Happy Samhain

Every year since 1984, I have listened to The Residents “Mark of the Mole”. This year mark a milestone of 30 years, so I listened in costume with the Residents Skull from 1976 and played a drum used on “Eskimo” album. You can call me a nerd now.


#23 of 100 greatest horror soundtracks of all time

‘Tis an honor to have music that you wrote end up at #23 (!) on the list of “100 Greatest Horror Soundtracks of all time“. Nestled right between “Alien” and “Rosemary’s Baby”. Right where it belongs!

25. Charles Bernstein
The Entity

Bernstein is best known for his syrupy synth score for Nightmare on Elm Street (also on this list), but his compositions for uncomfortable ghost-rape movie The Entity are far superior. Here’s a soundtrack so jam-packed with weird, memorably spine-chilling cues that Quentin Tarantino snaffled one for Inglourious Basterds – using ‘Bath Attack’ to heighten tension in one of the film’s most crucial scenes.

24. Krzysztof Komeda
Rosemary’s Baby

Krzysztof Trzcinski was a former ENT doctor in Warsaw who, using the pseudonym Komeda to avoid hassle from the censorious Communist regime, became a crucial figure in the development of European jazz. His 1960s soundtrack work is vital, with Knife in the Water and The Fearless Vampire Killers among the highlights in an extensive catalogue. His score for Polanski’s punishing 1968 classic, however, takes top billing – a timely blend of ’60s pop, stern orchestration and warped chanting, all centred around that coiling lullaby motif. Psychological disarray has rarely sounded groovier.

23. Climax Golden Twins
Session 9

Session 9 has, in its modest slow-burning way, has become easily one of the best-loved cult horror flicks of the last decade. This tale of asbestos cleaners slowly driven to lunacy in a dilapidated mental asylum has a similarly unhurried soundtrack, courtesy of seasoned Seattle post-rockers Climax Golden Twins. It’s a highly involving collection of ambient drone and rumbling piano with precise digital detailing; in its finest moments, Session 9 plays like a soured Stars of the Lid, and makes for hypnotic standalone listening.

22. Jerry Goldsmith

Thought Kane had it bad? Spare a thought for Jerry Goldsmith. After all sorts of behind-the-scenes bunfighting, Ridley Scott ended up using a butchered version of Goldsmith’s submitted score: only one cue remained in its original place, with the rest cut up and hodge-podged into a new order alongside material from Goldsmith’s 1962 Freud score. Goldsmith’s as-intended version saw release in 1999, but the bastardised score remains remarkable effective – a blend of rich orchestration and “alien sounds” (didgeridoo, serpents, strings filtered through echoplex units). A spirited botch-job, and a key component of one of the most stylised horrors ever committed to celluloid.

21. Richard Band

Richard Band’s chiming, vocal-heavy soundtrack to Troll stands as his finest contribution to the horror genre. His Psycho-indebted accompaniment to Re-Animator might be better known, but Troll is the pro choice, with its jaunty, mischievous atmosphere mirroring the fantastical world of the on-screen Troll. Band’s soundtracks stood out primarily as being so absolutely American, and his ADD compositions are now synonymous with the US VHS horror era. It probably helped that his brother Charles Band produced most of them.

20. Mica Levi
Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s tale of an alien abroad has many of the tropes of classic body horror – woman as devourer, sex as deathtrap, &tc. – but, presented with Kubrickian grandeur and a compassionate eye, it’s an exercise in artsy eeriness rather than schlock. Much of that comes down to Mica Levi’s classic-in-waiting score. Taking pointers from Penderecki and Schnittke, it blends scrimmaging strings and synthwork to thrilling effect: see that insinuating violin theme, or centrepiece ‘Love’, a sudden access of emotional energy that sets neck hairs saluting. Not bad for an art-rock scruffball in her mid-twenties.

19. Harry Bromley-Davenport

Notorious Brit sci-fi horror flick Xtro is far better remembered than it was received at the time, and its Carpenter-esque synth score has aged surprisingly well. It’s an unsettling collection of whining synth leads and haunting melodies that feels at times almost at odds with the film’s schlocky visuals (when there’s a full grown man being “birthed” on screen, woozy electronic music probably can’t cut it). Not that composer (and director of the movie itself) Harry Bromley-Davenport would agree with us; trained as a classical pianist, he now regards his soundtrack as “pretty awful.”

