example of how lush, groove-led psychedelia and zombie horror were a better match in practice than on paper. Whether or not it’s the (un)holy grail it’s been presented as – and Discogs prices suggest there are enough people out there who believe it might be – Sorgini’s score is hard not to fall for, with long stretches of muggy ambient capturing the feel of fog over Salford, and funkier interludes keeping the pace up. Sorgini scored other films over the next decade, but, unlike other contemporaries on this list, never really escaped the library music ghetto – more’s the pity.
36. John Carpenter
There’s an argument for John Carpenter’s creepy accompaniment to The Fog to be treated as his finest moment. Certainly the selection of cues are impeccable and deeply memorable, and its hard to imagine the film’s unmistakable pirate-filled mists without Carpenter’s piercing synths. Still it never quite sank into the public consciousness like Halloween, no doubt lacking the punch of being named after a popular American celebration. That said, the two scores sit well together as companion pieces – The Fog ratcheting up the percussive dread and woozy electronics of its predecessor to great effect.
35. Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson
The Legend of Hell House
When Brian Hodgson cashed in his BBC pension in 1973 and set up the Electrophon studio, his Radiophonic Workshop colleague Delia Derbyshire decided to follow suite. The two of them worked together on the soundtrack to John Hough’s 1973 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Hell House entitled The Legend of Hell House, and while the isolated score no longer exists, it’s still one of the most powerful horror soundtracks on the list. Fans of Hodgson’s Doctor Who material will no doubt recognize his cues, and while Derbyshire shares the credit, Hodgson later clarified that she didn’t actually do a great deal as she was “almost on the edge of a breakdown” at the time. If anyone’s got master tapes of this one sitting in a basement or vault somewhere, you’d be doing the world a great service by handing them over to Death Waltz immediately.
34. Don Peake
The Hills Have Eyes
Don Peake has pedigree: a former guitarist with The Everly Brothers, a long-running member of the Ray Charles Orchestra, and one of the legendary Wrecking Crew, playing on the likes of ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, The Jackson Five’s ‘ABC’ and a string of Motown releases. The Hills Have Eyes is an early landmark in his soundtrack career – an unusual blend of synth drones and jangling, percussive grooves, rapped out on the same bone necklaces worn by the film’s clan of villains. Peake wasn’t done either: he only went on to write the Knight Rider music, didn’t he?
33. Manfred Hubler & Sigfried Schwab
It’s probably for the best that way more people have heard the soundtrack to Jesús Franco’s unfathomably boring Vampyros Lesbos than have actually seen the film itself. Back in the mid-1990s, some bright spark decided that the winning blend of a great title (it was beefed up with the tagline “sexadelic dance party”) and the kind of cheapo lounge funk that flat-capped DJs across London were getting weak at the knees for would shift units, and they were right. The album was an unprecedented success in the UK, even inspiring a remix album featuring Andrew Weatherall, Christian Vogel and DJ Hell. Even notorious score hound Quentin Tarantino got a look-in, snatching ‘The Lions and the Cucumber’ (easily the best cue) for Jackie Brown.
To understand the rise of Italian horror heroes Goblin, you have to understand Profondo Rosso. Cult director Dario Argento knew how important music was going to be to his visually intense slasher flick, and being excited by prog rock at the time (this was 1975, after all) he contacted Pink Floyd to pen the score. That request fell on deaf ears, and after a misfire from well-known composer Giorgio Gaslini (Argento dubbed his cues “awful”), Argento called in ascendent Italian prog act Goblin to try and fix the mess. The story goes that after a few days of recording Gaslini’s cues, Argento gave Goblin the chance to compose their own, telling them they had one night to write a score and a day to record it. The result was the band’s most popular release to date (yep, more popular than Suspiria) – a soundtrack that notched up over a million sales, sitting in the Italian charts for almost a year.
