It’s been said that a great soundtrack is one you can listen to by itself just to relive a bit of the ambiance. With a horror soundtrack, even that can be enough to leave you unnerved and still wanting more.
Horror fans are already familiar with this phenomenon if the popularity of the soundtracks to Halloween, Suspiria, Psycho and Nightmare on Elm Street are any indication. However, these usual suspects are hardly the only soundtracks capable of shaking your bones and leaving you awestruck at the same time! For those of you who want more or aren’t sure, here is an on-the-fly list of 5 horror scores that are criminally underestimated for their chilling power.
- Tourist Trap – Pino Donaggio
Tourist Trap is one of those horror films that’s so trashily entertaining, yet so well-made, I am genuinely surprised it’s not a lot more popular. Pino Donaggio is one of those horror film composers whose music is so beautifully haunting, yet so adaptable for violent, thrilling scenes, that I’m somewhat surprised he’s not a more well-known name among the fandom.
Donaggio’s score for Tourist Trap is one that is a combination of being far more classy than you’d expect from its film’s budget and subject matter, and yet somehow so fitting for it. It’s main theme is a classic example of tonal dissonance: an upbeat tune with lots of trippy, childlike instrumentation, that manages to perfectly capture the film’s sense of madness. Beyond that track, a lot of the Tourist Trap OST is flat-out menacing, and even occasionally sublime.
Portions of this soundtrack also served as basis for several of Richard Band’s tracks in Puppet Master (although not the main theme). Between this and the Re-Animator score sounding a lot like the Psycho theme, one might get an idea about Band being a bit of a copycat… but it’s OK. Maybe Band and Donaggio have an agreement about that sort of thing since they both worked with Empire Pictures, right?
Below is a track which I feel exemplifies the beauty, the suspense, the weird factor, and overall madness that Donaggio brought to Tourist Trap.
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – Ennio Morricone
For an Ennio Morricone track to a Dario Argento film, this one isn’t discussed that often. Suspiria’s theme by Goblin? Renowned. Morricone’s score for The Thing? Sure. While this one doesn’t quite reach the heights of those two examples, it still exudes a sense of eeriness that infects the film throughout its course and helps elevate it above many of its contemporaries.
When you let Ennio Morricone go as your soundtrack guy, you better hope the next one in line is somebody special. I think many fans would agree that Dario Argento hit a home run teaming up with Goblin for future projects. However, as iconic as Goblin’s tracks to Argento movies would become, I have to think that either Argento picked them for doing something similar to Morricone, or that the famous prog-rock crew just may have taken a page from his book; specifically in the use of creepy vocals and bells.
Take a look at the spectacular, understated opening scene to the film. The aforementioned vocals playing over the film’s first victim as though stalking her, then fading to silence as the first shot of the black-gloved killer is revealed:
- Magic – Jerry Goldsmith
Jerry Goldsmith is a composer who is semi-famous among the horror community for his scores to 1976’s The Omen and 1979’s Alien. Between those two masterpieces, however, Goldsmith made another horror score, and a hidden gem among the others. His score for 1978’s Magic is somewhat less “iconic,” but not for lack of quality. This OST, which combines a bittersweet orchestral flair and dizzying harmonica accompaniment, captures a melancholy tone, integral to the tragic mood of the film.
A moment from the soundtrack where ethereal strings and romantic piano come together to celebrate Corky’s victory, only to cut to Fats, a ventriloquist doll through whom Corky’s split personality manifests, still sitting outside the room. I think our readers will be able to tell at which points the dummy is shown.
- Dead and Buried – Joe Renzetti
Take the melancholy I mentioned in the Magic entry and dial it up to 11. Joe Renzetti may be the least prolific composer in this list, his most famous horror credits being the scores to Child’s Play and the Basket Case sequels, but his work on the score to Dead and Buried, to my mind, put him for a moment in the same league as the others mentioned on this list.
While I was not thrilled by Dead and Buried overall, one thing I can say about it is that for its flaws in the acting and predictability departments, it still emotionally affected me. The main piano theme embodies depression, which seeps into the film’s overall mood and imbues the Tales-From-The-Crypt-esque horror with a crushing feeling of hopelessness. When the upper-tempo strings section comes in, it takes a plot that’s often more confusing than scary, and gives it a well-needed a sense of paranoia.
Below is a sample of this movie’s general gloom and chaos. Enjoy:
- Maniac – Jay Chattaway
Madness, depression, chaos, surreal beauty – all the things I mentioned as part of the aforementioned scores, are out in full force in Jay Chattaway’s Maniac theme. An OST which should by all rights be a classic, Chattaway’s music (as well as Lustig’s direction and the spot-on acting of Joe Spinell in the title role) elevates a film that is almost wall-to-wall violence into a truly chilling portrait of severe mental illness on the backdrop of urban decay.
Jay Chattaway also crafted the scores to Silver Bullet, The Ambulance, and Maniac director William Lustig’s more popular film Maniac Cop. But of all those scores, Maniac is head and shoulders above the rest. I can’t do justice to how perfect the soundtrack is for the film. Take a listen yourself and find out: