Strings that scream and synthesizers that growl, menacing orchestral music and spooky jazz, from the funereal to the phantasmagoric, the cacophonous to the melodious, great scores are often essential ingredients in great horror movies. In honor of the 100th birthday of one of the cinema’s greatest composers— Bernard Herrmann— Psychobabble surveys 13 of horror’s greatest scores.
1. White Zombie by Abe Meyer (1932)
Sound horror was still a new thing in the early ‘30s, and the genre’s first films were short on non-diegetic music. Universal’s Dracula and The Mummy both settled for brief passages from Swan Lake over their opening credits sequences. Bernhard Kaun provided the overture to the otherwise music-devoid Frankenstein. Over on Poverty Row, Abe Meyer of the Meyer Synchronizing Service put together a feature-length, newly recorded score for the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. Meyer chose a superb selection of compositions by Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Modest Mussorgsky, Hugo Risenfeld, and Leo Kempenski. Particularly memorable are the excerpt from Gaston Borch’s Incidental Symphonies that swoops through the gloom while Lugosi casts a voodoo spell over Madge Bellamy and Guy Bevier Williams’s percussive “Chant”, which opens the film. Aside from Bevier Williams’s piece and a jota by Xavier Cugat, White Zombie does not feature original music, but its use of background music, orchestral and otherwise, broke new ground for sound horror.
2. King Kong by Max Steiner (1933)
King Kong was one of the most lavish productions to pummel the early sound era. There was no skimping on its special effects, sets, or globe-spanning scope. RKO had pumped so much money into Kong that studio president B.B. Kahane schemed to cut corners in post-production by asking Max Steiner to create a composite soundtrack of existing music. Producer/director Merian C. Cooper hadn’t copped out on any aspect of Kong so far, and he wasn’t going to start with anything as important as its score. Unable to convince Kahane to compromise, he paid the $50,000 cost himself, and Steiner created one of cinema’s most magical, memorable scores. The composer enhanced onscreen action with pieces that worked as both music and sound effects: booming brass blasts along with each blow from Kong’s mighty fists. The harp laced piece that sets the tone for the crew’s foggy journey toward Skull Island— and the entire picture when it unfolds during the “overture”—is groundbreaking in its eerie subtlety.
3. Bride of Frankenstein by Franz Waxman (1935)
For its sequel to the smash success Frankenstein, Universal sprang for a lush score to accompany its most lush monster movie. Director James Whale recruited Franz Waxman after meeting him at a Christmas party and explaining how much he liked the composer’s work in Fritz Lang’s Liliom. Waxman outdid himself, creating the instantly recognizable leitmotifs that electrify the picture. For Karloff’s Monster, Waxman wrote a raspy, four-note brass grunt. Ernest Thesiger’s charmingly nefarious Dr. Pretorius is introduced by shuddering strings, while his drunken escapades in a crypt are accompanied by a loopy rattle inspired by Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. Elsa Lanchester’s Bride is signified by a swooning ellipsis that serves as her shorthand whether she’s on screen or merely discussed by other characters. Elsewhere Waxman discharges what Scott MacQueen describes as a “charming period-style minuet” that devolves into an ominous fugue when Shelley and Byron recount the story of Frankenstein, a clangor of church bells when we first see The Bride in her wedding gown, and an orchestra rush that heightens the already apocalyptic destruction of Frankenstein’s laboratory to utter hysteria.
4. The Night of the Hunter by Walter Schumann (1955)
The music Walter Schumann composed for Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is as difficult to classify as the film it enhances. There are moments that blare and burst with the melodrama of a Universal monster movie score. There are passages that recapture the spooky delicacy of Max Steiner’s “Skull Island Overture.” Then there are the quirky songs he wrote to punctuate key moments: the child’s choir that begins the film with the fairy tale flavor of a Disney cartoon, the spine-tingling “Pretty Fly” child-actress Sally Jane Bruce lip-syncs during the famous river-skiff escape sequence, and the buttery “Lullaby” jazz chanteuse Kitty White sings when the children find refuge in an expressionistic barn. The songs are enchanting, but Schumann’s proper score is equally sublime, whether surging beneath Robert Mitchum’s nightmarish hunt, upping the creepiness of Shelley Winters’s watery grave, or snowing holiday cheer over the homey finale.