31. Chuck Cirino
Jim Wynorkski’s 1986 film is essentially Short Circuit’s meanie cousin: following a lightning strike, a squad of mall security bots turn into trundling murder machines. Chuck Cirino’s recently reissued score takes the dodgy circuitry theme and runs with it, focusing almost entirely on frazzled synthetic disco. It’s got an absolute stonker of a main theme, too – a jittery electro-funker that wouldn’t sound out of place on Jam City’s Classical Curves. Lamentably, we’ve yet to hear Cirino’s score for 2011’s Busty Coeds vs. Lusty Cheerleaders.
30. Andrzej Korzynski
This one’s a bit of an oddity. If you were living in the UK, chances are you never got a chance to see Andrzej Zulawski’s surrealist movie itself (it was on the BBFC’s video nasty list), and while Andrzej Korzynski wrote a huge suite of music for the film, most of it was left on the cutting room floor. These two factors meant that it was only recently – and thanks to the Finders Keepers label – that the full magnitude of Korzynski’s set of cues could truly be heard. It’s towering stuff too, mirroring the innovative disco-influenced electronics of the Italian set (Frizzi, Ortolani etc) but juxtoposing the drum machines and synths with woozy, stark orchestral compositions.
29. John Harrison
Every horror-obsessed kid who grew up in the ‘80s has a soft spot for Creepshow. A collaboration between George Romero and Steven King (who also awkwardly starred in one of the anthology’s segments), the two masters of horror decided to declare their love of old E.C. horror comics (Tales From the Crypt for example), and Creepshow was a fitting tribute. John Harrison didn’t only get to pen the score for Creepshow, he was also the assistant director, eventually breaking out of apprenticeship to helm the underrated (and very related) Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Thankfully, he had enough time to put together a dreadfully memorable soundtrack, which blends the schlocky synthesized elements with familiar orchestral motifs to mirror Creepshow’s smirking tone. It’s worth noting that Eli Roth nabbed one of the cues to spice up his “fake trailer” Thanksgiving with was part of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse.
28. Bruno Nicolai
All the Colors of the Dark
A protégé of the great Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai ended up becoming almost as prolific, composing scores of soundtracks in his fruitful career. His work on creepy giallo slasher All the Colors of the Dark is among his best, and shows off his unrepentant fusion of free jazz, Eastern folk music and dark Italian pop with a typically smoky air of class. Horror spods will be interested to learn that the record was recorded in the same studio as Goblin’s Roller and Alessandro Alessandroni’s Sangue di Sbirro, and Alessandroni was even kind enough to lend some sitar licks to a handful of the score’s cues.
27. Donald Rubenstein
Donald Rubenstein was only a mere 26 years old when he was introduced to Night of the Living Dead director George Romero and asked to pen the soundtrack to his brooding psychological horror flick Martin. This film itself stands as one of Romero’s weirdest and most personal, and Rubenstein’s selection of melancholy jazz cues are a crucial part of its unique tone. It wasn’t the last time Rubenstein would team up with Romero either – he also scored the lesser known Knightriders and Bruiser and came up with the title theme for Romero’s excellent TV series Tales from the Darkside.
26. Francois De Roubaix
Daughters of Darkness
Francois De Roubaix racked up 50-odd film commissions in the 1960s and early 1970s before his death in a diving accident. He’s sometimes pegged as the Gallic Morricone, and his score for Belgian shocker Daughters of Darkness – broadly regarded one of his very best – bears that out. The film itself has an unusually urbane, poised quality that sets it apart from other ’70s lesbian vampire efforts, and much of that comes from the sophisticate score: a delightful set of accordion passages in waltz-time, colourful orchestration and perfumed funk (standout ‘Les Dunes d’Ostende’ has been sampled by Lil Wayne, amongst others).
25. Charles Bernstein
Bernstein is best known for his syrupy synth score for Nightmare on Elm Street (also on this list), but his compositions for uncomfortable ghost-rape movie The Entity are far superior. Here’s a soundtrack so jam-packed with weird, memorably spine-chilling cues that Quentin Tarantino snaffled one for Inglourious Basterds – using ‘Bath Attack’ to heighten tension in one of the film’s most crucial scenes.
