With Halloween right around the corner and horror films pretty much on television every night, we decided to have horror composer Charlie Clouser name his top five favorite horror film scores below.
You can next hear Charlie’s work on the latest Saw installment, Jigsaw, being released October 27.
Exorcist II: The Heretic
One horror score from my youth that I always liked was Ennio Morricone’s score for Exorcist II – The Heretic. It’s got a lovably crusty old-school vibe, with lots of high-pitched vocals that sound as if they were recorded by gangs of possessed children, alongside odd-ball percussion hits drenched in reverb and dissonant strings. At times Morricone seems to be conjuring up ancient spirits from the desert with bits of conga and hand percussion. The dissonant flutes backed by atonal string effects that almost sound like nighttime crickets always send a chill down my spine. Another great but often overlooked score by one of the true masters.
28 Days Later
John Murphy’s score to 28 Days Later struck me as being really effective and unnerving. While for the most part it avoids many of the usual horror score tropes like atonal string effects and jump scare effects, it still manages to create an uncomfortable feel when it needs to, and there’s plenty of dark, pulsating textures. Even in the thinner and lighter moments it still conjures up a feeling of dread and nervousness that works well with the overall feel of the film.
30 Days of Night
Brian Reitzell’s score for 30 Days of Night always stuck with me as another horror score that works perfectly with the imagery of the film. Dark and cloudy, many of the sounds he used seem almost as though they’re drawn from the sounds of wind and snow, matching the setting of the film really well. The more aggressive action scenes have frantic junk-pile percussion backed with howling, screeching ambiences that make it feel like there’s something running at you out of the darkness, something you can’t really see too well, which is exactly what’s happening in the film. There’s lots of bowed metallic textures, which is one of my favorite categories of sounds, and the whole thing is subtle when it needs to be and wildly aggressive at other times. All in all, a great collection of scary music.
Another classic horror score that had an early impact on me was Ennio Morricone’s music for the original version of The Thing. It’s pretty sparse and stripped down in lots of places, with just a touch of ominous synthesizer bass to give it a little of that John Carpenter feel. The orchestral arrangements are simple and effective, but it still conjures up chaos and frenzy in the right spots. Those little two-chord patterns always gave me the feeling that some creature is growing and evolving in the shadows, and that slow, plodding synth bass always feels perfect for slowly creeping down a dark hallway. The melodic high string sections, with their ascending and descending parts crossing over each other, give a great feel of tension and suspense even in quiet moments, and this is one of those scores that made an impact on me just as I was beginning to learn how music works.
But my all time favorite horror movie score is the wild collection of music in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While it’s not strictly a “composed” score because it includes pieces by Penderecki, Ligeti, and Bartok alongside the works done specifically for the film by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, to my ears the whole package works perfectly. The clattering, rattling string section effects, the atonal drone-scapes, the ominous low tones and ghostly voices combine to create a massively unsettling effect that really sounds like what’s going on inside Jack Torrance’s mind as it slowly falls apart. I consider this to be a very influential collection of music that still sounds fresh and innovative all these years later.
Jigsaw is now on general release across the UK. Let us know what you think of the movie and the score!