The 30 Best Horror Movie Soundtracks of All Time
23. House by The Cemetery
Composer: Walter Rizzati
Even though Walter Rizzati had never scored music for a horror film before this, he stepped up to the plate to create a perfect haunted house score for Lucio Fulci’s gothic masterpiece “House By The Cemetery”. Like Fulci’s longtime collaborator Fabio Frizzi, and many other Italian composers at the time, Rizzati employed a simple rock band setup: Drums, bass, electric guitar, piano & synth to create the horror-scapes you hear.
Tracks like “Quella Villa”, with it’s stop-start rhythms and woozy-sounding chromatic synth lines, instill the paranoia that there’s someone lurking in your house RIGHT NOW. “I Remember” is a song that begs to be blasted in a cemetery late at night, while the ongoing motif “Tema Bambino” is a somber number to underscore the little girl ghost that appears throughout the movie.
Tracks like “Blonk Monster” have such a jarring intensity to it, with a repeating 5 note guitar riff, evil synth sounds and the lower register of an antique piano getting practically beaten to death, you’d think the music is going to leap through the speakers and kill you.
Composer: Hermann Kopp, Dakatari Lorenz, John Boy Walton
German horror has an abundance of nihilism that most other horror movies don’t even want to touch, whether it be subtle or outright in your face, and it doesn’t get more nihilistic than ‘Nekromantik’. For those of you who haven’t seen this film…you probably shouldn’t see it. Your sanity and soul will probably be taken away from you upon viewing it. It’s one of those ‘I-dare-you-to-watch-this’ movies.
If you haven’t guessed by the title already, there’s vile stuff happening in every frame. Necrophilia, murder, animal abuse…you know…fun viewings for the whole family! It certainly doesn’t help that the music that accompanies the film is actually beautiful, contrasting to the ugliness that you see on screen. You could totally pop this soundtrack on at a high class bourgeoise dinner party and no one would know the context of which it comes!
John Boy Walton provides the romantic piano music , and it plays out kind of like a cruel joke to the viewer. It hammers out the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other vibe, as if it’s trying to trick you into thinking that what you’re watching isn’t a crime at all and that there’s some sort of underlying beauty to what you’re seeing.
On the other side of the fence, Hermann Kopp and Dakatari Lorenz balance things out with dark, minimalistic cues to drive the point home that, really, you shouldn’t be watching this movie.
21. Abominable Dr. Phibes
Composer: Basil Kirchin
There’s all sorts of strangeness to this one, and it all adds up when you know the composer’s background. Basil Kirchin started out as a drummer for his father’s jazz band at 14 years old, which he later abandoned to experiment with recording ambient sounds of animals, insects and even autistic children. These experiments of tape manipulation would eventually culminate into two albums, both called “Worlds Within Worlds”, and are praised by ambient and electronic artists such as Broadcast and Brian Eno.
In order to fund these experiments, Kirchin would score a number of films.So it makes sense that Kirchin made a score to the bizarre cult classic that is “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”. The music correlates to the film respectfully while being all across the board genre wise. There’s 20’s era dixieland jazz and show tunes, pipe organ pieces, and a bit of the electronic weirdness Kirchin was experimenting with at the time.
The mixture of genres add interesting depth to the character of Dr. Phibes, one of his fascinations being music itself. The upbeat jazz for example, played in the film by Dr. Phibe’s own wind-up band The Clockwork Wizards, mirrors the oddball-ness of his character and his detachment from the outside world, while the Bach-esque organ music works as a tongue-in-cheek nod to ‘Phantom of The Opera’ and all the other ‘tormented-person-who-has-been-banished-to-seclusion-for-whatever-reason’ tropes that had been used in horror afterward. It’s kitschy, it’s fun, and just a weird circus of music.
20. Cannibal Holocaust
Composer: Riz Ortolani
Ruggero Deodato’s controversial exploitation flick is still held high regard (or low depending on your point of view) as one of the sickest films ever made. It’s status is legendary due to the high amount of graphic violence that is so realistic looking that Deodato got arrested by authorities who confused it to be an actual snuff film. The actors, even though it was part of the marketing campaign for the film that they go into hiding, had to basically show up to court to prove it was all fake (animal killings notwithstanding).
Riz Ortolani was chosen to do the music after Deodato heard his work on the Italian documentary “Mondo Cane”. Just like that movie, the music for “Cannibal Holocaust” is all over the map, blending sounds of primitive tribal music with the synthesized sounds that were being used extensively at the time.
Whether it was intended or not, Ortolani uses said synthesizers to mimic the sounds of primal percussion on more aggressive and violent tracks like “Adulteress’ Punishment” and “Massacre of The Troupe” (the “bewwwww” sound), and elsewhere tracks like “Crucified Woman” display string sections that a somber and sorrowful feeling.
The main theme is a sweeping, thing of beauty, and it sets the ambience and tone for the rest of the movie. For like the movie, the music acts as a mirror back to the audience to communicate that, YES, what you’re about to see is pretty horrifying but it IS also pretty sad too, and Ortolani’s music serves as the perfect juxtaposition of beautiful with ugly.
Also check out: “Mondo Cane”
19. Berberian Sound Studio
Broadcast is an experimental electro-pop band from Birmingham, England that sounds like if Brian Eno and The Soft Machine were locked in a room together to make music for a Hammer horror film. The soundtrack to “Berberian Sound Studio” was their last output before vocalist Trish Keenan tragically passed away from pneumonia.