24. Krzysztof Komeda
Krzysztof Trzcinski was a former ENT doctor in Warsaw who, using the pseudonym Komeda to avoid hassle from the censorious Communist regime, became a crucial figure in the development of European jazz. His 1960s soundtrack work is vital, with Knife in the Water and The Fearless Vampire Killers among the highlights in an extensive catalogue. His score for Polanski’s punishing 1968 classic, however, takes top billing – a timely blend of ’60s pop, stern orchestration and warped chanting, all centred around that coiling lullaby motif. Psychological disarray has rarely sounded groovier.
23. Climax Golden Twins
Session 9 has, in its modest slow-burning way, has become easily one of the best-loved cult horror flicks of the last decade. This tale of asbestos cleaners slowly driven to lunacy in a dilapidated mental asylum has a similarly unhurried soundtrack, courtesy of seasoned Seattle post-rockers Climax Golden Twins. It’s a highly involving collection of ambient drone and rumbling piano with precise digital detailing; in its finest moments, Session 9 plays like a soured Stars of the Lid, and makes for hypnotic standalone listening.
22. Jerry Goldsmith
Thought Kane had it bad? Spare a thought for Jerry Goldsmith. After all sorts of behind-the-scenes bunfighting, Ridley Scott ended up using a butchered version of Goldsmith’s submitted score: only one cue remained in its original place, with the rest cut up and hodge-podged into a new order alongside material from Goldsmith’s 1962 Freud score. Goldsmith’s as-intended version saw release in 1999, but the bastardised score remains remarkable effective – a blend of rich orchestration and “alien sounds” (didgeridoo, serpents, strings filtered through echoplex units). A spirited botch-job, and a key component of one of the most stylised horrors ever committed to celluloid.
21. Richard Band
Richard Band’s chiming, vocal-heavy soundtrack to Troll stands as his finest contribution to the horror genre. His Psycho-indebted accompaniment to Re-Animator might be better known, but Troll is the pro choice, with its jaunty, mischievous atmosphere mirroring the fantastical world of the on-screen Troll. Band’s soundtracks stood out primarily as being so absolutely American, and his ADD compositions are now synonymous with the US VHS horror era. It probably helped that his brother Charles Band produced most of them.
20. Mica Levi
Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s tale of an alien abroad has many of the tropes of classic body horror – woman as devourer, sex as deathtrap, &tc. – but, presented with Kubrickian grandeur and a compassionate eye, it’s an exercise in artsy eeriness rather than schlock. Much of that comes down to Mica Levi’s classic-in-waiting score. Taking pointers from Penderecki and Schnittke, it blends scrimmaging strings and synthwork to thrilling effect: see that insinuating violin theme, or centrepiece ‘Love’, a sudden access of emotional energy that sets neck hairs saluting. Not bad for an art-rock scruffball in her mid-twenties.
19. Harry Bromley-Davenport
Notorious Brit sci-fi horror flick Xtro is far better remembered than it was received at the time, and its Carpenter-esque synth score has aged surprisingly well. It’s an unsettling collection of whining synth leads and haunting melodies that feels at times almost at odds with the film’s schlocky visuals (when there’s a full grown man being “birthed” on screen, woozy electronic music probably can’t cut it). Not that composer (and director of the movie itself) Harry Bromley-Davenport would agree with us; trained as a classical pianist, he now regards his soundtrack as “pretty awful.”
18. Basil Kirchin
The Abominable Doctor Phibes
Hull’s weirdest musical offspring (with the possible exception of COUM Transmissions), Kirchin started making scores for imaginary films in the early 1960s, before graduating to the real thing during the height of Swinging London. Dr Phibes isn’t as out there as his musique concrete experiments from the period – compared to Worlds Within Worlds, it’s chocolate box conventional – but it’s still a whirlwind of hepcat jazz motifs, rich exotica, tasteful electronic processing and concentrated quirk. The official soundtrack release truncated Kirchin’s score considerably, so Perseverence’s luxuriant 2004 reissue is the one to track down.