18. Basil Kirchin
The Abominable Doctor Phibes

Hull’s weirdest musical offspring (with the possible exception of COUM Transmissions), Kirchin started making scores for imaginary films in the early 1960s, before graduating to the real thing during the height of Swinging London. Dr Phibes isn’t as out there as his musique concrete experiments from the period – compared to Worlds Within Worlds, it’s chocolate box conventional – but it’s still a whirlwind of hepcat jazz motifs, rich exotica, tasteful electronic processing and concentrated quirk. The official soundtrack release truncated Kirchin’s score considerably, so Perseverence’s luxuriant 2004 reissue is the one to track down.

17. Harry Manfredini
Friday 13th
Harry Manfredini’s Friday 13th score should never have been so successful: he mercilessly rips of Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann at almost every turn, but for some reason he manages to make it work in his favor. The familiar cues help add an air of unease to proceedings – it feels as if we should know exactly what’s happening, but there’s something different in the air. Then there’s the genre-defining whisper effects that became quickly synonymous with the Friday 13th franchise. If slasher legend Jason Voorhees wasn’t heralded by the requisite “ch ch ch, ah ah ah” sounds, we’d have to wonder whether his oversized machete was even still capable of decapitating a horde of lusty teenagers.

16. François Tétaz
Wolf Creek

François Tétaz heightened the sense of isolated dread that’s at the heart of Greg McLean’s terrifying Aussie horror Wolf Creek by using elements of Alan Lamb’s pioneering Primal Image recordings. Lamb spent a number of weeks recording a 1km stretch of abandoned telephone wires on a farm in Western Australia when he discovered that the unsheathed wires made a quiet “singing” noise as they were caught by the wind. Calling them the wires his “Faraway Wind Organ,” he created an album made from the field recordings – and these form the backbone of many of Tétaz’s cues. Letting the eerie recordings speak for themselves, Tétaz wisely allows his subtle drones to emerge slowly, building around Lamb’s framework with grace and respect. The end result is both incredibly fitting – the film was set in the empty expanses of Western Australia – and oddly beautiful, and has been a touchstone for dark ambient producers ever since its release in ’05.

15. Libra
Billed by Death Waltz boss Spencer Hickman as the “perfect companion piece to Suspiria,” Libra’s score for Mario Bava’s Shock is an obscure gem, filled with frothy prog rock excesses and avant-garde synthesizer touches. It’s hardly surprising that the band were actually connected to Goblin all along – occasional Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini lends his talent to the band, and the band’s 1975 drummer Walter Martino handles percussion. It’s one of the best giallo soundtracks ever dubbed to celluloid.

14. Ralph Jones
Slumber Party Massacre

Exquisite scuzz. Amy Holden Jones’ Slumber Party Massacre was lambasted at the time for its clunkiness, but it’s since been rehabilitated as a feminist piss-take of the worst excesses of the slasher. Ralph Jones’ soundtrack is a perfect example of the VHS trash aesthetic in action – knowing, scrappy as fuck, and shamelessly enjoyable. The mood is gimcrack baroque: trebly distorted organs parp out night-at-the-carnival lines and swarm like hornets with headaches. It’s not all trash (the ambient passages sound like they could have been plucked from Charles Wuorinen’s pioneering ‘60s composition Time’s Encomium) but for the most part this offers plenty of well-aimed cheap kicks.

13. Bernard Herrmann

Psycho could have been so different. Hitchcock originally asked for a breezy, be-bop inspired soundtrack, but Herrmann – who already had two decades of classic scores behind him – demurred. An deliberate attempt to create a “black and white score” to accompany the “black and white film”, Psycho is, unusually, composed exclusively for strings – an attempt to take violins (the stormtroopers of the Hollywood schmaltz machine, as embodied by the likes of Alfred Newman) and make them brutal and ugly. It might not have been a complete bolt from the blue – one key passage is lifted pretty wholesale from a sinfonietta Herrmann composed nearly 25 years earlier – but few scores are as harmonically complex, agitated, and attuned to the enduring power of loud-quiet-loud.

12. Tangerine Dream
The Keep

Towering Gods of the soundtrack world, German synth maniacs Tangerine Dream excelled themselves with their moving set of cues for Michael Mann’s The Keep. Somehow though, the OST has never been officially released. You can still hear it – there are a good 16-or-so bootlegs – but with Mann distancing himself from the film and Tangerine Dream squabbling over contracts with Virgin (it was slated for release on the label in both 1984 and 1998) it’s managed to end up sitting in some kind of limbo for over three decades.

