The score to a horror movie can be the most essential thing sometimes. It sets the mood, the pace, everything. A great score can even make a bad horror movie seem semi-decent if the music is scary enough. Try putting these themes on a Halloween mix for trick-or-treaters this year if you want to keep all your candy. Next week, we’ll do another user-submitted Top 10 (email me your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org if you got one!), but for now, enjoy my list of the Top 10 Scariest Movie Themes. Links to related lists: Top 10 Overlooked Scary Movies, Top 10 Movie-Inspired Halloween Costumes, Top 10 Slapstick Horror Movies, Top 10 Giant Monster Attacks! Movies, Top 10 Movie Monsters
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), composed by Krzysztof Komeda
Director Roman Polanski hit the zietgeist with this psychological horror classic, in which Mia farrow gives birth to the spawn of Satan. Polanski may have hit a nerve with parents who couldn’t understand what had happened to their sweet children in the late 60s, but it was Polish jazz pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda who set the mood with his creepy theme music, using a lilting lullaby voice and a string-led waltz to suggest both child-like wonder and sinister goings-on at the same time.
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9. Friday the 13th (1980), composed by Harry Manfredini
Do the whispered sounds of “ki-ki … ha-ha-ha-ha” count as a musical score? When they are as memorable as this one they do. Listen below to the original theme song from the very first “Friday the 13th” movie (Part 200 is due out next Spring, in a reboot produced by Michael Bay): the familiar refrain is jammed in between tons of driving “Psycho”-like strings and sound effects that are reminiscent of a steel blade being unsheathed. Chicago-born composer Harry Manfredini has contninued to work steadily on the “Friday the 13th” series and other B-movies such as “Zombie Island Massacre” and “Wishmaster.” Somehow, he also found time to write and bring to Broadway a country/western musical titled “Play Me a Country Song” that opened and closed after one performance in 1982.
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8. Suspiria (1977), composed by Goblin
The only Italian prog-rock band on this list, Goblin made a name for themselves scoring director Dario Argento’s horror hits “Deep Red” and “Suspiria.” For a band that looked up to mentors Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, it’s a bit ironic that their sole claim to fame comes from performing galloping, spooky little numbers to watch young women be murdered by. These days, Goblin’s “Suspiria” theme certainly sounds a little dated and cheesy, but that’s also part of what makes it sound so cool. Supposedly, the soundtrack was written before the film was completed; allowing Argento to blast the score at his actors—full volume—to get better, more terrifying performances out of them.
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7. “The Shining” (1980), composed by Krzysztof Penderecki
The theme to director Stanley Kubrick’s Steven King adaptation is by Wendy Carlos (who, before sexual reassignmen—and billed as Walter Carlos—played synthesised Beethoven all over Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”), and it’s a fine piece of work. But most of the disturbing and truly memorable music in the movie comes from Polish modern classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki. The insane dissonance of pieces like “Utrenja Kanon Paschy” and “Polymorphia” (part of which was also used briefly in “The Exorcist”) serve to unsettle Shelley Duvall as she tries to deal with the fact that her husband, played by Jack Nicholson, is losing his grip on reality and breaking down the bathroom door with a very large axe. Start about two minutes in and listen to the unsettling string noise.
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6. The Exorcist (1973) “Tubular Bells,” composed by Mike Oldfield
First released as a two-song LP (Part One on side one, Part Two on side two), Mike Oldfield’s album “Tubular Bells” was quickly seized by director William Friedkin to become the theme song to his demon-possession tale “The Exorcist.” As a direct result, the album—a progression of that familiar theme that lasts for almost 49 minutes total—became a sensation, selling more than 17 million copies worldwide and spawning a series of album “sequels.” Ironically, it took Oldfield almost twenty years of disappointing record sales to finally, inevitably return to the well with the creatively named “Tubular Bells II” (1992), “Tubular Bells III” (1998), and finally—to cash in on the impending Y2K doom—“Millennium Bell” (1999). In 2003, Oldfield said goodbye to all credibility and actually re-recorded the entire album, calling it—wait for it—“Tubular Bells 2003.” Regardless, the four-minute-something version that was appropriated as “The Exorcist” theme still retains its inherent spookiness.
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5. The Omen (1976), composed by Jerry Goldsmith
The bombastic choral explosion of “Ave Satani!,” from the third devil-child movie on this list, features a chant of the song’s Latin title, which translates to “Hail, Satan!” Jerry Goldsmith won the only Oscar of his long career for this miasmatic Gothic score, which pummels you with screaming highs every time the bad stuff is about to go down. Without Goldsmith’s music, Damien—the little antchrist tiny tot—might not have seemed so scary. Of course, chants of “Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani” (“drink the blood, eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan”), also help out.
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4. Taxi Driver (1976), composed by Bernard Herrmann
This may not technically fall into the category of a horror film, but I challenge you to listen to this theme, used in the opening and closing moments of Martin Scorsese’s chilling urban saga “Taxi Driver” and not feel the chill. The rising, sinister orchestral tones remind me of the slo-mo above shot of aliented vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)’s carnage, and the jazzy interlude is the perfect soundtrack to the scummy streets of New York City, infested as they were with the lowlife scum of the Earth that Bickle so fiercely despised. Sadly, this was last score Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo”) would ever work on, since the legendary film composer died shortly after its completion.
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3. Halloween (1978), composed by John Carpenter
In order to cut costs on his low-budget slasher pic “Halloween,” director John Carpenter just decided to do the music himself. What resulted is one of the most iconic movie themes around, horror movie or not. The creepy, simple piano run gets lodged in your head after multiple refrains and all I can think of is a masked killer stalking the suburbs with a big butcher knife, looking in all the windows for some fresh meat. Just as the endless amount of slasher movie imitators have caused the film to lose some of its original charm, the music loses a little edge in its production, too. Yet while it may be dated, there is nothing quite like it for immediate shorthand. You put this on, and people know something bad is about to happen.
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2. “Psycho (1960) composed by Bernard Herrmann
Using only the string section of an orchestra (the instruments usually used to play a sweeping romantic melody), Bernard Herrmann put together a jarring and terrifying score that sounds like someone jabbing a knife over and over again. Director Alfred Hitchcock originally was going to leave the music out of the infamous shower-murder scene, and it’s a good thing he didn’t stick with that decision. The liner notes of the soundtrack explain: “Several musicians and informed cinemagoers have referred to ‘bird-shrieks’ and ‘distorted, screaming bird cries’ in this connection. There are none. All we hear when Marion is killed are the shrill, stabbing thrusts of the strings in their topmost registers. Herrmann was once asked what thought was uppermost in his mind when creating this unique and hair-raising cue. He replied in one word: “terror.”
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1. Jaws (1975), composed by John Williams
“Da-da .. da-da,” it starts out slow. “Da-da ..da-da ..da-da,” speeding up now! “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da” really fast, “Da-da-da-da,” it’s right on top of us! That two-note motif from John Williams’ masterful score to Steven Spielberg’s scream-inducing shark tale, is the key to the entire film. Without the foreboding theme to illustrate that something wicked this way comes, Spielberg has got nothing but an animatronic shark that keeps breaking down on set. With the theme’s rhythmic buildup, Williams made us all feel like there was terror lurking just below the surface of the water, where our legs were kicking back and forth, completely open to attack from a giant shark. Forget that I’m swimming in a swimming pool. The moment I hear those notes, I know what’s coming.
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