17. Harry Manfredini
Harry Manfredini’s Friday 13th score should never have been so successful: he mercilessly rips of Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann at almost every turn, but for some reason he manages to make it work in his favor. The familiar cues help add an air of unease to proceedings – it feels as if we should know exactly what’s happening, but there’s something different in the air. Then there’s the genre-defining whisper effects that became quickly synonymous with the Friday 13th franchise. If slasher legend Jason Voorhees wasn’t heralded by the requisite “ch ch ch, ah ah ah” sounds, we’d have to wonder whether his oversized machete was even still capable of decapitating a horde of lusty teenagers.
16. François Tétaz
François Tétaz heightened the sense of isolated dread that’s at the heart of Greg McLean’s terrifying Aussie horror Wolf Creek by using elements of Alan Lamb’s pioneering Primal Image recordings. Lamb spent a number of weeks recording a 1km stretch of abandoned telephone wires on a farm in Western Australia when he discovered that the unsheathed wires made a quiet “singing” noise as they were caught by the wind. Calling them the wires his “Faraway Wind Organ,” he created an album made from the field recordings – and these form the backbone of many of Tétaz’s cues. Letting the eerie recordings speak for themselves, Tétaz wisely allows his subtle drones to emerge slowly, building around Lamb’s framework with grace and respect. The end result is both incredibly fitting – the film was set in the empty expanses of Western Australia – and oddly beautiful, and has been a touchstone for dark ambient producers ever since its release in ’05.
Billed by Death Waltz boss Spencer Hickman as the “perfect companion piece to Suspiria,” Libra’s score for Mario Bava’s Shock is an obscure gem, filled with frothy prog rock excesses and avant-garde synthesizer touches. It’s hardly surprising that the band were actually connected to Goblin all along – occasional Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini lends his talent to the band, and the band’s 1975 drummer Walter Martino handles percussion. It’s one of the best giallo soundtracks ever dubbed to celluloid.
14. Ralph Jones
Slumber Party Massacre
Exquisite scuzz. Amy Holden Jones’ Slumber Party Massacre was lambasted at the time for its clunkiness, but it’s since been rehabilitated as a feminist piss-take of the worst excesses of the slasher. Ralph Jones’ soundtrack is a perfect example of the VHS trash aesthetic in action – knowing, scrappy as fuck, and shamelessly enjoyable. The mood is gimcrack baroque: trebly distorted organs parp out night-at-the-carnival lines and swarm like hornets with headaches. It’s not all trash (the ambient passages sound like they could have been plucked from Charles Wuorinen’s pioneering ‘60s composition Time’s Encomium) but for the most part this offers plenty of well-aimed cheap kicks.
13. Bernard Herrmann
Psycho could have been so different. Hitchcock originally asked for a breezy, be-bop inspired soundtrack, but Herrmann – who already had two decades of classic scores behind him – demurred. An deliberate attempt to create a “black and white score” to accompany the “black and white film”, Psycho is, unusually, composed exclusively for strings – an attempt to take violins (the stormtroopers of the Hollywood schmaltz machine, as embodied by the likes of Alfred Newman) and make them brutal and ugly. It might not have been a complete bolt from the blue – one key passage is lifted pretty wholesale from a sinfonietta Herrmann composed nearly 25 years earlier – but few scores are as harmonically complex, agitated, and attuned to the enduring power of loud-quiet-loud.
12. Tangerine Dream
Towering Gods of the soundtrack world, German synth maniacs Tangerine Dream excelled themselves with their moving set of cues for Michael Mann’s The Keep. Somehow though, the OST has never been officially released. You can still hear it – there are a good 16-or-so bootlegs – but with Mann distancing himself from the film and Tangerine Dream squabbling over contracts with Virgin (it was slated for release on the label in both 1984 and 1998) it’s managed to end up sitting in some kind of limbo for over three decades.
