While the nostalgia of mono audio and grainy low-budget pictures may be a part of the attraction of the genre's history, it pays for today’s horror films (and the increasing number of restorations) to look and sound their best. After all, why wouldn't you want to feel like you’re in an old, creepy haunted house. With the lights off... stood in silence... right next to the impending victim?
We've rounded up 14 (because 13 would have been just too meta) of the best horror films with soundtracks dead-certain to send shivers down your spine and give your home cinema system a run for its money. Just don't throw a cushion towards it out of fear. Lights down, volume up, brave face on...
The Lighthouse (2019)
Robert Eggers (The Witch) invites you to join Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe as they struggle to maintain their sanity as lighthouse keepers holed up on a strange and remote New England island in the 1890s – and, let us tell you, it is some experience. Especially with the right home cinema set-up.
An audio-visually fresh and vivid affair, with its black-and-white picture in aspect ratio of 1.19:1 and its equally claustrophobic soundscape largely defined by deafening, droning foghorns and screaming seagulls, The Lighthouse is at times an almost intolerable attack on the senses. Yet while it demands a level of patience and composure from its viewer, its committed execution of atmospheric dread is nothing less than utterly engrossing. Rarely are you treated to such fascinating characters and performances in genre film, too.
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A Quiet Place (2018)
Ironically, John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic horror (about a family forced to live in silence in a world terrorised by blind monsters that hunt through sound) deserves a place on this list for its relative absence of audio.
You know the tense feeling you get when you watch a character creep tentatively around a dark corner? That walking-along-a-knife’s-edge sensation is what’s instilled in the viewer for the film’s 90-minute duration.
The diegetic world of quiet provides the ideal soundscape for orchestral-driven jump scares to penetrate, while faint sounds (breeze through trees and creature noises, say) and the constant switching of different character’s sonic perspectives builds atmosphere on a remarkably grand scale.
We hope there's plenty more where that came from in the long-awaited sequel, which has been delayed (for a third time), finally due to hit cinemas in September.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Horror soundtracks aren't all creaky floorboards, ten fingers on synthesizers and compilations of the most camp pop songs from the ‘80s. Scores with heavy rock roots underpin some of the nittiest, grittiest genre gems, and while we'll give nods to The Lost Boys, Trick or Treat and nearly every Rob Zombie film, Dan O'Bannon's horror-comedy masterpiece (about teen punks taking on a horde of ravenous undead) mashes together the likes of The Damned, 45 Grave, T.S.O.L and The Cramps to help create, hands down, the best punk rock (or, to use its more appropriate label, 'death rock') monster movie.
Be prepared for as much head-banging and guitar-shredding as brain-eating and skin-tearing.
It Follows (2015)
Anyone who has lost a couple of days binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things will know how effective a vintage-style synthwave score is in keeping you in your seat.
Synth virtuoso John Carpenter pretty much carved the archetypical horror soundtrack in the 1970s and ‘80s. And for It Follows – David Robert Mitchell’s teen stalker-come-slasher that sees the main cast stalked by a sexually transmitted curse – Disasterpiece (otherwise known as Rich Vreeland) pays homage to the era with a consistently unsettling synth-laden score.
Expect sinister arpeggios that creep up on you, contrasted with unrelenting sharp spikes and roaring percussion that will have you bolt upright in your seat. This really is one best enjoyed in its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray presentation.
There’s a particularly aqueous feel to the direction and soundtrack of Carpenter’s films – probably because he creates and performs soundtracks to his films himself. But while we’d give special mentions to his Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog for their chilling instrumentals, scores don’t come as iconic as Halloween’s. You only need to hear the first few bars of the main title or the two-note piano sequence to conjure images of Jamie Lee Curtis running from the masked killer.
A 35th anniversary edition with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track was released a few years ago, but it doesn’t add a great deal to the 5.1 presentation found on the original 2007 Blu-ray. Not only does it effectively spread the frenetic score generously around the soundfield, but also the film’s diegetic sounds, such as Michael Myers’ breathing, rustling leaves and the rain.
The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s British horror flick, which follows six women trapped in a humanoid-infested cave, gets surround sound atmospherics down to a tee, utilising the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format on its Blu-ray transfer beautifully.
The cave itself is an effective soundscape – the setting’s innate eeriness and claustrophobia is intensified by silence-breaking dripping water and ‘strange’ echoing noises filling your rear channels. And what's in store for your centre channel? Plenty of blood-curdling screams, that's what.
Berberian Sound Studio (2015)
You’d expect a film about sound (specifically, about a sound engineer falling apart while working on an Italian giallo film) to incorporate some sound design ingenuity itself. Which is exactly what Peter Strickland’s psychological thriller starring Toby Jones does.
