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10 Essential Horror Movie Scores

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10. Hellraiser

Christopher Young

The music for Pinhead and his cenobites is constantly given short shrift thanks to the more popular music written for his horror movie rivals: Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhies. However, Hellraiser’s gothic score separates him from the other titans of the genre. With nary a synthesizer or a “Ki-Ki-Ki, Ma-Ma-Ma” to be heard, composer Christopher Young does a 180 on his doomy, underrated score from A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge by opting to provide beautiful music for a movie largely concerned with the topic of personal demons and actual, proper demons. The main, orchestral score is crucial to the theme of beauty and pain that co-exist for the film’s main antagonist (Uncle Frank is the real bad guy here, not Pinhead), but it’s those bells that chime when the cenobites are approaching that truly cause the bad dreams. Bottom line: The score to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser will tear your soul apart! –Justin Gerber

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09. Under the Skin

Mica Levi

Spoiler: We love Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. It was our No. 1 film of 2014 and while it’s proven to be somewhat divisive, it’s hard to dispute Mica Levi’s relentless score. Considering there’s next to no dialogue, the film leans on Levi’s abrasive compositions to tell the story of the dangerous alien visitor. “What you can get with the synthesized strings is it goes on forever, whereas a human can’t [achieve that effect] … there’s human error,” Levi told Variety. “But with this, you get this foreverness feeling.” Simple percussion acts as the film’s heartbeat, rarely disappearing for any moment of time, but it’s those uneasy strings that ring like rusty nails on a chalkboard. Altogether, the chaos lets us in on a secret unbeknownst to the men of the film: There’s something wrong with Scarlett Johansson. –Justin Gerber

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08. Jaws

John Williams

Steven Spielberg had a big problem on the set of Jaws: his three animatronic sharks kept breaking down. As he watched the first $250,000 Bruce (he collectively named the sharks after his lawyer) sink into the watery depths, he knew he was running out of time and options. But these potentially career-ruining malfunctions turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because 1) not seeing the shark for most of the film proved to be scarier than actually seeing it; 2) John Williams’ ominous, now iconic theme became the key to its terror.

“Da-da…da-da…” That’s the sound of the Great White coming closer, eying the meat of human legs as they dangle underwater. “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da,” the music builds as he swims faster, right up underneath the body, until that scream-inducing moment when a woman is jerked side-to-side like a ragdoll and pulled under, or a little boy’s raft is flipped over in a geyser of blood. In opting for a more daring, unseen enemy approach, Spielberg changed the way that movies are made, while Williams’ score continues to haunt generations of beachgoers who still think twice before dipping into the water. –Leah Pickett

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07. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Charles Bernstein

Freddy Krueger remains one of the most badass and terrifying horror movie villains because he exists in a place you can’t ever fully escape: your dreams. Many of the tracks from A Nightmare on Elm Street’s score, like the murky “Prologue” and “Main Title”, play like warped lullaby songs, lowering your guard into an uneasy sleep. The heavy use of synths (on “Dream Attack”, “Terror in the Tub”, and “No Escape”, for instance) has a quintessential cheesy ’80s feel, but they still work today by representing the feverish oddities of nightmares. “Laying the Traps” sounds more like a track from an action film, which works because the protagonists in the film actually fight back and make sensible plans to survive Krueger’s attacks. One of the creepiest parts of the score, however, is the sparse yet heavily distorted use of vocals, which Bernstein actually created by recording through Boss digital delay and echo pedals. –Killian Young

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06. The Thing

Ennio Morricone

John Carpenter has a reputation as a do-it-all filmmaker; he directed, produced, wrote, scored, and acted in two of his earliest hits, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. But Carpenter enlisted the diversely skilled Ennio Morricone to score The Thing. Carpenter reportedly asked Morricone to simplify his initial attempt at the score, which led to the final, ominous version that almost perfectly meshes with Carpenter’s musical style.

Morricone — who made it all the way to the final round of our readers’ poll for greatest film composer of all time — managed to tap into The Thing’s major themes, like isolation, paranoia, and fear of the unknown. “Main Theme – Desolation” features staccato synths paired with gothic-style orchestral sounds, while the claustrophobic barrage of sounds on “Contamination” is enough to make you feel like creepy critters are crawling all over you.

The electronic flourishes fit the futuristic alien antagonist and the setting in an Antarctic research facility, but the more traditional orchestral pieces — like the deep, slow-moving strings becoming shriller and more urgent on “Bestiality” — play to The Thing’s strengths as a dread-filled monster flick. –Killian Young

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