Top Ten lists are the most subjective effing things in the horror universe; this we know. And with the favorite holiday of ‘monster kids’ of all ages right around the corner, there will be PLENTY of these lists to bitch, debate and palaver about. The main rule I set for myself coming up with this one, was that I could combine favorites with those that might be a little more obscure, or that get just a little less love than “the usual suspects”. So, if you don’t see your favorites listed here, check out the “Honorable Mentions”. I would never forget to include those, somehow. But at least for 2016, I consider THESE to be my own personal “Top Ten.” (Your mileage may “SCARY!”)
One of my favorite scores to write to, it’s as familiar to me now as any part of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score for PSYCHO. Little wonder that after the great composer’s death following his masterwork, the score for TAXI DRIVER, Brian De Palma was at a complete loss to find a replacement for him. Until he heard Donaggio’s score for Nic Roeg’s unforgettable DON’T LOOK NOW. The rest is history, as they say, and Donaggio continued to work on a wide variety of films following this one for De Palma, from BLOW OUT to BODY DOUBLE. Rather than take the usual approach, the composer said he wrote the score as if he were writing a ‘tragic opera’, and that point-of-view is very much reflected in the shifting, compelling moods of each theme. The two songs, “Born To Have It All” and “I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me”, co-written and sung by Amy Irving’s sister, Katie, are naively hopeful and heartbreaking all at once. And the final track, “Sue’s Dream”…Yikes
Is there anything left to be said about this score? Carpenter will always have that distinction of being one of the very few filmmakers who not only writes and directs, but scores his own films. Every score, many which he collaborated on with the amazing Alan Howarth, are the prime example of “less is more”, boiling down the tone and feel of all his scenes with sometimes the most deceptively simplistic of themes, then ratcheting up the tension by using that same austere approach to play your spine like an upright bass. For me, my favorite Carpenter score choice will always be a two-way tie between ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, but HALLOWEEN always wins out as the sentimental favorite. The fact that the Man Himself could launch a nationwide tour with this music, playing to sold-out venues, says volumes about what people have thought of his scoring and performing abilities for years. And that he will have fans for decades more.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE was the ‘beginning of a beautiful friendship’ between John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, who would go on to create the undisputed best scores of the series with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. But just coming off of the high from the first SW picture, what direction would anyone have imagined they would go in? Maybe not horror, but that is exactly what happened. And the result is one of Williams’ most moving, harrowing, bombastic scores, maybe in his entire body of work. Which says a LOT, when you take into consideration that he also lent his talents to the HARRY POTTER and INDIANA JONES series, among many other top-notch pictures. Yet, because the movie is considered one of the most over-the-top in Brian De Palma’s canon, its score seems to remain one of the most underrated as well.
When he saw a French film that dealt with an elderly couple and liked the music, director John Irvin sought out the talents of that film’s composer, Philippe Sarde, to score this controversial adaptation of Peter Straub’s sprawling tale of supernatural revenge. But to say that it works is a pretty gross understatement. All the chills, melancholy and outright menace are perfectly captured, and definitely all at once in the lush main theme. Alice Krige made an indelible impression on audiences as the justifiably vengeful Alma Mobley/Eva Galli, but Sarde’s haunting, mournful theme firmly anchors her performance, as well as the other themes and motifs that are as affecting and spine-chilling as the best of the work of Goldsmith, Williams, Les Baxter or the great Bernard Herrmann. Yet, sadly, as with more than a few other pictures of its type, the score gets written off at times, because the movie wasn’t a box-office barn burner. Collectors and lover of great horror film music who aren’t familiar with it should give the film, and the score it gave birth to, a closer look.
I will never know whose idea it was to pair avante-garde specialist Nyman with Blur’s frontman and GORILLAZ creator Albarn, but the result was a score every bit as quirky, offbeat and unique as the film itself…it feels a bit like Morricone at times, Mark Isham at others, and very Herrmann-esque at still others, but make no mistake…I doubt any of those composers would have built themes at some points around Stephen Foster folk-songs, or used some of the most out-there samples and synths ever employed for a soundtrack of this kind. One listen after you’ve seen the film, you’ll wonder as I did, why nobody ever thought to do a documentary about the recording sessions. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, the likes of which will probably never be duplicated.
Once THE EXORCIST transformed Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” excerpt into a worldwide smash, it seemed as if every horror film, low-budget or otherwise, wanted a very ethereal, Gothic-sounding theme to anchor their projects, and Don Coscarelli’s supernatural, dimension-hopping horror/sci-fi hybrid was no different…except that the score by Myrow and Seagrave actually EXCEEDED expectations. The unforgettable harpsichord melody line summoned up the eerie, otherworldly feel of Oldfield’s composition without actually mimicking it (something that other composers found hard to do…when they didn’t just give in and create an obvious knock-off.) Which was a perfect accompaniment for the creepy, far-out visual tapestry that weaves the dreamlike story. This is a score that should be essential to every true horror fan’s soundtrack collection, just as much as HALLOWEEN or PSYCHO.