Broadcast’s mesmerising (albeit unnerving) soundtrack is a collection of analog synths, menacing organs, abstract sounds, eerie whispers and – best of all – vegetable-hacking that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Like all entries in this list, this '60s classic – Roman Polanski's first Hollywood feature – sits bang smack in the middle of must-watch horror territory. The iconic psychological thriller, which, adapted from Ira Levin's novel, follows a woman (Mia Farrow) who moves to a New York apartment with her husband and, having been mysteriously impregnated, believes she's carrying Satan's spawn, is soundtracked by Krzysztof Komeda, a frequent collaborator of Polanski's who died just a year after the film's release.
The wordless, la-la-ing vocal of the leading lady that accompanies a lullaby-like instrumentation for the Main Theme is suitably unsettling, and that fairy tale-esque composition is a near-perfect accompaniment to Polanski's moodily macabre, nightmarish adaptation. From its occult incantations to its hauntingly pleasant musicality, this score will have you sinking further and further into the comforting depths of your sofa.
The Shining (1980)
Despite Stanley Kubrick only ever straying from mono soundtracks for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has a six-channel track, most of his films are notable for their sound design. The Shining, in particular, is a masterclass in atmospheric sound, with much of Jack’s deterioration communicated through the audio track.
The suspense evoked by the surreal imagery is bolstered by Kubrick’s dependence on diegetic sound – the tricycle riding over the floor and carpet, Jack’s typewriter – but if there’s one moment particularly deserving of praise, it’s the steady heartbeat playing over the Room 237 scene.
The Blu-ray’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track enhances the original mono presentation slightly with discreet ambient surround effects, although most of the activity is up front.
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With the 2018 remake (scored by Thom Yorke) now on Amazon Prime Video, what better time than now to revisit one of Italy’s greatest contributions to the genre. Director Dario Argento had a Nolan/Zimmer-like director-composer relationship with Italian prog-rock band Goblin, and their score for Suspiria has widely been recognised as their greatest triumph.
An eardrum-piercing cacophony of frantic synths and pummelling drums at one end, and a sustained stream of wailings and repeated whisperings of the word "witch" at the other, Suspiria's soundtrack trail-blazed the use of electronic music in horror films, and puts as much of a visceral chokehold on you as the film's iconic crimson palette does. The best way to saviour its sonic mastery is undoubtedly by hearing the original discrete 4.0-channel English mix, which has been remastered and restored from a 35mm print for a Synapse Blu-ray release.
You'll want your AV receiver turned up to 11 for this one.
Five years later, and following the 1980 release of Inferno (the second entrant in his The Three Mothers trilogy), Argento marked a brief break from witchcraft with Tenebrae, which sees an American novelist in Rome stalked by a serial killer who is out to get anyone involved with his latest book.
A Goblin score would have undoubtedly been on the cards had the band not split, but three core members of the initial line-up – Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante – took on the honours at Argento's request, each credited individually for the soundtrack. It's more Italian disco and electronic pop than progressive rock as a result (read: it's amusingly cheesier), but it's still very Goblin with its gothic, synth-driven undertow.
For the film's fans, this is one that warrants a separate soundtrack purchase – not least as Waxwork Records has released a limited-edition double vinyl edition.
Reflecting post-industrial Philadelphia with sounds of clunky machinery and factory-inspired dissonance, the upshot of David Lynch’s collaboration with Alan Splet is an almost constant drone.
While music is sparse, dense sounds, relentless hissing and the repeated use of an organ are the standout elements of Lynch’s surrealist horror – and undoubtedly the root of its uneasiness.
Under The Skin (2014)
Jonathon Glazer’s sublime Scarlett Johansson-starring sci-fi flick made many critics' ‘top horror films of 2014’ lists for its uniquely suburban alien-in-disguise premise, seductive stylishness and standout, BAFTA-winning soundtrack.
British composer Mica Levi’s electronically-written score is, in her words, "like a beehive", with its small palette of sounds – from scratching strings to cymbal crashes and single hollow drum hits – creating a consistently uneasy soundscape of disarray and discordance that works to parallel Scarlett Johansson’s physical deterioration. And effective it is, too.
Alien may be most notable for its breakthrough special effects (the alien chest-bursting scene is no doubt imprinted on the minds of many), but the sound design in Ridley Scott’s visionary masterpiece is arguably just as instrumental in creating the iconic atmospherics that are still strived for in cinema today. Remember the sirens that ring when Ripley escapes the Nostromo? Alarming, you could say.
Then there’s the dissonant chords and orchestral swells of Jerry Goldsmith’s Grammy-, Golden Globe- and BAFTA-nominated soundtrack that underline the bleak and sinister ambience, and ensure Scott’s classic horror is a thorough exercise in palpable tension.
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