5. Psycho by Bernard Herrmann (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock called on his longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann to score his first horror movie. Herrmann was hesitant because Psycho was shooting on a low budget and that meant a reduction in his usual fee. Hitch always realized the importance of music and knew this was one point worthy of compromise. To save the production a little money, Herrmann decided to use nothing but strings, and the choice had aesthetic as well as financial value, the slashing of bows on strings reflecting Norman Bates’s favorite mode of murder vividly. Though not as varied as Schumann’s work on The Night of the Hunter, Herrmann’s indelible Psycho score holds up brilliantly as a piece of music even when divorced from images of Marion Crane showering and Norman Bates wearing his mom’s bathrobe. The violin stinger that elevates the disturbing shock of Crane’s murder is among cinema’s most recognizable music cues, but the score’s most glorious passage is the galloping strings that accompany Saul Bass’s superb opening credits graphics. The low drone that precedes the infamous shower stabbing is Herrmann at his eeriest.
6. Carnival of Souls by Gene Moore (1962)
Hiring an organist is a cheap way to score a low-budget movie, but in the case of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, it is also appropriate and very effective. The film revolves around a church organist who begins having ghoulish visions after walking away from a car crash. Based on that brief synopsis, you may already guess how Carnival of Souls plays out, and death does hover over the entire picture. Gene Moore, a friend of the director, composed an appropriately funereal score that compliments the film’s restrained, grim tone. Moore also knew when to lapse into discordance to unsettle the viewer or whip up a calliope waltz to lend a fractured edge to the fairground climax. Like Bernard Herrmann before him, Gene Moore was forced to make budget-related compromises with very fortuitous results.
7. The Haunting by Humphrey Searle (1963)
Without much in the way of on-screen appearances by ghosts, The Haunting leans heavily on its disorienting camerawork, uncertain character relationships, and assaultive soundtrack to get the viewer’s heart racing. Humphrey Searle, a serious British composer who dabbled in TV and film work, wrote a score just as integral to the film’s power to unsettle. The mercurial piece he created for the opening prologue makes even its most benign moments nerve shredding. Without warning, the piece builds to clattering noise; settles into a romantic, exotic theme; swells into a squall of brass and cymbals. When Julie Harris’s Eleanor Lance begs her brother-in-law to borrow his car, a cheerful celesta piece overwhelms the soundtrack to ironic, disturbing effect. Mixed unnaturally loud, Searle’s score draws much of its might from sound engineering, but the piece itself is a masterwork of shattering atonality and cheeky melodiousness that does not lose its ability to disturb when isolated from Robert Wise’s terrifying film.
8. Young Frankenstein by John Morris (1974)
Mel Brooks’s keen attention to detail is what makes Young Frankenstein the best comedic monster movie homage of its day. The authentic sets, references, and black & white cinematography are as faithful to Universal’s Frankenstein films of the ‘30s and ‘40s as its smutty humor is contemporary. John Morris’s wonderful score pays similar tribute to the bombastic old scores of Hans Salter (The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), particularly during the opening credits sequence. Morris also presents pieces of utter sincerity unlike anything in Universal’s classics; the gypsy violin melody that enraptures the Monster is almost too beautiful for a picture full of dick and boob jokes.
9. Jaws by John Williams (1975)
John Williams is probably cinema’s most famous composer, one of the few that non-cineastes know by name because of his contributions to Star Wars, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and others. As is the case with most artists of such stature, he gets a lot of criticism. Yes, Williams’s music can be loud and emotionally manipulative, but look at the kinds of movies he scores! His work compliments those big, big Spielberg and Lucas films appropriately, yet he is capable of subtlety. Take the film that made him and Spielberg superstars. Just as Jaws is often dismissed as a brainless blockbuster about a brainless underwater killer, the film’s soundtrack can be mistakenly considered simplistic because its most well known theme see-saws between two rudimentary notes. But there’s a lot more depth in Spielberg’s film and Williams’s score than is often acknowledged. The composer created ethereal passages to enhance seemingly peaceful underwater sequences, grand ones to parade over scenes of great adventure, eerie drones to underscore Quint’s spellbinding Indianapolis monologue, a melancholy French horn melody to conclude the film. Williams’s score is also unusually involved in the action: notice how the two-note theme is used only when the shark is on the hunt; its absence during the beach riot indicates that the dorsal fin causing the panic doesn’t belong to an actual shark.
