10 horror movie soundtrack gems (featuring philip glass, mia farrow, and lesbian vampires)
Which early 70s Belgian lesbian vampire film score did Lil Wayne sample? Which German electronic collective made a ‘Zelda’-esque soundtrack to a Romanian haunting that was never released? Reader beware, you’re in for some spine tingling tunes.
Suspiria: Italian director Dario Argento is an undisputed master of modern horror, particularly influential in giallo, a subgenre which infuses erotic and slasher motifs within a larger murder mystery. Argento scored his singular style to the sounds of equally singular Italian prog rock band Goblin. After writing and recording the score to Argento's Profondo Rosso (or Deep Red, as the 1975 film is known in English) in just two days, the band teamed back up with the director for 1977's Suspiria, the story of a German ballerina who enrolls at a deadly dance academy. Its theme song is part haunting, glockenspiel-laden lullaby, part outer space synth explosion. This video of Goblin performing it live on Italian television — in knee-high metallic boots, flowing velvet bell sleeves, and incredibly 70s hair — is almost as stylish as Argento's masterpiece.
Rosemary's Baby: Like Argento and Goblin, French-Polish director Roman Polanski also repeatedly enlisted his countryman, Polish jazz pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, to soundtrack his earliest work. Komeda scored Polanski's first feature — 1962's Knife in the Water — as well as Cul-de-sac, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Rosemary's Baby, released just six months before the composer's tragic brain injury in December 1968. The film — which incorporates experimental aesthetic flourishes influenced by the French New Wave — is considered one of the most iconic horror films of all time, and is indeed Komeda's opus. Mia Farrow proved a real MVP: in addition to starring in the psychologically chilling film (including a scene in which Polanski convinced her to walk into actual Manhattan traffic), she also sings the creepy as hell "la la las" in Komeda's magnetic lullaby. Komeda's orchestral jazz elements (those strings) are at once beautiful and bone-chilling.
Videodrome: Though Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry starred in David Cronenberg's deeply disturbing 1983 body horror, Howard Shore composed its score. Unlike the grandiose, gorgeous pieces that would define Shore's later work (massive shout out to Silence of the Lambs; though it nabbed the Academy's Big Five, it was notably snubbed for Best Score), Videodrome's soundtrack is an incredibly-matched pairing for the techy-surrealist shocker. The film follows Max Renn, the president of a cable channel known for its provocative programming, and his hunt for a daring new show to captivate his audience. As Renn descends into lo-fi madness after he begins broadcasting an addicting Malaysian torture program, so too does Shore's score. Shore composed the entire body of music for an orchestra, then programmed it through a digital synthesizer and blended the two recordings together for the final film.
Kwaidan: Roger Ebert called this 1965 Japanese film "an assembly of ghost stories that is among the most beautiful films I've seen." Kwaidan is an elaborate anthology of four unrelated but equally terrifying myths, all united by Toru Takemitsu's sinister score. The self-taught composer is famed for fusing traditional sounds with experimental practices, and Kwaidan's score is excellent evidence of its winning effect. Takemitsu arranged the film's opening segment, "Black Hair," from recordings of wood being chopped, split, ripped apart, or twisted with a knife. "I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, 'Watch out! Be scared!' then all the tension is lost. It's like sneaking up behind someone to scare them," Takemitsu said. "First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music."
Daughters of Darkness: It was a tough call between this 1971 Belgian lesbian vampire film and Vampyros Lesbos, a Spanish lesbian vampire film released the same year. The latter boasts a 60s-gazing space age pop soundtrack that's had an interesting second life as a popular 1995 CD Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party, and in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Yet Vampyros Lesbos's reviews have been more fanged than its characters (Entertainment Weekly said it was for "cheese-lovers only"; Allmusic basically accused composers Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab of plagiarizing The Rolling Stones). The former film, Daughters of Darkness, features an enthralling, seductive score regarded as one of its French composer's, Francois de Roubaix, finest pieces of music. Erotic and funk-inflected at turns, even this more demure offering has a colorful legacy: it was once sampled by Lil Wayne.
Candyman: This 1992 supernatural slasher has iconic composer Philip Glass to thank for its score. Candyman adapts a popular British ghost story and recontextualizes it in Chicago's much-publicized public housing project, Cabrini-Green. It's where a graduate student researching urban legends discovers that 25 people have been murdered after invoking "Candyman" — the son of a slave who was brutally murdered during the Civil War era — by saying his name five times in the mirror. Glass, an avant-garde composer whose work is adored by Blood Orange and Beck, might not seem the most obvious choice, but his hypnotic choral elements, poetic piano lilts, and that seriously unnerving music box helped make the film a success. Glass says it's a project he still "[gets] checks every year" from.
Tentacles: This 1977 Italian-American film should have been called Bottom Feeder for its poorly-masked attempt to capitalize on Jaws's success by doing little more than recycling visual motifs from 1955 sci-fi flick It Came from Beneath the Sea. Its campy soundtrack can't hold a candle to John Williams's iconic Jaws theme, but you're likely to boogie down to some Tentacles cuts if you spend this evening at Otto's Shrunken Head. Stelvio Cipriani's score is ultra-loungey with its fair share of disco theatrics and cocktail hour keyboards. It won't scare you enough to keep you out of the shower, let alone the ocean, but is a light-hearted tiki treat for sure.
The Wicker Man: Not even David Lynch's go-to composer Angelo Badalamenti could earn the dreadful 2006 remake of the 1973 cult film more than a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (for comparison, both of Nicolas Cage's Ghost Rider films scored higher than this, albeit very marginally). The original Wicker Man is superb, and features Paul Giovanni's sexually charged riffs on traditional and pagan Scottish folk music, which are of critical importance to the film's plot. Many of The Wicker Man's musical pieces — including its most iconic, the enchanting "Willow's Song" — are diegetic. "Williow's Song" has inspired covers from acts as diverse as Doves, The Go! Team, and Pulp. Radiohead's recent claymation music video for "Burn the Witch" was inspired by the cult classic, and connected its themes of violence to contemporary Islamophobia.
The Keep: Prolific German electronic collective Tangerine Dream composed scores for more than 20 films throughout the 1980s, and for Michael Mann's 1983 horror, the group contributed a lush, synth-laden masterpiece that opens with a 16th century Latin Christmas mass choir. The film was addled with production difficulties (Mann's original cut was a staggering 210 minutes long, and against his wishes, Paramount shoddily edited it to 96 minutes — leaving many a hilarious plot hole in the process). So, too, was Tangerine Dream's soundtrack troubled: it was never officially released due to decade-spanning legal issues between Virgin Records and Paramount, but in 1997, 150 lucky concert-goers were able to get their hands on super limited edition CDs. Skip the film but the soundtrack — at moments Zelda-ish — is well worth a listen.
Halloween: Of course, no list is complete without John Carpenter's most definitive work. Characterized by its iconic piano melody, played in palpitating 5/4 meter, Halloween's soundtrack has scored nearly 40 years of suburban sleepover scream fests everywhere. And according to Carpenter, music "saved" the film; when he screened an early cut of the flick for a Fox studio executive, she "wasn't scared at all," motivating him to make the terror truly come alive with music. He and Assault on Precinct 13 consultant Dan Wyman holed up in Los Angeles's tiny Sound Arts Studios for two weeks, and worked without any reference or synchronization to the film at all.
Text Emily Manning