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Music and Horror: Some of my favorite examples

This topic really floats my boat. As a huge music guy and a lover of the arts in general, I have always been fascinated by the use of music to enhance a good horror film . It may, I think, be more effectively used in horror films than in any other genre, and in most cases it seems to be an integral part of many films that can make an often amateurish story and stereotypical characters seem intense and compelling.

To illustrate, I want to look at a few of my favorite case studies in brief. I think these are five of the greatest examples of the outstanding use of music in film in general, let alone horror.

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I. Halloween

Yeah everybody knows this so I won’t bother putting up a link. It is of course, genius. John Carpenter’s hunt-and-peck masterpiece on piano may be the most recognizable music in horror after Psycho’s screeching shower violins.

The theme is so simple a child could play it without much trouble… and its absolutely chilling. It also builds and expands on extremely simple single note piano riffing into an entire composition an instrument at a time, building drama the entire time. One of my mom’s friends has an anxiety attack every time she hears those trademark three notes.

Who does this kind of simple, evocative music anymore?

I dare say the Halloween soundtrack will be better remembered in 100 years than all the John Williams orchestrated film works put together.

Would Halloween be as effective without that incredible soundtrack? I think many of the stalking scenes that form the core of the film’s suspense would be lacking.

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II. Nosferatu (1922)

I have no idea if the tune heard in the youtube versions is what the bands in the theater pits were playing in Weimar Germany when this silent film was in its heyday. But its wonderfully spooky and has a hint of some kind of macabre slap-bass jazz runs in some parts, beginning at 7:19 in this version. Would love to know who composed it.

III. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

One of the greatest. Score by Fabio Frizzi, who collaborated with Lucio Fulci on a number of films including Contraband and City of the Living Dead. I think this score is at its most effective in two iconic scenes: the conquistador cemetery awakening, and the uber-famous
“zombie vs. shark” scene. Check out this youtube clip if you haven’t seen it:

You’ll note some accidental (?) genius here… from 1:19 to 1:29 it looks almost as though the zombie and the shark are dancing to the soundtrack! Love it.

When I think about what it is I love about this and other classic horror tracks, I think part of it is the strong sense of composition and originality that horror composers had and the wide variety of music, or even empty space that can be effective in conveying a sense of unease. You always knew in this movie that “the song” was coming because of the naked four-count thumps that played for a bar before the mournful synth work kicks in. Great stuff.

For a pure version of the soundtrack without the charming “underwater” additions, check out this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBv38ignnow

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IV. Friday the 13th Part IV End Theme (1984)

The classical music here emphasizes something higher, darker, something tragic and mysterious. The cellos are the underlying seething anger… the violins surging adrenaline. This soundtrack is for me the culmination of composer Harry Manfredini’s work with the franchise, with a wider variety of moods and greater complexity than the disco-inspired part 3 soundtrack or the more bombastic soundtracks of 1 and 2. This was the last soundtrack with a really “classic” Friday feel to it… they ended up going a modernized keyboard route for most of the later ones and for me never matched the glory of part 4.

There is something woodsy in this soundtrack, in lighter moments it almost evokes a babbling brook or a choir of chirping crickets (:52 to 1:32). I think its the most haunting of the series.

Manfredini was so crucial to the success of Friday the 13th in general its unlikely the franchise would have succeeded at all without his scores. If that seems like a bold statement, consider that cast members watching an early screening of part 2 were horrified at how awful the movie was… before the soundtrack was added. John Carl Buecheler, director of part 7, made similar observations. Only after Manfredini’s input does the whole gorefest really work as a film.

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V. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The most chilling thing about this soundtrack is that… there is none. There is really no score to speak of in the granddaddy of all slashers. Whereas Friday the 13th is dependent on its gnawing and screeching violins to build suspense a very similar movie in the same genre relies on largely empty space to build a sense of dread and almost documentary-like realism. Friday the 13th’s tense moments are underwritten and delivered to the viewer on a lush, well-composed soundtrack, but TCM’s real horror is in its sense of isolation and powerlessness, punctuated by ragged, unnerving sound effects. There is no orchestra to play to Marilyn Burns as she hurtles through lonely Texas plains trying to escape from an all-too-real killer. Friday the 13th is about the vengeance of an angry retard; TCM’s villains have no pretense to righteous anger, and the complete lack of rhyme or reason in their actions is well reflected in the jarring soundtrack.

Anyway, these are just a few examples. If anyone has some favorite horror film soundtracks, I am always interested in hearing new stuff. Thanks!

  • betelgeuse4721

    This is a great article man, well done. Music is such a crucial element to horror movies aside from story. Clearly you have valid examples that prove this. Very nice.

  • thanks man!

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