Picking the greatest horror film scores is probably one of the most difficult things to do. First, you have your all-time greats, and then new films are released each year that reinvigorate and reinterpret the genre’s musical expectations.
In this list, we’ve tried to balance some of the classics with more modern horror film scores. And, as is usual for our lists, this collection of great horror film soundtracks isn’t exhaustive, and as a result, we’ve left plenty of film scores out of this article. Still, hopefully, we’ll introduce a few that readers haven’t considered or have even forgotten.
So, sit back and enjoy your Halloween to the sound of these amazing horror film scores!
Zombi 2 (1979)
A favorite of Scottish ambient electronic duo Boards of Canada, Fabio Frizzi’s work on Zombi 2 is a fantastic but little-known horror movie soundtrack—at least to the average movie audience. While the film was ostensibly a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, director Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 doesn’t really seem like it, and the music has its own beast as well.
While the film is known for a dark, arpeggiated theme, Frizzi also experimented with other genres that were hardly horror film atmospherics. Amongst other things, Frizzi explores tropical music textures and rhythms, a little disco and various other genres. This makes the music at times at odds with the on-screen gore, making it all the more memorable.
Near Dark (1987)
Another rather forgotten 1980s horror film, action auteur Kathryn Bigelow basically turns the vampire film into a dark, moody and hyper-violent road trip movie. Bigelow, who would later direct Point Break, really established her highly-stylized aesthetic with Near Dark, and she got a movie score that matches the film’s atmospherics.
Composed by Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke of the iconic German electronic group Tangerine Dream, the score features synths and highly-treated guitar notes. By the time they’d scored Near Dark, the Tangerine Dream guys were a well-oiled film scoring machine, creating a diverse set of sounds for Bigelow’s highly underrated vampire flick.
Any real horror film fan will rate Dario Argento’s psychedelic horror film Suspiria as one of the best genre pieces ever made. While the trippy colors and dark mood of Argento’s film are genre-breaking, so was the film’s score.
Written, performed and recorded by Italian psychedelic band Goblin, the Suspiria soundtrack is an absolute musical wonder. Atmospherically it is unnerving, but it’s also fantastic pop. And the group’s vocalizations fit the hushed, whispered tones of the German dance school lorded over by terrifying witches.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
We’re going to kind of break with some horror movie expectations here and name Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange adaptation instead of The Shining as one of the best horror film scores ever made. Composed by Wendy Carlos, a transgender synth pioneer who helped develop Bob Moog’s first modular synth, the soundtrack is well regarded as one of her greatest works.
While it recycles a lot of classical and baroque music, the way Carlos reinterpreted these compositions through time-consuming synth patching, sound design and multi-tracking recording is a wonder in itself. However, Carlos’ work here also gives the dystopian science fiction film a sense of alternating delight and horror, making it much more iconic.
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Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
When sci-fi horror director Panos Cosmatos released Beyond the Black Rainbow, he simultaneously resurrected both the midnight movie and the late 1970s/1980s sci-fi horror genre pioneered by Brian de Palma and David Cronenberg.
The film is about a hippie cult that transitions from psychedelic drug-influenced new age therapy to telepathic mind control. Its lysergic-drenched visuals get an equally trippy musical accompaniment. Like the late 1970s and early 1980s sci-fi horror visuals, the composer, Sinoia Caves, gives the movie an electronic score influenced by Giorgio Moroder, John Carpenter, Howard Shore and Tangerine Dream scores.
Like the Stranger Things score, Sinoia Caves’ Beyond the Black Rainbow score resurrects retro synth sounds for the 21st-century electronic music age.
Speaking of John Carpenter, would we be absolutely remiss if we didn’t mention the filmmaker’s genre-defining music score for the iconic horror film, Halloween. Carpenter’s film, which starred Jamie Lee Curtis, essentially set the template for modern horror films, as did his Halloween theme.
While Carpenter is modest about his compositional chops, he loved synthesizers, using the electronic instrument to create the dark, foreboding synth chords atop which he wove the creepy piano arpeggio. It’s a classic horror film score and will remain in the pantheon of the genre’s great musical works.
Yes, we’re including another Panos Cosmatos film in our list, but the man is a master. Not simply because he is great with visuals but because he cares deeply for a film’s sound design and score.
For Mandy, Cosmatos enlisted the musical talents of the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who in turn collaborated with experimental drone metal guitar wizards Sunn O))). Known for his minimalism, Jóhannsson gave Cosmatos’ bloody, psychedelic horror film a score that varies between synth-driven electronic music and guitar-forward themes inspired by Cosmatos’, and Sunn O)))’s mutual love for heavy metal.
These types of artistic talent rarely work together on a single project, so do yourself a favor and watch Mandy! Immediately.
Under the Skin (2013)
While Under the Skin composer Mica Levi is principally known for her work as part of the art-pop group Micachu and The Shapes, she is both a classically trained composer who has created a second career for herself by scoring films.
Under the Skin is a film that director Jonathan Glazer adapted from the eponymous novel by Michel Faber. In it, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien femme fatale adjusting to her human body while on assignment by her home planet. In some of cinema’s most grotesque scenes, she lures humans to their death [SPOILER ALERT] as a culinary delicacy for her intergalactic species. It sounds like a comedy, but it most definitely is not.
Levi’s score is full of drones, atonal notes and chords and all manner of other unnerving sounds. And it’s often a stand-in for the audio that should make up the world of the film, so it is as if Levi is pulling double duty as a sound designer.
Levi’s work is—and this is not hyperbole—an absolute work of art, not just amongst horror films but all of cinema.
DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at Vice, Fast Company, Dazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.