Horror and suspense soundtracks give composers an open canvas to compose music that breathes. The score must create a spooky atmosphere, convey the intensity of the action, and when it works it makes for an exciting stand-alone album. Here are five of the best ever—or at least the five favorite of this reviewer.
1) “Poltergeist” (1982) Jerry Goldsmith
An entire book can be written about just the Jerry Goldsmith horror and suspense soundtracks alone. There have been countless classics by the master over the last fifty years including the creepy “Magic” (1978) and the Oscar winning “The Omen” (1976) and its two sequels. But “Poltergeist” stands out as one of the most complete, varied, complex, muscular and entertaining works composed by Goldsmith at the peak of his great orchestral might.
The most famous piece of music is the beautiful lullaby-like “Carol Anne’s Theme”. It is the heart of the score and heard over the opening and closing credits. The rest of the score contains some of the most transformational and aggressive horror music ever composed.
“The Clown” takes a creepy hold, drawing the listener in as Goldsmith expertly builds into riveting suspense with cues like "Twisted Abduction" and "Contacting the Other Side" before unleashing an orgasmic orchestral explosion of quasi-spiritual beauty in the haunting "The Light".
2) “Body Double” (1984) Pino Donaggio
Given its Giallo style sexuality and excesses, Pino Donaggio was the perfect choice to score “Body Double”. The movie came along at a time when both De Palma and Donaggio were at the peak of their creative powers and had a string of successful collaborations together including the popular scores for “Dressed to Kill” (1980) and “Blow Out” (1981). The love theme from “Blow Out” was licensed by Quentin Tarantino and used in “Death Proof”.
The soundtrack for “Body Double” is a blast. It is melodically rich and varied and like the film itself, a a glorious and excessive piece of iconic pop culture. A must own soundtrack for De Palma fans, lovers of '80s cinema and anyone who likes exciting film music drenched in scary, exciting suspense cues and wildly politically incorrect pop eroticism.
3) The Fury (1978) John Williams
You will always see a lot of De Palma on my best of soundtrack lists. He is one of the most astute filmmakers of all time when it comes to the use of film music.
There can no doubt that had De Palma’s career overlapped more with Bernard Herrmann’s, he would have forged a continuous partnership in much the same way Spielberg did with Williams. De Palma’s sinister and sexual sensibilities and his love of over the top melodrama and explosive violence found a perfect match with Herrmann’s music in the shocker "Sisters" (1974) and the "Vertigo" homage "Obsession" (1976).
But after Herrmann’s passing De Palma went to his friend Spielberg (and "The Fury" lead actress Amy Irving’s boyfriend) and called upon the services of John Williams. While Williams does pay the required homage by creating a moody score similar mode to what Hermann might have done, at the same time it is uniquely a John William's score. The music draws upon all things Williams, even his avant-garde music for "Lost in Space" to create the other worldly suspense and scares the picture required.
"The Fury" is a rich, varied, muscular score that shows off all sides of William's supernatural composing skills; there is somber mood music, the quiet buildup of suspense, explosive action cues, and the moving "Hester’s Theme". Even in a horror score John Williams can create deep sentiment.
But where the score really kicks in is track 13, "Descent", a hypnotic, lyrical, sensuous, dreamy, fluid sequence of brooding sonic delight the carries the listener on an irresistible journey into a world of dark wonders only hinted at by the on-screen paranormal mayhem in the film itself.
4) Friday the 13th (1980) Harry Manfredini
A true independent horror film in every sense of the word, the original “Friday the 13th” possesses an organic artistry woefully lacking in today’s high-stakes market of bland, forgettable, and completely unnecessary remakes.
“Friday the 13th” was—and still is—exciting as hell, and a huge part of that is the landmark suspenseful musical score by Harry Manfredini. Sure it is heavily influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” (1960) and to a lesser extent John William’s “Jaws” (1975). But this tremendous and relentlessly scary score is innovative in the way it utilizes propulsive action material to ratchet up the suspense to unbearable levels. Listen to the La-La Land 2012 re-mastered album and experience just how much fun this wildly entertaining, expertly crafted score really is.
5) The Fourth Kind (2010) Atli Orvarsson
What makes Atli Orvarsson’s score to criminally underrated "The Fourth Kind" such a recent standout? It is an old school soundtrack—a mix of thematic and atonal material music that can be heard and felt in every cue. It is a score—and a film that stays with you. It is also scary as hell!
Ironically Atli Orvarsson’s came from the Team Zimmer culture that created the “droning wall of sound” trend that has been the scourge of film music fans. But as he proved in another overlooked movie, "Babylon A.D." (2008), he has a great feel for melody and bringing out the emotions on the screen. In the Fourth Kind he takes his game to a whole new level.
The hypnotic main theme is introduced right away in "Flight to Nome" with a captivating female vocal over a subtle building suspense line of strings, percussion and electronics. An emotional resonating main theme always goes a long way toward creating a great horror or suspense score because it draws us in. As the suspense and mystery build in cues like "Owolowa", "Hypnosis", and "The Owl", the listener is then moved by the brief but heartfelt rendition of the main theme in "Ashley", before being lead on a journey into the darkness.
The terror of the unknown is personified in the back half of the album with such creepy cues as "They’re Not From Here" and the explosive "Abduction".