There have been many editorials about the greatest musical scores in horror cinema, and most of them predictably cover classics like Psycho, Halloween, Suspiria, and The Exorcist—themes that are pleasant on the ears while still eliciting a chill down our spines. Most of the time, the first music you hear in a horror movie is ominous, unsettling, and a little creepy, but every now and then a film catches you off guard just by how heartbreakingly lovely it sounds, reminding you that this special genre offers a wide variety of themes, tones, and emotions, as well as the ability to find beauty in darkness. For this list I’m simply going to focus on the loveliest and most moving scores I’ve heard in horror movies.
in no particular order…
Tourist Trap (1979)
Composer: Pino Donaggio
In the DVD commentary to Tourist Trap, director David Schmoeller commented on how the music ended up being one of the costliest expenses for the film, but every penny was well spent because it’s impossible to imagine this outstanding and criminally underrated film without the contributions of Pino Donaggio, an Italian composer who also provided the music to Carrie, Don’t Look Back, Trauma, and many others. In Tourist Trap, a likable group of friends stumble upon an out-of-business museum owned by a charming, lonely hermit who has an impressive collection of lifelike mannequins. Right from the start, Donaggio’s compositions prepare us for a very interesting journey, and throughout the film he goes from playfully sinister to ethereal in an instant.
As the film becomes nightmarishly bizarre and raises the stakes, it repeatedly relies on melancholy strings to help us sympathize with the characters, and to lull us into complacency so that we remain vulnerable as yet another layer of this crazy story is peeled away. The main theme of Tourist Trap first appears as a music box lullaby, but by the end, you’ll hear it with a string section, flute, and piano, assuring that this film will nestle around in your mind for several hours. This film has been described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Carrie (but with a PG rating), and the music surely gives credibility to the latter comparison because it helps turn Mr. Slaussen into a character as tragic as Carrie White. I also particularly dig the music that plays in that terrific chase sequence where Davey just wants Molly to see his new friend.
Psycho II (1983)
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
The horror genre has a sad tendency to be overlooked and shunned by the Hollywood elites, usually always coming up empty at award nomination season and often serving as merely a stepping stone for up-and-coming stars and directors. But fortunately, one person that always took our beloved genre seriously was Jerry Goldsmith—quite possibly the greatest film composer ever—who graced numerous horror films with some of his finest work. Already having earned his horror credentials with The Omen (for which he won an Academy Award), Alien, and Poltergeist, Jerry Goldsmith did something very different for Psycho II and it’s a huge reason why the film is regarded today as one of the best horror sequels of all time.
Instead of the shrieking violin assaults that Bernard Herrmann mastered, Jerry Goldsmith created an unforgettable score that sounded every bit as tragic and vulnerable as Norman Bates’ psyche was after being released from a mental institution and returning to his childhood home for the first time in 23 years. Goldsmith either sensed that this movie was anything but your standard horror sequel or he was given very specific instructions by director Richard Franklin, because his score taps into the very soul of Norman, the most sympathetic monster since Frankenstein. The movie plays as much like a murder mystery or drama as it does a horror movie, and the music ties all the elements together brilliantly. This theme plays in the opening and closing credits, as well as several times in between, but it’s such a sweet, infectious melody that gets a slightly different treatment each time, so not once does it sound redundant.
Composer: Debbie Wiseman
It’s only natural for an elegant period piece ghost thriller to have a sophisticated, luscious score but I was still surprised that a direct-to-video movie would contain one of the prettiest pieces of music I’ve ever heard, coming from the British composer, conductor, and Professor Debbie Wiseman. Haunted is about a teacher who has just written a book debunking ghosts and the supernatural, but he finally starts to question all his beliefs after accepting an invitation to Edbrook Manor, owned by the affable but eccentric Muriel Family.
I was completely engrossed in the story-line, yet I found myself rewinding certain scenes just so I could hear the music over and over. At first I wondered if the fanciful imagery on screen (a breezy afternoon in the English countryside, stallions running beside waterfalls, or swirling ghosts suddenly dissolving in a nighttime lake) was a huge contributor as to why I was enjoying the music so much, but I later listened to the soundtrack on its own, and I loved it even more. It had a weird affect on me because I couldn’t decide if it was depressing or uplifting—I only knew it was an absolute masterpiece. I ranked the movie high on my Top Ten Most Underrated Horror Movies video so please give it a chance if you aren’t too cool for a romantic ghost thriller. Or at least just listen to its dreamy music as you fall asleep.
Fright Night (1985)
Composer: Brad Fiedel
The Fright Night soundtrack is as 80’s as it gets. From the catchy, groovy synth-pop dance hits to the sexy, moody screeching guitars, it reminds you of why the decade’s music made such an impact, and it sounds even better today when you compare it to new music that gets radio play these days. Fright Night’s main score, a soothing and mysterious ballad by Brad Fiedel titled “Come to Me,” is played multiple times throughout the movie because it has a strange ability to work on many levels.
It sounds tear-jerking when played in the scene where Jerry Dandridge finds Evil Ed in the alley, eerie when Charlie Brewster spies on his new neighbor and his lady friend, and unbelievably sexy and erotic when Amy is seduced by Dandridge. Brad Fiedel’s score was used again in Fright Night Part 2 with female vocals, and was mercilessly nowhere to be heard on the soundtrack to the pathetic remake; the new one would have been even more blasphemous had it stolen such a powerful piece of the original’s legacy.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Composer: Johan Sodergvist
It’s not only one of the best horror films in recent years, but also one of the most dreary and hopeless, so it’s no wonder why Johan Sodergvist’s score seriously tugs at the ole heartstrings. Performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, this music would conjure up images of barren landscapes covered in frost (I might be saying that because it reminds me a little of the Fargo score), or the greyest skies imaginable even if you heard it on an Hawaiian beach. It’s patient, cold, and brooding, and by the end you are more than prepared to spend a couple hours with a very sad vampire and her even sadder protectors. The angelic, alien yearnings of Sigur Ros’ Jonsi would have sounded right at home on this song.