It’s a corker too, more bone-chilling than the band’s better-known scores for Richochet or, er, Risky Business, and complements Michael Mann’s bizarre (and still underrated) visuals perfectly. The fact that this score is no longer even partnered with the film in newer versions (that license dispute again) is incredibly depressing.
11. Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave
It’s hardly surprising that director Don Coscarelli was massively influenced by Dario Argento’s Suspiria when he made Phantasm. He realized that Goblin’s surreal score was a huge part of the film’s success, and called on Fred Myrow and his partner Malcolm Seagrave to put together a memorably synthesizer-laced accompaniment. You can certainly hear the Goblin reverence loud and clear (plus a neck-breaking nod to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in the film’s theme) but Myrow and Seagrave’s treatment is deliriously enjoyable and creepy in its own way adding a welcome sense of small-town America to Goblin’s distinctly Italo-prog sound.
10. Toru Takemitsu
A giant in the 20th century Japanese avant-garde, Takemitsu scored in excess of 90 films before his death in 1996 (interested parties are directed towards JVC’s exhaustive 55-disc retrospective, Complete Takemitsu Edition). Kwaidan, Kobayashi’s set of impressionistic supernatural vignettes (at the time, the most expensive film made in Japanese cinema history), is surely one of his greatest efforts – a savage, curdled version of Japanese folk music, strangled out of an abused biwa. Notes are plucked and spat with force, with found sound and moments of yawning space accentuating the unease. Highly singular, and a key example of horror cinema being one of the few platforms where avant-garde music has a fighting chance of reaching a wider mainstream audience.
09. Alessandro Alessandroni
A Morricone collaborator, and the chap who did the whistling on all those Sergio Leone themes, Alessandroni racked up plenty of scoring caps of his own. His soundtrack for Jean Brismée’s gothic succubus flick La Terrificante Notte Del Demonio is lamentably little heard – an increasingly cracked blend of twisted yé-yé, treated organ and industrial churn. Then there’s the impossibly brilliant theme, which could very easily be an outtake from Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melodie Nelson – note-for-note, it’s probably the most underrated track on this entire list.
08. David Lynch & Alan R. Splet
We wouldn’t be doing our job very well if we didn’t at least give a massive nod to David Lynch. Although his work with Angelo Badalementi is more widely acclaimed (and, let’s be honest, not exactly “horror”) it’s his influential soundtrack to Eraserhead, composed with sound designer Alan R. Splet, that finds Lynch at his most terrifying. Without a library of sounds they could use, the two set about employing radical techniques to achieve the vanguard “industrial” soundscape, recording air blowing through glass tubes and actual machinery and filtering in snippets of jazz to add to the woozy ambience. It’s a soundtrack that’s almost without cues, instead opting to set a mood that mirrors the film’s eerie, dream-like abstraction. Drone music producers have spent decades trying to unpick Eraserhead’s tangled genius and it still sounds like nothing else.
07. Colin Towns
You might not have come across Full Circle (also known as The Haunting of Julia) before – the film still remains difficult to obtain digitally – but that shouldn’t put you off. Colin Towns’ spacious, melancholy soundtrack is an absolute joy, and reflects the control he was given over the sound. The film’s star Mia Farrow was actually wooed to the role by hearing an early demo of Towns’ main theme, and Virgin Records were so interested in the soundtrack that they even managed to convince Queen (seriously) to help with the record’s funding.
Fascinated by using the synthesizer (in this case an ARP 2600) as an emotional instrument rather than simply as a toy, Towns combined the brassy, bassy electronic sounds with simple piano and flute motifs, ending up with a series of cues that strike a rare middle ground between the synthetic and the organic. Full Circle might not be as showy as some of the other soundtracks in the list, but what it lacks in bombast it makes up for with heart.
06. Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s score (like the film itself, edited in Hooper’s living room) still hasn’t had an official release, circulating instead in bootleg or fan-assembled form. If, like many, you excise the twangy country originals from Texan singer songwriters like Roger Bartlett and Arkey Blue, you’re left with a proto-industrial masterpiece – hellish psychedelia cooked up on a minuscule budget. The score’s genius lies in its unique blend of diegetic and non-diegetic sound: metallic scrapes underpin the sound of shovelled dirt; the whirr of Leatherface’s chainsaw impressionistically blurs with analogue synthesiser; screams dissolve into analogue tones or blend with the whirring of drills. The effect is genuinely unheimlich – a triumph of shoestring atmospherics.
05. Howard Shore
It would be hard to understate David Cronenberg and frequent collaborator Howard Shore’s influence on horror filmmaking. Cronenberg’s oozing “body horror” would inform a long list of films, and Shore’s scores effortlessly complemented the impact of Cronenberg’s pioneering visuals. Few of their collaborations gelled as perfectly as Videodrome, as Shore attempted to parallel the film’s themes by embarking on an unusual recording method. To mirror Max Renn’s on-screen technology-addled psychosis, Shore composed an orchestral score which he then programmed entirely into the early synthesizer/sampling workstation the Synclavier II. Following this, the score was played by ear from the finished electronic score by a pared down string section, and the two recordings were blended together to create the finished product. The fact that at times it’s hard to hear the difference between what’s real and what’s synthesized is precisely the point. Long live the new flesh!
04. John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch
It had to be Halloween, didn’t it? Of all the horror scores in existence, John Carpenter’s delicate piano composition is the one that will be trucked out every year on October 31 until flesh eating corpses rise from the dirt and devour us all. It’s a deceptively complex piece of writing too and chances are you’re not remembering it entirely correctly. It’s actually written in 10/8 (whether this was purposeful or not is unclear, Carpenter has said on numerous occasions that he “can’t read or write a note”) which adds to the eerie, spine-chilling mood usually without you even noticing.
Over the years Carpenter has re-imagined his original score several times, the best of which is the accompaniment to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, produced with regular collaborator Alan Howarth and exclusively made with synthesizers. The film itself might be lacking considerably, but Carpenter and Howarth’s moody electronic score takes the unmistakable original theme and expands it into a fully-fledged suite of Prophet-heavy goodness. It is also notable for being composed while the duo watched the film – the first time they were able to work in this way.
03. Fabio Frizzi
City of the Living Dead
Of all the composers so tied to the schlocky video nasty genre, it’s Fabio Frizzi that lords above them with an air of grandeur. It’s not that his synth-heavy cues boast higher production values than those of his peers exactly, rather there’s something in his compositions that keeps you coming back again and again. City of the Living Dead is crucial because it’s so varied – that haunting guitar riff, the unmistakable mellotron choir sounds, the syrupy, plasticky rhythms. Frizzi only really uses synthesizers here in moderation, and when we reach the triumphant ‘Apoteosi Del Mistero’, the analogue bleeps and brassy leads only accent a score that was already a classic.
02. Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh were to Werner Herzog what Goblin were to Dario Argento, and Nosferatu: The Vampyre was possibly their greatest collaboration. Herzog’s psychedelic and often surreal take on the classic vampire story would have floundered without the correct use of musical cues, and Florian Fricke’s spacious Eastern-inspired motifs are memorable and absorbingly eerie. In fact, Herzog pushed Fricke to raid the archives for his darkest material, and the resulting selection of tracks combines Popol Vuh’s early electronic experiments with a number of their later more organic works.
What can you say about Suspiria that hasn’t been said already? Of all Goblin’s phenomenal scores, this one towers above – mainly because it complements the film so perfectly while standing as a corker of a record in its own right. The band were desperate to experiment this time around, and Argento was prepared to give them the time to do it (Profondo Rosso was famously recorded in a day). So Simonetti and co hired a “big Moog” (the cumbersome pre-Minimoog modular system) and a bunch of Middle Eastern instruments and crafted a soundtrack based on the film’s themes of witchcraft and Argento’s excited notes. The result is a terrifying cacophony of occult themes and prog tropes that sounds defiantly ahead of its time without trying to re-invent the wheel. If you only listen to one horror soundtrack, this should be it.