The movie itself centers around a sound designer from England called in to record sounds for an Italian giallo horror movie and documents his quiet descent into madness due to the people in his work situation and also due to the images of the film he’s scoring for, which the audiences never sees. In the movie you get an inside look at how sound design for movies works.
Percy Jones’ character breaks heads of lettuce and cabbage with a mallet, representing the sound of a human head being split open. You also see water poured onto a hot surface meant to represent a scene in the movie within a movie where a witch gets burned.
It’s interesting enough to watch on its own, but then when you listen to Broadcast’s Burroughs-esque collage of music and sound, all you are left with are JUST the sounds and nothing else. It’s amazingly scary because you have no idea when and where any of these sounds are going to come from.
The music itself is almost like a homage to Italian giallo music, with songs like “Equestrian Vortex” and it’s sequel “Equestrian Library” sounding like the rhythm section of John Coltrane’s band backing up John Carpenter. Fans of album artwork will love this album also for the fact that it’s liner notes are laid out like a script with scenes from the movie-within-a-movie and which tracks on the album go along with which scene.
For instance, “scene 25 – Monica stabbed by the witch in the dormitory and thrown out the window. Teresa goes to Monica’s dead body. Music cue: Teresa’s song (sorrow)”. It’s laid out in a puzzle-like fashion for those who’ve seen the film and are wanting to put pieces together. But even if you don’t do that, you’re still left with outstanding music and sounds that instill images in your mind.
Also check out: their album “Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age”
18. Cat O’ Nine Tails
Composer: Ennio Morricone
The true sign of a master musician/composer is someone who can adapt to playing or writing any style of music the same way a character actor gets into their perspective role. Ennio Morricone is probably the greatest example of this, for his scores run the gamut of every genre of film and music you can think of for the 60+ years he’s been doing it, and he no doubt left his own undeniable mark and character on every project he’s been involved with.
Morricone scored music to three films for Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”, which practically saw the birth of the Giallo film: “Bird With The Crystal Plumage”, “Cat O’ Nine Tails”, and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.” All three scores have the same diversity in sounds, timbres and genres, but “Cat O’ Nine Tails” as a whole is a standout.
The main theme, “Ninna Nanna In Blu” is a truly moving piece of music that ties together the horrifying yet tragic feel of the movie (Fun fact: you can also hear the 5 note motif of “Ninna” on one of Jerry Goldsmith’s pieces on “The Omen” soundtrack ). Across the rest of the record are spastic jazz & structured improvisation cues that balance the line between film-noir and ghastly spookhouse vibes.
Other things to take note of include Morricone’s way of mounting tension with very soft dynamics, the way the female voice is used to create dissonant motifs, and the brilliant conducting of Bruno Nicolai, an acclaimed film composer in his own right (check out his scores to “All Colours of The Dark”, and “Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key”). Mysterious, brooding and classy all at once.
Around the same time Morricone wrote these scores, he was part of a group called Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, that consisted of various experimental composers from Italy. When you listen to albums of theirs such as their self titled output, “Musica Su Schemi” and “The Feed Back” (the latter being a favorite of hip hop artists for sampling), you can hear the inspiration and techniques Morricone would use for his interpretation of how horror music would and should sound.
Also check out: Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and anything from Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
17. Deep Red
From the 1970’s through the 1980’s, Goblin provided the score many prominent horror/giallo films, as well as a few science fiction and drama films, along with putting out their own album, “Roller”. Originally a progressive rock band in the 1970’s under the moniker The Cherry Five, Goblin became Argento’s number one choice to compose for his films after hearing their score to Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red).
The main title is an impeccable amalgamation of King Crimson, Morricone-style film noir & Hammer-horror organ music. Its dynamics are well paced, and goes through various odd time signatures many prog rock fans will appreciate, and has a lingering creepy atmosphere. It’s a great piece of music that still holds up today.
The rest of the tunes that make up the score to Deep Red range from frenzied, spastic 70’s fusion craziness (“Death Dies”, “Deep Shadows”), an eerie lullaby motif (“School At Night”), and a snoody-sounding jazz waltz (“Gianna”) among other sounds. Standout scene with music: “Death Dies” during the scene with the puppet.
Also check out: Tenebre, Dawn of The Dead, Buio Omega, Phenomena, and their original album “Roller”.
Composer: Phillip Glass
Philip Glass, considered by many to be one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century, has secured a place in film lovers’ hearts by his grandiose scores for experimental documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi Trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi), and his creepy score for “Candyman”.Using a setup of piano, pipe organ, and a choir, he creates visceral, nightmarish music with a very religious aura.
Glass has his choir repeat and phase motifs to the point of mental exhaustion, as if his whole point is to make you not function correctly after listening. The “music box” motif that appears in three variations across the record is a standout, for the fact that at first it starts out as an innocent stand alone melody played on bells, and then by the third variation, “It Was Always You, Helen”, it starts on piano and then the rest of the instruments and voices joining in to create an entrancing, beautiful work.
These variations of the theme parallels the movie in the sense of the main characters’ innocence in playing around with what’s considered an urban legend, only to have that urban legend actually be real and cause absolute havoc and terror among those around her.