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As Halloween draws closer, we’ve been enjoying one of our favorite fall activities: binge-watching classic horror movies. Perhaps more than any other genre of film, horror movies rely on the score to set the tone with spooky synth sounds and haunting soundscapes.
In honor of All Hallow’s Eve, we reached out to a few pro engineers and producers to give us the scoop on their favorite scary soundtracks. Continue reading to learn what makes these scores so bone-chilling.
"Dawn of the Dead" (1978) by Goblin: George A. Romero's work has always had an immense impact on my music, its development, and sonic arrangement. He possesses this magic way of making you feel like you are actually part of what's happening in the film. I absolutely love how Romero has used music and sound assemblage to carry the arrangements in his films, storyboarding, and cinematography. 1978's "Dawn Of the Dead" is a shining example of this.
Those who are aware of the soundtrack usually only cite the amazing pieces composed by the band, Goblin, that are featured throughout the film; rightfully so, their use of heavy motifs combined with layered ARP and Moog synthesizers, haunting Mellotrons, and percolating sequences carry the action and scene changes of the film perfectly. However, it's the deeper cuts of the film that have always chilled me and inspired my muse.
Paul Lemel's haunting "Cosmogony" opens the film and you immediately feel the apocalyptic passageways that are soon to unfold. Derek Scott's "Scarey I & II" unfolds raw, unforgiving modular synthesizer work. His use of space and grit creates perfect suspense. Simon Park's "Figment" unravels the blood-curdling ARP String Ensemble through an ARP 2600. Like a helicopter with no place to land, this piece projects the mystery and horror of a snowy winter landscape of terror with frozen zombies stalking the countryside where solace once resided.
Jack Trombey's "Mask Of Death " and "Barrage" are remarkable orchestrations that open a wider view of the impending doom that's soon to engulf your circumference of safety. Pierre Arvay's beautifully ambient "Desert De Glace" reflects the silence and emptiness of a world erased by eerie inhabitants. Empty hallways of yearning and mystery. An Erebus epitaph, a sunset of colors, an apparition fades into the mist...
Other equally beautiful and unique pieces, in contrast, are Barry Stoller's "Tango, Tango" and Derek Scott's "Fugarock”; fully saturated in ’70s home organ and heavy Moog lines these works safely move you through fun, unusual passages of temperamental safety. Simon Park's "Sun High" brings you to a stairwell of parallel minor figures marching from your dreams, transforms them into a circulus of smoke-filled somber, then awakens you with the most beautiful solo Fender Rhodes postlude.
Cascading morning light through winter skies. Was it all just a dream? What's beyond the door? Eric Towern's "Sinistre" reminds you that the only conclusion from this world beyond is: “When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth..."
“Mandy" (2018) by Jóhann Jóhannsson: If you haven’t seen this film it’s a wild ride and the score is absolutely incredible. The late Jóhan Jóhannsson’s last film score just blows every corner of my mind; lots of ambient minimalism with gurgling darkness lurking around the edges and flourishes of noise. Stunning guitar work by Stephen O'Malley and production by Randall Dunn. Lots of amazing players on this one. Definitely one of my very top scores in the last 10 years.
"First Reformed” (2017) by Lustmord: Another fine example of minimalist ambience/drone with extreme darkness done beautifully. An extremely underrated score for one of Paul Schrader’s weirdest films.
"Taxi Driver" (1976) by Bernard Herrmann: Taxi Driver isn’t necessarily a horror film but it’s menacing AF. Hermann’s score (also his last score before he passed away) adds a glow of absolute unease and mental deterioration. The two-note brass crescendo is the work of a genius. Just makes you feel the grit and slime of New York in the 70s and something really really bad is about to happen.
“The Thing” (1982) by Ennio Morricone: I love Halloween and scary movies. I can talk about so many but the one that got me from when I was little was "The Thing". That soundtrack has a deep sense of tragedy that makes you immediately feel frightened! The sounds they chose have so much low-frequency response when you listen on a great system, you will start to get an eerie feeling and send chills down your back. Brilliant work!
“Beetlejuice” (1988) by Danny Elfman: One of my favorite scary (or not quite scary) movie scores is definitely Beetlejuice by Danny Elfman. The score totally elevates the campiness of the movie in every way and the film would not be even remotely the same without it. It’s also a very telling precursor to his later work in Edward Scissorhands, which I also love. The icing on the cake here would definitely be the song "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" by Harry Belafonte and Catherine O’Hara’s dynamic, possessed, lip-synching performance.
“Halloween” by John Carpenter (1978): My favorite horror movie score has got to be Halloween, because the director, John Carpenter, was also the co-writer and wrote the score. The dude is a badass. Also, it was Jamie Lee Curtis’ debut role. Plus, the mask was a Captain Kirk death mask of William Shatner’s face. How much more awesome can you cram into one movie?
"Under the Skin" by Mica Levi (2013): The first thing that comes to mind is the brilliant score for Under the Skin by Mica Levi; it’s such a great use of sparse instrumentation to create tension. Also, I’d be remiss in mentioning the quite obvious (but quite genius) Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Krzysztof Penderecki score for The Shining. Finally, I know it’s not technically a “horror” movie, but I think anyone who's ever listened to Philip Glass’ score to Naqoyqatsi alone late at night, can agree it’s scary as f—.
"Halloween III" by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth (1982): We asked a few of our Audio Consultants about their favorite scary scores and it turns out that Halloween III is an office favorite. The final Halloween soundtrack produced by Carpenter (before returning to score 2018's Halloween), Halloween III: Season of the Witch relied on cutting-edge synths of the era to craft the haunting soundscapes that act as the backdrop to this classic slasher film.
We assembled all of these songs into one spooky Spotify playlist for you to stream! Can't see the playlist? Click here!
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