It’s a corker too, more bone-chilling than the band’s better-known scores for Richochet or, er, Risky Business, and complements Michael Mann’s bizarre (and still underrated) visuals perfectly. The fact that this score is no longer even partnered with the film in newer versions (that license dispute again) is incredibly depressing.

11. Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave

It’s hardly surprising that director Don Coscarelli was massively influenced by Dario Argento’s Suspiria when he made Phantasm. He realized that Goblin’s surreal score was a huge part of the film’s success, and called on Fred Myrow and his partner Malcolm Seagrave to put together a memorably synthesizer-laced accompaniment. You can certainly hear the Goblin reverence loud and clear (plus a neck-breaking nod to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in the film’s theme) but Myrow and Seagrave’s treatment is deliriously enjoyable and creepy in its own way adding a welcome sense of small-town America to Goblin’s distinctly Italo-prog sound.

10. Toru Takemitsu

A giant in the 20th century Japanese avant-garde, Takemitsu scored in excess of 90 films before his death in 1996 (interested parties are directed towards JVC’s exhaustive 55-disc retrospective, Complete Takemitsu Edition). Kwaidan, Kobayashi’s set of impressionistic supernatural vignettes (at the time, the most expensive film made in Japanese cinema history)is surely one of his greatest efforts – a savage, curdled version of Japanese folk music, strangled out of an abused biwa. Notes are plucked and spat with force, with found sound and moments of yawning space accentuating the unease. Highly singular, and a key example of horror cinema being one of the few platforms where avant-garde music has a fighting chance of reaching a wider mainstream audience.

09. Alessandro Alessandroni
Devil’s Nightmare

A Morricone collaborator, and the chap who did the whistling on all those Sergio Leone themes, Alessandroni racked up plenty of scoring caps of his own. His soundtrack for Jean Brismée’s gothic succubus flick La Terrificante Notte Del Demonio is lamentably little heard – an increasingly cracked blend of twisted yé-yé, treated organ and industrial churn. Then there’s the impossibly brilliant theme, which could very easily be an outtake from Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melodie Nelson – note-for-note, it’s probably the most underrated track on this entire list.

08. David Lynch & Alan R. Splet

We wouldn’t be doing our job very well if we didn’t at least give a massive nod to David Lynch. Although his work with Angelo Badalementi is more widely acclaimed (and, let’s be honest, not exactly “horror”) it’s his influential soundtrack to Eraserhead, composed with sound designer Alan R. Splet, that finds Lynch at his most terrifying. Without a library of sounds they could use, the two set about employing radical techniques to achieve the vanguard “industrial” soundscape, recording air blowing through glass tubes and actual machinery and filtering in snippets of jazz to add to the woozy ambience. It’s a soundtrack that’s almost without cues, instead opting to set a mood that mirrors the film’s eerie, dream-like abstraction. Drone music producers have spent decades trying to unpick Eraserhead’s tangled genius and it still sounds like nothing else.

07. Colin Towns
Full Circle

You might not have come across Full Circle (also known as The Haunting of Julia) before – the film still remains difficult to obtain digitally – but that shouldn’t put you off. Colin Towns’ spacious, melancholy soundtrack is an absolute joy, and reflects the control he was given over the sound. The film’s star Mia Farrow was actually wooed to the role by hearing an early demo of Towns’ main theme, and Virgin Records were so interested in the soundtrack that they even managed to convince Queen (seriously) to help with the record’s funding.

Fascinated by using the synthesizer (in this case an ARP 2600) as an emotional instrument rather than simply as a toy, Towns combined the brassy, bassy electronic sounds with simple piano and flute motifs, ending up with a series of cues that strike a rare middle ground between the synthetic and the organic. Full Circle might not be as showy as some of the other soundtracks in the list, but what it lacks in bombast it makes up for with heart.

06. Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell
Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s score (like the film itself, edited in Hooper’s living room) still hasn’t had an official release, circulating instead in bootleg or fan-assembled form. If, like many, you excise the twangy country originals from Texan singer songwriters like Roger Bartlett and Arkey Blue, you’re left with a proto-industrial masterpiece – hellish psychedelia cooked up on a minuscule budget. The score’s genius lies in its unique blend of diegetic and non-diegetic sound: metallic scrapes underpin the sound of shovelled dirt; the whirr of Leatherface’s chainsaw impressionistically blurs with analogue synthesiser; screams dissolve into analogue tones or blend with the whirring of drills. The effect is genuinely unheimlich – a triumph of shoestring atmospherics.

