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Scores that Scare: The 8 Most Frightening Movie Soundtracks

Writing a score for a horror movie is tricky. There are a lot of possibilities depending on the approach of the film and within that are a variety of methods depending on the composer’s tricks of the trade. What I would like to present here are musical creations that harness the ability to unnerve and frighten without the aid of visuals or added sound design. Some are orchestrated in traditional ways and some are not. What links them is their ability to unsettle and distort perceptions of surrounding environments. They have a genuine presence that hits you in the gut with discomfort and anxiety; a trait that provides them their power while also making it difficult for some to experience. This is by no means a definitive list, but a mere sampling of tracks I’m thinking about as we approach this Halloween.

1. 30 Days of Night (2007) –Brian Reitzell
Known more for his work with Sofia Coppola and bands like Spoon and Explosions in the Sky; Reitzell was the right choice for the score due to his thought process rather than experience with the genre. “I thought if someone came at me with an axe or was trying to kill me or eat me, that was going to be such a horrific experience and was going to be totally new and unfamiliar, so I didn’t think what I was going to hear was something like an orchestra.” To accomplish this he used a pottery wheel and allowed chance to take charge, affixing different percussive instruments and letting the wheel spin. Only rarely does the music make you aware of itself and when listening on the CD you can find yourself lost in its mystical qualities and then suddenly slammed with a trauma of noise and terror. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

2. The Devil’s Rejects (2005) –Tyler Bates
This track is fairly abstract and destructive in its arrangement of sound brought upon by a use of musical instruments along with sources like construction sites and appliances. It has the feeling of nails on a chalk board mixed with rock band distortion channeled through orchestration and funneled through feedback. “Though we did employ a brass ensemble for some of the more traditional action sequences in the film, Rob talked more about percussion than anything else.  The atmospheric components in the score were mostly handmade. The samples don’t necessarily stem from musical sources.  They were appliances, random voices, sounds recorded at construction sites, etc. Then they were mutated and processed by various means of sound destruction.  This was inspired by the idea that the music should be primal and industrial. It seemed to coexist well with the characters and whatever bizarre scenario was transpiring on screen at any given time.” It’s tense and discombobulating, but what may be most unsettling is that it is gorgeous too. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

3. Alien 3 (1992) –Elliot Goldenthal
This is Goldenthal’s first mainstream score recorded over the course of a year in Los Angeles while working diligently with Fincher and the sound design. He has stated that the riots of 92 played a huge role in the creation of the score’s tense and apocalyptic ambiance. You can hear it. Approaching from more of an experimental vantage point, the music feels like death. Complicated, layered and somewhat difficult to interpret; it’s filled with a rich soul witnessing the end times and wondering what it all means. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

4. Session 9 (2001) –Climax Gold Twins
Best way to describe this score is as something discovered rather than composed. It’s why it works so beautifully and what makes it one of the anchors to the film’s success. “We wanted to approach “Session 9” much more abstractly and ambiently. Really this was about this building [the Danvers Hospital] first and foremost … echo-y sounds in the distance. So, in prepping for the movie we recorded weird, squeaky wheels going down hallways like in an old hospital, a gurney rolling along creaking wood, closing doors, heating ducts, low drone-y stuff.” Climax Gold Twins’ approach is spot on. Still, Session 9 needed something else. It needed the otherworldly playing backwards on a tape recorded without direction or clear definition. The music sounds like it is both coming from the walls and inside your own head. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

5. Candyman (1992) –Philip Glass
Though Glass was disappointed with the eventual film, his score is epic in its gothic,old world qualities. Highly hypnotic, as is most of Glass’ work, this is bolstered by an intense mixture of organ and choral work. It takes you to another place and time of horror. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

6. Jeepers Creepers (2001) –Bennett Salvay
Like Candyman, the music by Bennett Salvay has a slightly older feel brought upon by the classic monster movie structure and the use of older source music to set the tone. However, along with this older styling, Salvay brings in distinct atmospheric dread elevating his score beyond typical slash and grab flicks. With moments of shock, highlighted by loud percussion and blaring horns, there is a distinct underbelly of trauma that instills macabre sensations to the whole. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

7. The Cell (2000) –Howard Shore
Howard Shore has long been known for his creepier work with the likes of Cronenberg and Fincher, but to his credit this score scares the hell out of me more than most. The constant evolutions of volume and layering with disjointed mechanics provides for a tense and disorienting experience that should not be taken lightly. In many ways one of his most dynamic and original scores, this is something to be taken in and digested slowly. Find samples here. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

8. Trick ‘R Treat -Douglas Pipes
As an additional note, if you want something good, but more in the classic Halloween music fare, you can get no better than Douglas Pipes’ score for Trick ‘R Treat.  It’s true to form style and performed by a 65 piece orchestra. Find samples here,

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