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Top 5 horror soundtracks

5 – Cannibal Holocaust’ (Riz Ortolani, 1980)

The dreamy, lazily romantic orchestral swoon of Italian composer Riz Ortolani plays in sharp contrast to the ludicrously bloody Cannibal Holocaust, a film that made waves for its “found footage” look in the pre-Cloverfield Eighties. It wasn’t the first time Ortolani’s used the trick – director Ruggero Deodato loved how his songs anchored the “mondo” shock docs of the Sixties – but Cannibal Holocaust‘s merciless gore, mistaken by Italian authorities for film of actual murder, made the juxtaposition one of the most unsettling in horror history. There’s also no shortage of porno-funk, sinister synth pulses and errant pounding here – but the bittersweet beauty of orchestral swells and acoustic guitar remain the most iconic part. “The soundtrack to Cannibal Holocaust almost surpasses the film itself,” says Deodato in the liner notes to the Death Waltz/One Way Static reissue. “Many of my fans tell me that they were engaged or married to the music Ortolani created.”

4 ‘Suspiria’ (Goblin, 1975)

Before filmmaker Dario Argento began work on Suspiria, his nightmarish and gory 1977 portrayal of a dance school that is hiding a sinister secret, he needed music that would set the mood. He’d previously worked with Italian prog-rockers on Profondo Rosso, so he read them his Suspiria script and gave them three months to write a soundtrack that would make the film’s witchy theme linger with audiences and could be utilized onset to establish the tone of the film. They experimented with instruments atypical of soundtracks at the time – tabla, bouzouki, Moog synthesizer – and came up with the movie’s iconic, chilling music-box–like main theme, as well as tense exercises in rhythm, dissonance and bizarre funky prog, before ending on the original LP with its creepy “Death Valzer.” Over the years, the music has become a horror canon and would give horror-soundtrack reissue label Death Waltz its name. 

3 ‘Candyman’ (Philip Glass, 1992)

Music by classical composer Philip Glass has been used in so many movies (and ripped off in so many more) that it’s surprising Candyman and the franchise it spawned has been his only serious brush with contemporary horror – surprising, that is, because his trademark hypnotic repetitions and remorseless momentum feel especially well-suited to a genre that thrives on chases, wrong turns, and traps. Glass, it’s reported in the liner notes to the Candyman CD that inaugurated his own Orange Mountain Music label, was disappointed by the film: What he’d presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher. Still, there’s no question his score – an unusually creepy mix of huffy organ, choral chanting, wistful piano, and chilly glockenspiel – is potent and appropriate … and, with characteristic pragmatism, Glass concedes even now in interviews that having scored Candyman continues to yield fiscal benefits.

2 ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ (John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1982)

You can trace synthesizer sophistication in the early Eighties by how John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s Halloween themes changed with each sequel. For 1981’s Halloween II, the iconic theme got baroque with a little bit more synth-pop, and for 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the theme is a screwed smear of dread that doesn’t even touch on the original’s famous melody. It’s fitting for an installment that doesn’t feature Michael Myers and was originally penned by sci-fi fatalist Nigel Kneale (writer of Quatermass and The Stone Tape, a horror movie all about acoustics) involving Celtic rituals, Stonehenge and space. Other tracks similarly reimagine Carpenter and Howarth’s sparse style: rushes of electronic noise on “Starker and Marge”; metal-on-metal murmuring on “Robots at the Factory”; and ambient burps on “The Rock.” And the familiar Halloween melody gets contorted on Vangelis subtweet “Chariots of Pumpkins,” a jittery version that turns the theme into a jagged anxiety attack.

1 ‘Halloween’ (John Carpenter, 1978)

In 1978, when nascent “horror master” John Carpenter made Halloween, the slasher flick that upended the genre for the next decade, he was 30 years old but still running things like a college student, doing everything himself. He co-wrote the script, directed the actors and wrote one of the most chilling, minimal scores in all of horror. Taking inspiration from Goblin’s eerie Suspiria music and Bernard Herrmann’s expressionistic Psycho score, he built tension from the onset with a rattling piano melody for the main theme, played in 5/4 time, a rhythm he learned as a teenager from his music-professor dad on bongos. “In thrillers or horror films, you’re trying to create suspense,” he told Rolling Stone of his minimal approach. “Think of the Jaws theme. It’s two notes. It keeps you in suspense.” Other sections of the score contain what he calls “cattle prods” – piercing keyboard stabs to make moviegoers jump – as well as sparse, descending piano lines, contemplative melodies and fuzzy, off-kilter discord. The main theme would get drastic facelifts throughout the series and it would be adopted by hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. but it has always maintained an uneasiness rooted in its scary simplicity. “It has to be because I’m playing it,” Carpenter once said. “I have minimal chops as a musician.”

Eli Lira

pianist and professor