October 31, 2023
Our 10 essential series sees VF and friends of VF dive into our favourite labels, artists, genres, and scenes to pick 10 essential albums, EPs or tracks for any collection.
With just about every cult film soundtrack receiving a vinyl reissue in recent years, the emphasis on scores that can stand up away from their visual bedfellows has never been greater.
Good soundtracks enhance the cinematic storytelling that we lose ourselves in. Great soundtracks stick in the corners of our minds, seeking out repeat listens and earning their spot in our record collections.
In celebration of Halloween being upon us, we dive into 10 essential horror movie soundtracks that offer frights and delights both on screen and on vinyl.
A master of movie scores, Philip Glass has been responsible for some of cinema’s greatest scores, from Koyaanisqatsi to The Hours. His 1992 soundtrack for Clive Barker’s classic Candyman plays a key role in elevating the film beyond its slasher influences. Hauntingly regal, the soundtrack’s choral set pieces and pipe organs emphasise the film’s fairytale motifs with a simultaneously tragic and camp approach.
John Carpenter’s do-it-yourself score for Halloween is instantly recognisable–few bodies of work evoke such a striking sense of queasy tension. A lesson in minimalism, Carpenter’s discordant piano lines and discomfiting synth stabs have haunted horror fans for almost 50 years.
Finding surprising ways to frighten audiences who’ve seen and heard it all is a task that plagues contemporary horror movie makers. David Robert Mitchell’s breakout success It Follows won over viewers with its original plot and eerie, suffocating score. Created by Disasterpeace–an electronic composer best known for his work on the video game Fez–It Follows draws upon the repetition of John Carpenter and amplifies it into a pummeling, anxiety-inducing wall of sound.
Despite Alfred Hitchcock initially seeking a jazz-influenced accompaniment to his 196o magnum opus Psycho, experienced composer Bernard Herrmann took a violin-led path. In an attempt to create a “black and white score”, Psycho finds brutality in the beauty of strings. Alongside creeping loud-quiet dynamics and disconcerting dissonance, the shower scene’s shrieking strings remain one of the most impactful moments in film score history–a rare occasion where music plays just as essential a role as visuals. The playbook for slasher soundtracks.
Written and composed by Italian prog band Goblin, the soundtrack to Suspiria has one of horror’s most expansive musical languages. Built around the band’s usual trippy sound, the record features heavy use of a System 55 Moog modular synth, a bouzouki and Indian tabla drums. In an interview with FACT, Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti explained; “You would never use a synth to do soundtracks [then]. Normally it would be made with an orchestra, or with a band. No one was using a synthesizer for that”. The result is an overstimulating collection that beguiles and confuses and never hesitates to remind you that nowhere is safe.
David Lynch and Alan R. Splet
Less of an overt horror entry than its peers, Eraserhead is nevertheless a primer in creating unease. Built by director David Lynch and sound designer Alan R. Splet, the abstract score lives within the cold sounds of industry and machinery, interrupted only occasionally by the organs of Fats Waller. A major influence for sound artists since–how can sound this frugal be so mesmerizing?–Eraserhead lays bare that true fear lies in familiar sounds made ambiguous.
Featuring contributions from the likes of Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind and Krzysztof Penderecki, the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining marries original score with pre-existing selections. Just as tense and maddening as the mind-bending conditions that the Torrance family finds themselves in, The Shining’s soundtrack makes use of orchestral abstraction as it echoes and reverberates. Deeply foreboding and subtly intense.
Following the success of Halloween and Escape From New York, John Carpenter sought the assistance of Ennio Morricone for his first major budget foray, The Thing. Expanding upon the brooding synth work of Carpenter’s work hitherto, Morricone developed an icy, minimalist body that reflects the frozen terror of the film. In an interview with Indiewire, John Carpenter described Morricone as an “X-ray composer”, saying that “he brought out a part of the theme of the movie that hadn’t been thought of before.”
Under The Skin
A modern horror cult classic, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin failed to win big at the box office yet clawed its way into the hearts of critics enchanted by its disturbed risk-taking. The score, written by VF artist Mica Levi, is similarly perturbing with its blitzed strings and moody synth undercurrents. It’s seductive and winding, offering just enough movement to startle and shock. Speaking with The Guardian, Levi explained, “There was a lot of talk of perverting material. It does sound creepy, but we were going for sexy”.
David Cronenberg called upon frequent collaborator Howard Shore to develop the score for his 1983 body horror Videodrome. Matching the “techno-surrealism” of the film, Shore programmed orchestral composition through a Synclavier II synth to blur the lines between organic and electronic instrumentation. What emerged was a haunting, futuristic score filled with paranoia and apocalyptic dread.
Read more of our ’10 essential’ lists.