Horror film soundtracks: best and scariest

23:19, Apr 12 2012

It's Black Friday - Friday 13th. I stopped Googling songs for Black Friday because Rebecca Black's Friday kept showing up.

I thought of Steely Dan's Black Friday straight away. Then I realised that a better thing to do than building a Black Friday Playlist, my initial plan for today's blog-post, would be to look at horror movie soundtracks.

Why? Because as soon as I stopped listening to Steely Dan's (awesome) Black Friday song I thought about the horror film Friday The 13th - and its excellent soundtrack. The main theme, sure. But I really like the end scene/credits music - in fact here's the actual scene.

The iconic scenes in horror movies are framed by vital pieces of musical score, the obvious examples being music from Psycho and music from Jaws. It stays with us - it often becomes ripe for parody, reused for comedic effect in spoof films, recontextualised, sampled for hip-hop tracks. Dr Dre's 2001 uses some great snatches from John Carpenter.

John Carpenter is one of my heroes. His filmmaking gets the big tick, absolutely - if he'd made nothing else but They Live I would consider him a hero. But the real kick I get is hearing Carpenter's soundtrack work. He scores his own films, writing the music, performing it. It started with Halloween. And the music from that film is some of my favourite horror-film music.

Another obvious example, something startling, powerful, haunting, is the music from The Omen. A still-frightening film, worryingly frightening in fact. Sinister.

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And then there's The Exorcist - famous for its use of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, specifically this extract.

The first horror-film franchise to win me over was A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was obsessed with Freddy Krueger. Thing is, I was s**t-scarred of the idea of horror-films as a kid. I decided to intentionally overdose on them, to conquer a fear, I guess.

So it was the Elm Street series first - and I love Charles Bernstein's score for the first film. (I was such a fan of the series I even found The Fat Boys' Ready for Freddy? on cassette tape. I had a T-shirt for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, a giant poster for the fourth film in the series; the third on VHS - I found soundtrack LPs. I was dedicated - until they brought Freddy back from the dead one too many times!)

After Elm Street I was hooked - four films into that series and it was on to Halloween, Friday The 13th, Hellraiser and whatever I could get my hands on. Comedy-horrors were part of the deal too, but I was keen on the real stuff. Gore, ghosts, gruesome stuff. The best horror though, the most frightening, the viscerally charged material, for me, is always the psychological terror - music plays such a huge part in the build, the layering, the suspense.

I keep an ear out, still, for great horror music. It's one of my quirks perhaps; it's a hobby that I almost keep separate from my passion for great film scores. And my interest in music. Obviously it's related - but somehow it sits on its own still, a collection of music that reminds me of the time I spent scaring the living s**t out of myself as a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old. Well it started at 11 and 12 actually. And on it went from there.

Scenes from The Shining still linger, along with the music of course - coupled with my fascination in horror films was a love of the Stephen King books. I just discovered two dozen of his books last weekend at my parents' house. The books were packed into the car to return with us to fill up a gap in the top of the bookshelf, reunited with the handful of his books that I did already have in Wellington. I keep telling myself that I will once again read a Stephen King book. I'm not sure if I actually will - but I admire his work from that time. It was simply more fuel for the fire. A break from watching a horror film, in my world, meant a chance to kick back with a King novel and listen to Bernard Hermann's Cape Fear score on cassette tape or an LP of The Omen soundtrack.

I'm forgetting to mention George Romero's cult-classic Dawn of the Dead - some great music from that film. And so many others.

Two of the best for me: Texas Chainsaw Massacre's opening credits music and Silent Night, Deadly Night's theme (man I loved that film!)

Watch the film without the music and it's not scary. That's often the case - I'm not sure why anyone would want to do that, of course. Well, sometimes, you can listen to the music and not have any fear at all - it's lovely and serene, calm, soothing. For many years my "classical music" as such was all of the film scores I'd been collecting. In many cases it was horror film soundtracks. Remove the context and it survives as its own thing.

But some of the best horror movie music is just downright creepy - curious and disturbing, dark and weird, evil.

I love so much of it, the terrifying and the whimsical.

Who's with me? Who else is a fan of the dark and twisted, the incongruously serene? I'll mention The Director's Cut, an album by Fantomas that features horror-score re-imaginings. Because, well, if I don't mention it somebody will complain that it should have been mentioned. I like the album - definitely. But it's a bit like listening to Jacques Loussier playing his version of Bach. Cute, and not entirely without merit but after a while - or perhaps quite swiftly - you just want something that is that much closer to the real thing.

So, for this Black Friday let's start a list of the great horror-film music and the great horror-film moments that could not have worked without the music. The shark in Jaws didn't even work, so the music helped cover that up. A classic example. The subverted nursery rhyme from the Freddy Krueger/Nightmare films. And so many moments of apocalypse, of all-out carnage, or the creeping loom of suggested terror. Scored by a shriek of violin or a thrum of guitar, the twinkle of the piano, synthesisers serving up some form of nausea-inducing discomfort; wonderful stuff. Lovely, lovely. I love it.

So what horror film soundtracks do you love? What are your favourites? Do you have favourite composers, favourite film scenes that work because of the music? Or were you a film fan who bought the soundtracks as part of the ephemera relating to the experience of being wrapped up in the movie? There's a guy in the documentary Cinemania who has hundreds of movie scores on vinyl; the only records he collects. He doesn't even own a turntable. He's never played any of them.

I also think that horror films went downhill when the soundtracks were phoned-in after, not a carefully considered part of the film. To me the soundtrack of a horror-film is often one of the stars; in that sense it's a bit different from how other film soundtracks work, in support, sometimes barely noticed.

I'm off to plan my Black Friday mini horror-film festival. Thanks for allowing me to ramble on about this. Now it's your turn. Are you a horror-film soundtrack junkie too?

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