05. Howard Shore

It would be hard to understate David Cronenberg and frequent collaborator Howard Shore’s influence on horror filmmaking. Cronenberg’s oozing “body horror” would inform a long list of films, and Shore’s scores effortlessly complemented the impact of Cronenberg’s pioneering visuals. Few of their collaborations gelled as perfectly as Videodrome, as Shore attempted to parallel the film’s themes by embarking on an unusual recording method. To mirror Max Renn’s on-screen technology-addled psychosis, Shore composed an orchestral score which he then programmed entirely into the early synthesizer/sampling workstation the Synclavier II. Following this, the score was played by ear from the finished electronic score by a pared down string section, and the two recordings were blended together to create the finished product. The fact that at times it’s hard to hear the difference between what’s real and what’s synthesized is precisely the point. Long live the new flesh!

04. John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch

It had to be Halloween, didn’t it? Of all the horror scores in existence, John Carpenter’s delicate piano composition is the one that will be trucked out every year on October 31 until flesh eating corpses rise from the dirt and devour us all. It’s a deceptively complex piece of writing too and chances are you’re not remembering it entirely correctly. It’s actually written in 10/8 (whether this was purposeful or not is unclear, Carpenter has said on numerous occasions that he “can’t read or write a note”) which adds to the eerie, spine-chilling mood usually without you even noticing.

Over the years Carpenter has re-imagined his original score several times, the best of which is the accompaniment to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, produced with regular collaborator Alan Howarth and exclusively made with synthesizers. The film itself might be lacking considerably, but Carpenter and Howarth’s moody electronic score takes the unmistakable original theme and expands it into a fully-fledged suite of Prophet-heavy goodness. It is also notable for being composed while the duo watched the film – the first time they were able to work in this way.

03. Fabio Frizzi
City of the Living Dead

Of all the composers so tied to the schlocky video nasty genre, it’s Fabio Frizzi that lords above them with an air of grandeur. It’s not that his synth-heavy cues boast higher production values than those of his peers exactly, rather there’s something in his compositions that keeps you coming back again and again. City of the Living Dead is crucial because it’s so varied – that haunting guitar riff, the unmistakable mellotron choir sounds, the syrupy, plasticky rhythms. Frizzi only really uses synthesizers here in moderation, and when we reach the triumphant ‘Apoteosi Del Mistero’, the analogue bleeps and brassy leads only accent a score that was already a classic.

02. Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh were to Werner Herzog what Goblin were to Dario Argento, and Nosferatu: The Vampyre was possibly their greatest collaboration. Herzog’s psychedelic and often surreal take on the classic vampire story would have floundered without the correct use of musical cues, and Florian Fricke’s spacious Eastern-inspired motifs are memorable and absorbingly eerie. In fact, Herzog pushed Fricke to raid the archives for his darkest material, and the resulting selection of tracks combines Popol Vuh’s early electronic experiments with a number of their later more organic works.

01. Goblin

What can you say about Suspiria that hasn’t been said already? Of all Goblin’s phenomenal scores, this one towers above – mainly because it complements the film so perfectly while standing as a corker of a record in its own right. The band were desperate to experiment this time around, and Argento was prepared to give them the time to do it (Profondo Rosso was famously recorded in a day). So Simonetti and co hired a “big Moog” (the cumbersome pre-Minimoog modular system) and a bunch of Middle Eastern instruments and crafted a soundtrack based on the film’s themes of witchcraft and Argento’s excited notes. The result is a terrifying cacophony of occult themes and prog tropes that sounds defiantly ahead of its time without trying to re-invent the wheel. If you only listen to one horror soundtrack, this should be it.

Dream Throat

I’ve already donated to this project because Michael’s former band Jane Jane Pollock was a masterpiece on all levels. This film looks pretty cool in that it has all the elements of a great Lynch film AND the venue for it will be hotel rooms across the country.

Edgar Allen Poe

I don’t know if you remember or not, but last year, my friend Richard and I put out an audio book of Edgar Allan Poe. This is the perfect gift for Halloween! The audio book is available through Audible, but if you buy the Kindle edition on amazon for $4.32, you can get the audio version for an additional $1.99. What a bargain! Print version available too!

Dream Throat

Today’s noble cause is a film called “Dream Throat”. Can’t wait until 2016 to see Twin Peaks? Donate a few dollars here and see it sooner. Michael Arcos is an artist that I’m very fond of. His previous project was a great band called Jane Jane Pollock. You will recognize that band name because they are frequently on my “best of the year” lists. He will probably make the list again this year because of his massively great cassette called “Blackberry Bones”. He’s not asking a ton of money, so maybe you can spare something?