Macabre Music: 6 Unsung Heroes of Horror Film Scores
Along with its ever-evolving cousin, science-fiction, the horror genre has provided some of the most important creative breakthroughs in the history of cinematic music.
From Bernard Herrmann’s early foundations in films like Psycho and Vertigo, to John Carpenter’s synth-wizardry in the Halloween franchise, to more contemporary composers like Marco Beltrami and Mark Korven, the horror genre provides a nearly limitless field for sonic explorers to mold.
HORROR FILM SCORES THAT CAN GIVE YOU CHILLS
With the spookiest season upon us once again, it is a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the perhaps underappreciated heroes of horror.
From contemporary orchestral work in the vein of Herrmann and John Williams to disjointed atonality more akin to 20th century classical composers like Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinksy all the way to Carpenter-influenced synth realms, horror music is alive and well.
MARK KORVEN’S ‘THE WITCH’
Korven’s score for Robert Egger’s 2015 horror-folk film The Witch is one of the best original horror scores of the last two decades.
Set in New England in the 1630’s, the film follows the story of a Puritan family living on the edge of a dark forest in the wilderness. As strange and unsettling events begin to occur, the family begins to suspect young Thomasina of witchcraft.
As you can imagine, things do not go so well from there.
The cue “What Went We” opens with a solo cello playing a lonesome and extremely dark melody, echoing the lonesome darkness the family finds itself absorbed in at the film's outset.
The simplicity of the piece is likewise reflected in the simplicity of the lifestyle the character’s lead.
When describing his outlook on the score, Korven remarked that he “wanted to keep things quite minimal, and keep any human imperfections in the score”.
He added: “The score is tense and dissonant, but there’s also a certain fragility there, which reflects these people living on the edge of existence.”
JOHANN JOHANNSSON’S ‘MANDY’
Johann Johannsson’s score for Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 psychedelic horror film Mandy is a daring and extreme work of industrial/metal/electronica and one of the composer's best works.
The film follows the immensely disturbing story of a Red Miller and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom after a deranged cult called “The Children of the New Dawn” attempts to kidnap Mandy, eventually burning her alive in front of Red.
Red, played by Nicolas Cage, then descends into a murderous, revenge-driven spree of destruction.
Each cue from the film is as good as gold and it is nearly impossible to choose a single one to dissect.
Perhaps the two most revealing cues, “The Children Of The New Dawn” and “Mandy Love Theme” are the most fitting as they present the listener and film watcher with a brief respite from the otherwise all-consuming, unfathomable sonic darkness of the score.
The 2012 remake of the 1980 slasher film Maniac features a score by electronic musician ROB that fits quite nicely in the lineage of composers like John Carpenter and Dario Argento.
Heavily rooted in the synthesiser, the score is a contemporary exponent of the types of classic sounds that fans of Stranger Things should certainly love.
The opening cue “Doll” hits all the prime spots. A pulsing bass sequencer undercurrent, strong and brilliant filter stabs and a dark and gothy drum machine collide to form something like a stolen sketch from one John Carpenter’s lost notebooks.
DISASTERPEACE’S ‘IT FOLLOWS’
Another score (and film) that would most likely not exist without the work of John Carpenter, It Follows is a 2014 supernatural-psychological horror film about an otherworldly entity that stalks and kills its accursed prey.
The composer, Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland), previously scored video games and It Follows was his first feature-film work.
The cue “Pool” comes at the climax of the film, when the protagonist Jay and her friends lure the entity into a gymnasium pool where they plan to electrocute it in hopes of finally killing the entity. Full of floating and popping synth bubbles, a delicate and fragile melody floating over a static and ominous bass drone helps add a layer of anxiety and hope to the moment.
JOSEPH BISHARA’S ‘INSIDIOUS’
Credit: Matt Kennedy/Sony Picture Entertainment
In the vein of 20th century classical composers like Varese and Stravinksy comes Joseph Bishara’s score for the 2010 supernatural horror film Insidious. The film is the first in the Insidious franchise that came to conclusion in 2018 with part four, The Last Key.
The score leans heavily on the orchestral element as opposed to the primary use of synthesisers in some of the other scores featured here.
When describing the feeling of the score, director James Wan remarked: “We wanted a lot of the scare sequences to play really silent … sort of like, atonal scratchy violin score, mixing with some really weird piano bangs …”
The opening cue, “The Insidious Plane” combines all of these elements into a haunting, atmospheric piece that is equal parts unsettling as it is fascinating.
COLIN STETSON’S ‘COLOR OUT OF SPACE’
Based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, The Color Out Of Space is a 2019 film that borders on science fiction and horror.
Directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, the film stars a wild Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Elliot Knight and Tommy Chong among others as they bewilderingly encounter the aftermath of a bizarre meteor that strikes near their countryside farm.
Colin Stetson’s work on the score for The Color Out Of Space blends otherworldly synth episodes, dramatic and heart-stirring string writing, and demonic periods of noise and chaos into a compelling and effective work of art.
The cue “The Garderners” opens with a small, arpeggiated piano motif layered with a high-register string passage, setting a placid and peaceful stage for the chaos that is soon to unfold in the lives of the Gardners.
THE HAUNTING OF HORROR FILM SCORES NEVER ENDS
The horror genre has provided the framework and inspiration for some of the best work in the history of film music. The palette is so broad in horror music and there are so many choices that can be made in terms of mood, feeling, instrumentation and orchestration.
Combine that with a rich tradition to work with and you have a recipe for continued experiments and explorations in this classic direction.
For more articles on film scores, read:
- 6 Film Score Sounds to Listen to in 2022
- A History of Sci-Fi Film Scores
- Film Scores That Made The Movie
Cover Credit: A Paper Creative
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.