10. The Omen by Jerry Goldsmith (1976)
Richard Donner took the Satan-baby excesses of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist even further over the top in The Omen. Though not as disturbing as Polanski’s film or juvenile/shocking as Friedkin’s, The Omen lacks subtlety with complete defiance. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score is as bellowing as the movie it accompanies. Carl Orff’s overused, overwrought Carmina Burana seems to be the inspiration for Goldsmith’s famous chant. The choir wails a bevy of Latin absurdities: “Hail Satan!” “Hail Antichrist!” “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh!” Oh boy! For some listeners this is the stuff of nightmares. For others it’s the stuff of belly laughs. For all it is unforgettable and the perfect backdrop for a crazy flick jam-packed with suicidal nannies, murderous baboons, inappropriately buried jackals, and priest kebabs. What fun!
11. Halloween by John Carpenter (1978)
John Carpenter kept a tight garrote on the movie with the dubious honor of launching the slasher fad. He wrote, produced, directed, and scored Halloween, bringing it in for a little over 30 grand. Performing so many tasks himself could have been smart low-budget money management, but the results weren’t just successful on a financial level (according to Box Office Mojo.com, the film made over 144 times its budget during its original run!). Carpenter’s minimal score, stabbed out on a synthesizer, is creepy, partially because it recalls Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” used to such great effect in The Exorcist. Its relentlessness matches that of boogeyman Michael Myers. Its jarring 5/4 time signature further unsettles. The doomy minor chords that invade the theme provide weight. For many horror fans, the sound of this piece alone is enough to cause a serious onset of the willies.
12. Something Wicked This Way Comes by James Horner (1983)
The aesthetic and budgetary success of John Carpenter’s synthesized score for Halloween inspired too many other filmmakers to travel the same route to lesser effect. By the mid-‘80s, production companies were viewing orchestral scores more and more as an unnecessary expense. Disney, of course, is known for its sumptuous orchestral scores, and the studio wasn’t about to blow that reputation with its live-action adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. James Horner composed an enchanting score to compliment Jack Clayton’s enchanting vision of golden boyhood autumns and very adult threats. The main theme is a swirl of strings and woodwinds redolent of both the train whistle announcing the arrival of Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and that greatest of all spooky tone poems: Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre”.
13. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch (1992)
“Twin Peaks” was a TV show with absolutely everything working in its favor. Marvelously acted, directed, and written, delightfully detailed and quotable, disturbing and emotionally affecting, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s show was—as has been said so many, many times before—unlike anything that had ever been on network TV. Angelo Badalamenti’s music was just as unique. How many TV soundtracks are essential listening? Are any aside from that of “Twin Peaks”? Having done so much to set the tone for the TV series, Angelo Badalamenti revisited that little town filled with secrets when Lynch relocated it to the big screen. Badalamenti recycled several of the series’ largely synthesized themes to establish that familiar “Twin Peaks” feel in Fire Walk With Me. He also wrote several new pieces that make more use of organic instruments while remaining true to the jazzy mood music familiar from the TV show. Certain pieces, such as “Theme From Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and the Julee Cruise vehicle “Questions in a World of Blue”, expand upon themes already featured in the series. Lynch also made several major contributions to the soundtrack, penning the fragmented lyrics and the booming Rock & Roll workouts “The Pink Room” and “Blue Frank” that intensify the Canadian barroom sequence. Named the “best soundtrack ever” by the NME, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me truly lives up to that title, working magnificently as an element of Lynch’s unjustifiably maligned movie and as a killer standalone collection of music.