Monday, October 10, 2011

Best Horror Movie Theme Songs

I'm a sucker for a soundtrack. The moment in Homeward Bound when ****spoiler alert**** Shadow finally comes over that hill ****end of spoiler**** probably wouldn't make me sob like a little child if it wasn't for the emotional soundtrack. Without a soundtrack, the training montages in Rocky would be less inspiring and more like an awkward series of grunts and yells. And without a soundtrack, horror movies would be about as frightening as one of the Twilight movies.

I kid. The Twilight series actually features pretty horrific acting. But while we've discussed horror movies before on Slice of Fried Gold, we've never really discussed horror movie music. . .UNTIL NOW!

Below are the theme songs that bring creepy images to mind, the ones that have become iconic and taken on a life of their own, the ones that, if they suddenly started playing while you were walking down a dark alley, might make you wet yourself. I have excluded some famous horror movie themes, such as:
 Nevertheless, here is my totally subjective list of the top ten best horror movie theme songs:

10. M ("In the Hall of the Mountain King") -  Edvard Grieg 

"In the Hall of the Mountain King" actually comes from Peer Gynt, which is a Norwegian play from the late 1800s. In the play, this song plays as the main character enters a realm of trolls and goblins. However, in the movie M, it is whistled by the main character whenever he is about to abduct and kill a child. It's actually one of the first times in film that a theme song has been associated with a character. This use of "leitmotif" (which is German for "milk mustache") would become a staple for future horror movies and it helped bring "In the Hall of the Mountain King" into the horror movie musical canon.

9. The Omen ("Ave Satani") - Jerry Goldsmith

I'll admit right now that I'm not a big fan of this movie, but the song is undeniably creepy. Gregorian chants always give me the shivers, but this one has a dark, sinister tone that crescendos into chaos. And then, when you realize that the Latin chants actually mean "Hail Satan," "Hail Anti-Christ" and "Elevate the body of Satan," that just makes the song even creepier. I wouldn't recommend playing this one at a Halloween party where children are present -- they may begin to convince other guests to jump off of the roof.

8. The Shining - Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind

As I was compiling this list of the best horror movie theme songs, I couldn't remember the music from The Shining. However, once I pulled up this song, it brought back a flood of creepy memories. This theme song was an adaptation of a song by Hector Berloiz, which was an adaptation of a 13th century hymn called "Dies Irae," which is Latin for "Yes, Latin is always creepy when its sung." This song has a great spooky-electric-organ feel and it is a great tune to play at a haunted house.

7. The Fog - John Carpenter

Not only was this film directed and co-written by John Carpenter, but he also composed the music. This theme song appropriately starts with a foghorn and then uses a fairly repetitive, yet effective, piano melody. It also has a familiar ticking percussion noise in the background, which worked quite well in another famous John Carpenter tune. Once again, this is a great theme song to play at a Halloween party because it is able to create a mood while staying in the background.

6. Signs - James Newton Howard

"But, The Former 786," you faithful readers are saying, "this song is WAY too new to be on a list of the best horror movie theme songs of all time!" Yes, it's a recent movie, but I was floored the first time I heard this music and it was shortly thereafter put on my Halloween playlist. It has a sharp, aggressive feel to it, reminiscent of the great scores from Hitchcock films. Whether you like Signs or not (illegal aliens are always a polarizing topic), this theme song deserves an objective listen.

5. Nightmare on Elm Street - Charles Bernstein

While many people only remember the infamous "1, 2, Freddy's coming for you. . ." rhyme sung by children in the film, the theme song of A Nightmare on Elm Street brings a certain, creepy feel to any room - especially a boiler room. This synthesized number has a new-age feel and features a strange, echoing drum, a ghostly voice and a high-pitched melody almost as piercing as Freddy's claws. You could almost fall asleep to this song, although I wouldn't recommend it.

4. The Exorcist ("Tubular Bells") - Mike Oldfield

Once more, I am not a fan of this movie, but this once innocuous tune has taken on a life of its own in the horror movie world. The theme for The Exorcist is actually only a small part of the whole "Tubular Bells" experience. "Tubular Bells, Part 1" actually runs 25 minutes and 58 seconds, and "Tubular Bells, Part 2" goes another 23:20. Apparently Warner Bros. wanted a "softer" score for this film, because they felt harsh music along with the harsh imagery on the screen would be too much for audiences.

3. Psycho ("The Murder") -  Bernard Herrmann

Speaking of harsh music, it doesn't get much more assaulting than this piece by Bernard Herrmann. Ok, technically, this isn't the "theme song" of Psycho, but it is, by far, the most recognizable music from the movie. Hitchcock himself said that much of the success of the film was due to Herrmann's work. The entire film score of Psycho could qualify for this list, but the screeching violins of "The Murder" are synonymous with psychotic behavior and showers. In fact, I can guarantee that almost every time someone is making a downward stabbing gesture with their arm, this music will be coming out of their mouth.

2. Jaws - John Williams 

Much like the whistling of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in M, whenever you begin to hear the alternating two-note pattern of the tuba, you know the shark is near. The slow, plotting tempo at the beginning quickens and builds into a complete fear frenzy. Perhaps this film is the reason I have an irrational fear of tuba players. Regardless, this film score launched John Williams into well-deserved stardom and it will forever be associated with sharks, shark attacks and anything lurking under the water.

1. Halloween - John Carpenter

This musical theme is not complicated or sophisticated, but, then again, neither is stabbing someone with a butcher knife. The Halloween theme features a simple haunting piano melody backed by sharp and quick percussion. This creepy theme song perfectly complements Michael Myers stalking, lurking and murdering actions. It's just John Carpenter and a keyboard, but it works. This is the kind of music I would not want to hear when walking down a dark alley. This is the kind of music that is perfect for any haunted house or Halloween party. Yes, in my totally subjective opinion, I feel that this is the best horror movie theme song.


--jeff * said...

yeah, that "friday the 13th" score is actually pretty lame. sounds like a bad 80s movie trying to channel hitchcock….

as for "toccata and fugue" even the gremlins know it was perfectly used in the phantom of the opera (which, despite being an old silent film, is actually legitimately good and you had better put it on your "to watch" list for october.) it's been copied since, but, like psycho, that doesn't mean it didn't work the first time.

thank you for mentioning "M" and "in the hall of the mountain king."

i'm watching "the shining" this weekend. so good….

i had never thought about "signs" before, but yeah, that's decent. it's not scary (intense and suspenseful, yes), and i would have put it below "the shining", but hey, this ain't "sheep go to heaven."

the "nightmare on elm street" score, which i'm sampling as i type these notes, is exactly what i would use if i were doing the score for "metroid." exactly.

i was expecting to see "psycho" at #1. when i saw it was at #3, i figured "jaws" would be number 1 (and i still thought "psycho" should be #1). so now i'll have to listen to the "halloween" link you provided and decide for myself.

oh… that's the "halloween" score?? yeah, that is creepy. hmm… ok, i still think "pyscho" should be #1, but i can live with this, i guess.

The Former 786 said...

Glad to hear your opinions, as always, Jeff. Although in my research I couldn't find a connection between the original silent Phantom of the Opera and Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I've watched that version, and I love it, but it seems as if Bach's composition wasn't associated with the Phantom until the 1962 version, and even then it is suspected it was used previously with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also, I love the idea of the Freddy music being associated with Metroid.

Thanks for reading!