What is it about a horror score that, when done well, makes the movie so damn scary? PSYCHO, JAWS, HALLOWEEN...these are three titanic examples of musical cues being as integral to the terror of their respective films as anything else. I suppose it's because they portend the very horror that the rest of the movie embodies, and through music, strikes a direct chord in the heart of the viewer.
But what about the flipside? Have you ever noticed how certain horror flicks actually take the opposite approach and, instead of employing a terrifying musical theme, a softer, lighter, seemingly safer arrangement is used. And the result is often the same. A false sense of security is conveyed with such gentle themes, and the juxtaposition between the pleasurable sounds and the brutally graphic imagery creates whole new sense of menace. Don't believe us? You shall once you scope our Top 10 Gentle Horror Theme Songs above!
Lalo Schifrin is one of the most accomplished composers who ever lived, in movies and out. Yet the tonal balance he was able to strike on the original AMITYVILLE HORROR is really one of the strengths of the movie overall. The theme he constructs manages to evoke a sense of promise, of starting a new, escaping the past and looking forward to the future...all the themes that are reinforced by the story itself. Yet in the back of your mind, you can't help but think something untoward is on the horizon. And as we learn, boy is it ever!
Granted, ARACHNOPHOBIA is a PG-13 horror-comedy, and therefore by proxy has a lighter sensibility, but damn is that opening theme song softer than Cottonelle! It's almost like a parody of something like Green Acres or some other wholesome, bygone TV program. Composer Trevor Jones echos the quaint sounds of easy country-living, a theme that plays out in the film itself as the Jennings family moves from the city to the rural countryside.
We all know what legendary status Bernard Herman's score to Hitchcock's original continues to be, but when was the last time you listened to what the great Jerry Goldsmith did with the PSYCHO II? Well, we urge you to do so above, as it's quite the lulling dirge. It's a great choice by Goldsmith to take the sound in a wildly different direction than the OG. Here uses conjures a sense of the familial, the friendly, before subverting the same music toward abject evil.
The great Philip Glass did quite the number on what, at the time, must have been considered a low-budget exploitation B-movie. Seriously, he outdid himself with the theme music to CANDYMAN, which honestly sounds like a classical composition right off the sheets of Bach or Beethoven. It's that good, that soothing, that elegant. Of course, when counter-weighed by the horrific imagery on display throughout the flick, the music takes on a more sinister quality altogether.
Come on now, how could you conscionably construct a list of horror themes without the inclusion of possibly the greatest composer of all time, Ennio Morricone. We wouldn't dare. That said, with literally hundreds of flicks to choose from, somehow it's his antithetical JAWS theme for ORCA that fits this category like a glove. What a wise decision to go in the opposite direction of the famous John Williams theme, and instead give ORCA a slower, orchestral, almost romantic sound. The result is a deep sense of sympathy felt for the majestic beats themselves, the Killer Whale.
Not only is the ending of the original WICKER MAN one of the all time wind-knocking gut-punches, the artsy acoustic folk songs peppered throughout the film are wildly original for a horror film. The opening track in particular, which serves as the main refrain, has a haunting quality despite being a rather gentle ditty. The movie sets you up to think you're about to watch a down-to-earth, heartfelt drama, but what unfolds is a jarring cinematic sleight of hand that uses music as its key weapons.
Have you ever noticed how light and breezy the theme to Stephen King's SILVER BULLET is? It's crazy to think that a movie about a paraplegic little boy who discovers his small town his been gorily overrun by a moon-howling lycanthrope features such a non-threatening piece of music throughout. But it does. And you know what, it somehow works. That said, I do wonder if the sound would have been different under the direction of Don Coscarelli, who was originally slated to helm the film before having a fallout with producer Dino De Laurentiis.
Jerry Goldsmith is one of the all time great film composers, a man who's contributed to every genre under the sun, and even in the horror realm, has demonstrated stark diversity. His THE OMEN score is one of the most frightening pieces of sound ever assembled, yes, but then think about how anodyne his work on POLTERGEIST comes across as. Idyllic, hopeful, family-oriented, the theme lulls you into a false sense of safety, only to turn the tables entirely by the final reel.
Full disclosure, this is my personal favorite horror score...on this list or any other. The choice of director Roggero Deodato to begin his brutally savage tale of flesh-eating tribalism with such a gorgeous, tear-jerking melody is not just brilliant, it's flat out cruel. This Riz Ortolani piece is both sweeping and sentimental, especially as the film begins. However, after the powerfully entrancing gang-feast finale, the same piece of music kicks up and utterly assaults your senses. You can't quite reconcile what you're seeing with what you're hearing, which creates a dumbstruck quality in all who witness it.
The sound of innocence lost has never been more palpable than in Brian de Palma's CARRIE, as he wisely turned to famed Italian maestro Pino Donnagio to create such a weepy and wistful theme. The opening scene establishes this perfectly, tricking us into thinking the movie will be a gentle coming of age tale. Of course, moments later we witness some of the most heinous bullying ever seen onscreen, and the soft, seductive sounds take on a whole new context.