Where SUSPIRIA’S score had a very visceral, almost primal feel the way that Goblin used vocals and acoustic and percussive instruments, with PHENOMENA, they go with an almost prog-rock kind of feel with the score itself. Influences range from Yes, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, to old-and-new school Genesis, with a lot of Keith Emerson-style stings and riffs blended in – it’s more synth-heavy than a lot of the work they would do with Argento later. My two favorite track are “Sleepwalking” and the different arrangements of the main title theme, mixing operatic vocals, a very Baroque/Gothic keyboard line played over heavy metal guitar effects, and some epic drum programming. SUSPIRIA has a sentimental place in my heart, but for favorite Goblin score overall, I think PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) takes the title.
JAWS, which would be number one on some people’s lists, I’m sure, only gets a much lower position here for me, because I’ve always thought that Williams’ FURY score was a richer, much more powerful experience. Which is not to take anything at all away from this one. When before in history, other than PSYCHO, has the subtle, sinister opening notes of a theme been all it takes to make some people not even want to go into their POOL???
This was my initial introduction to Goblin. And aside from them, the only person that Argento worked with more on scoring for his films was Ennio Morricone. The art-rock ensemble seemed to have direct access to Dario’s cerebral cortex; and at times it’s as if they just downloaded the charts directly from there and just started playing it. No orchestral compositions would have ever nailed the dreamlike, eerie qualities of every scene, nor worked in tandem so seamlessly with every detail…from a shadow on the wall, to the flash of the edge of a knife. SUSPIRIA seemed like the jumping-off point for the group and the director…where it wasn’t even necessary to use more than their own unique kind of shorthand between one another, while creating some of the most sublimely unsettling tunes in giallo – and horror history overall.
Before this score, when you’d mention Mancini’s name, I’m sure people thought of his classic work – the PETER GUNN TV score, (with Mancini protege “Johnny” Williams on piano!), the iconic PINK PANTHER music, the earworm-worthy “Baby Elephant Walk” theme from HATARI! Lush dramas, romantic comedies and the occasional jump into wild, noirish jazzy vibes were Mancini’s hallmarks. Until this. When the smash-hit Frederick Knott play was finally filmed, which had kept Broadway audiences jumping in their seats for years, it needed a score as contemporary, yet brooding, menacing and intense as its lead villain, Harry Roat, Jr. (and nobody has played that role better than Alan Arkin since). So it must have stunned a lot of people that Mancini abandoned what was believed to have been his forte, and cooked up enough motifs and a title theme that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end!
HONORABLE MENTIONS: If you thought I forgot some, here are the ones I couldn’t get away with NOT giving a shout-out to. Some of them are always on everybody’s lists, while some of them could be considered the “Rodney Dangerfields” of horror scores.
- A SERBIAN FILM (Sky Wikluh)
- MANIAC (2012) (Rob)
- A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (Charles Bernstein)
- THE ENTITY (Charles Bernstein)
- DEADLY FRIEND (Charles Bernstein)
- FRIDAY THE 13TH (Harry Manfredini)
- HOUSE (Harry Manfredini)
- PSYCHO (Bernard Herrmann)
- SISTERS (Bernard Herrmann)
- IT’S ALIVE! (Bernard Herrmann)
- MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (Bernard Herrmann)
- SCANNERS (Howard Shore)
- VIDEODROME (Howard Shore)
- THE CHANGELING (Kenneth Wannberg and Various Composers)
- EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (Ennio Morricone)
- THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (Ennio Morricone)
- DREAMSCAPE (Maurice Jarre)
- CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Riz Ortolani)
- LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (David Hess)
- RE-ANIMATOR (Richard Band)
- FROM BEYOND (Richard Band)
- DON’T LOOK NOW (Pino Donaggio)
- TOURIST TRAP (Pino Donaggio)
- CRAWLSPACE (Pino Donaggio)
- DRESSED TO KILL (Pino Donaggio)
- THE OMEN TRILOGY (Jerry Goldsmith)
- THE OTHER (Jerry Goldsmith)
- EVIL DEAD (Joseph LoDuca)
- EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN (Joseph LoDuca)
- DEAD AND BURIED (Joe Renzetti)
- CHILD’S PLAY (Joe Renzetti)
- HOUSE OF USHER (Les Baxter)
- PIT AND THE PENDULUM (Les Baxter)
- THE BEAST WITHIN (Les Baxter)
- THE BAD SEED (Alex North)
- WILLARD (Alex North)
- SCREAM (Marco Beltrami)
- THE FUNHOUSE (John Beal)
- DEATH LINE aka RAW MEAT (Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose)
- SQUIRM (Robert Prince)
- BLACULA (Gene Page)
- TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (Angelo Badalamenti)
- LOST HIGHWAY (Angelo Badalamenti)
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN (Jonathan Elias)
- DEADLY BLESSING (James Horner)
- FRIGHT NIGHT (Brad Fiedel)
- THE LOST BOYS (Thomas Newman)
- RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (Matt Clifford)
- BURNT OFFERINGS (Robert Cobert)
- THE SENTINEL (Gil Melle)
- NIGHTWING (Henry Mancini)
- DAWN OF THE DEAD (Goblin/Dario Argento)
- DEEP RED (Dario Argento)
- THE CROW (Graeme Revell)
- PITCH BLACK (Graeme Revell)
- FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (Graeme Revell)
- HELLRAISER (Christopher Young)
- HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (Christopher Young)
- PHANTASM II (Fred Myrow/Christopher Young)