The 20 Greatest Original Horror Scores

This Friday sees the release of David Robert Mitchell's hotly buzzed horror film "It Follows" (review here, some spoilers), a fun, stylish fusion of down-and-dirty genre horror with arthouse aesthetics. But it's not only visually sumptuous —a significant part of its atmosphere is down to its fantastic score, which is used lavishly and loudly throughout: a heavily John Carpenter-inspired roiling mass of disquieting atonal blares and drones from Distasterpeace's Rich Vreeland (check out three exclusive tracks).

In fact, it feels like the fine art of the horror score (and is there any film genre more reliant on evocative soundscapes than horror?) is rallying for a comeback after its heyday in the '70s and '80s. Recent films like "You're Next," "Berberian Sound Studio," "The Conjuring," "Room 237" and "Maniac" have each boasted terrific original music, so we thought we'd ride that zeitgeist and take a look and a listen back at the some of the all-time great horror scores.

Marshalling a list of fewer than a hundred scores was always going to be a task (check out the honorable mentions section for further suggestions), and so we decided to make sure the choices below were original compositions for the films. Hence the non-appearance of such iconic soundtracks as "The Exorcist" (its soundtrack, including its iconic theme Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," was reportedly a fairly late addition after William Friedkin was unhappy with Lalo Schifrin's score), as well as "The Shining," which while featuring some original music, notably Wendy Carlos' electronic take on Berlioz, is largely composed of found classical and jazz tracks, albeit arranged with such precision that it's possible Music Editor Gordon Stainforth deserves his own spot here.

And finally, we've also tried to hew as closely as possible to straight-up horror as opposed to thriller or mystery territory (the lines between those idioms we can and do argue about till the cows come home), which is why John Williams' all-time "Jaws" theme tune and films of that ilk are not here. So here are twenty amazing horror scores from years past: hopefully you'll find some old favorites but also a couple of new suggestions with which to scare your ears.

Rosemary's Baby

Krzysztof Komeda —"Rosemary's Baby" (1968)
La-la-la-la-laah... After the chilling psych-horror of "Repulsion" and the impish, spoofy horror of "The Fearless Vampire Killers," Roman Polanski struck a near-perfect balance between those funny/macabre impulses with "Rosemary's Baby," a deeply unnerving, devilishly insidious creepfest set off by its twist of sly black comedy. If it's the tension between horror and absurdity that gives the film its unique flavor, it's a tension that is carried over into the soundtrack, in which Polish film music composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda melds fright-film cliches with eerie lullabies and jazzy late '60s sunshine-pop moments. The counterpoint is arch and amusing, yet the nonsensical juxtaposition heightens the film's uncanniness, a trick Polanski would pull off in a more traditional manner with Philippe Sarde's great score for "The Tenant." But it's Komeda's arrangements of Mia Farrow's voice cooing those faux-soothing babyish motifs here that remain a touchstone for Polanski and for the horror genre in general.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

Ennio Morricone — "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977)
Demonized (!) by many upon initial release, perhaps inevitably a few defenders have rowed to "Exorcist II"'s defense since, notably Martin Scorsese, who claimed it thematically surpassed the original and then faintly praised: "maybe [John] Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got." But even if it isn't "the worst film ever made," Boorman's foolhardy attempt to take a canonized classic in a new, metaphysical direction is still a pretty unholy mess. And yet one element of the change-up is very worthy: Morricone's tribal drums and bass gumbo deserves credit not just for the music itself but also for the sheer balls it took to not emulate the first film's already iconic 'Tubular' Bells' theme tune in any way. We are always surprised that a modern filmmaker hasn't found the desire to reintroduce the world to the rocking "Magic and Ecstasy," which with its whipcracks, prog-rock bass and child choir, sounds like Satan's surfing mix.


Claudio Simonetti - “Demons” (1985)
Produced and co-written by Dario Argento and the most notable directorial effort of Lamberto Bava, son of horror maestro Mario, “Demons” is a Berlin-set gorefest about an ancient mask that causes a demon outbreak in a Berlin cinema (and eventually the city as a whole). Much of the 1985 film’s absurd chaos is scored with irony-free hair metal of the period from the likes of Accept, Motley Crue and The Scorpions, which somehow feels appropriate given the motorcycle and samurai and sword-tastic action sequences. But the original music, composed by former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti and which mostly bookends the film, is terrific fun: it's a none-more-eighties ear-worm pavement-thumper, like Harold Faltermeyer covering “Thriller” (and borrowing liberally from Edward Greig’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King”). The film runs out of steam fairly quickly even as it tries to ramp up the splatter, but Simonetti’s score at least sends you out on something of a high.


John Carpenter — "Halloween" (1978)
If anyone bestrides this list like a colossus, it has to be Carpenter — his films appear multiple times and "It Follows" wears its Carpenter influence like a badge of pride. His music for "Halloween"is one of the most brilliant horror scores, because it's among the simplest, to the point of simplistic, and therefore feels like the irreducible element that underlies a whole lot of what came after. Including, for example, the very different, far lusher, more rounded (and arguably even better, if less catchy) score he did with Alan Howarth for "Halloween III: Season of the Witch.""I can play just about any keyboard, but I can't read or write a note," said Carpenter, who showed his Casio mastery in the majority of his work but lucking out here with an iconically spartan 10/8 progression that feels like the aural definition of "look behind you!"