Horror fans know that the visuals of a horror film play a huge role in how disturbing, scary, and unsettling it is…including how long certain images stick in your head after you’ve watched a movie. A horror film’s musical score is just as important as its visuals. Expert use of the right music can give you chills, enhance a scene’s tension, and get under your skin every bit as much as a scary visual. Perhaps the ultimate test is if the music can stand on its own outside of the film, and exert its power over the listener even without the images.
Here are some of the best horror soundtracks that pass all the tests.
Nosferatu the Vampyre, Popol Vuh
The German avant-garde band Popol Vuh created the music for many of Werner Herzog’s films. They are best known for scoring Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, adding a true eerie, haunting, and gothic element to an already atmospheric film. Check out “Brothers of Darkness – Sons of Light” which perfectly accompanies the creepy opening credits (which famously feature real images of the Guanajuato mummies of Mexico).
Rosemary’s Baby, Krzysztof Komeda
Polish jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda was a frequent collaborator with the film’s director Roman Polanski. Rosemary’s Baby skillfully combines music and visuals to create an overwhelming sense of the darkness, dread, and lonely sadness that Rosemary experiences. The eerie and haunting “Lullaby” features Mia Farrow herself singing the haunting la-la-las.
Halloween, John Carpenter
Did you know that Halloween’s director John Carpenter also composed the film’s iconic score? Soundtrack experts note that Carpenter expertly crafted the main theme to convey the impression of a frightened victim being chased by a cold, confident killer by interspersing the fast, dissonant main melody with those ominous lower and slower musical “stabs”…as heard here:
28 Days Later, John Murphy
The soundtrack for Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later is a popular recent entry into the best horror soundtrack category. Fans point to how the score perfectly captures all of the competing elements of the movie, from intensity and fear to eerie stillness and calm. The most well-known song, “In the House, In a Heartbeat” is so beautiful, it was even used in a Luis Vuitton commercial!
The Italian progressive rock band Goblin created the unique soundtrack for Dario Argento’s classic Italian horror film Suspira. Critics note that virtually all of the tracks can easily stand on their own as innovative and mesmerizing songs, especially the title track, “Witch,” and “Marcos.” The title track “Suspira” is strong and forceful, a perfect introduction to the film:
Resident Evil, Various Artists
The Resident Evil soundtrack doesn’t always make film critics’ lists of best horror movie soundtracks, like the always-present Jaws score for example, but ask horror fans what their favorite soundtrack is and you’re likely to get more than a few who say Resident Evil. With songs from bands like Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Depeche Mode, Rammstein, and Mudvayne, it’s easy to understand why. Here’s a sample:
Alien, Jerry Goldsmith
Composer Jerry Goldsmith created many great film scores, including horror movies like The Omen (which won him an Oscar) and Poltergeist. Many critics point to his innovative, avant-garde soundtrack to 1979’s Alien as his best work. Goldsmith used unusual instruments like the didgeridoo and conch shells to create the ominous and otherworldly score. Skip the original version and go for the remastered 2 disc set.
Near Dark, Tangerine Dream
The vampire Western Near Dark has become a cult classic since its release in 1987. Director Kathryn Bigelow turned to innovative German electronic group Tangerine Dream to score the film. The music is dark, eerie, and evocative. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the atmospheric film, and also stands well on its own. A true gem that’s worth seeking out if you’ve never heard it.