While the nostalgia of mono audio and grainy low-budget picture may be a part of the attraction of the genre, it pays for today’s horror films (and 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 eleven of the best horror films to send a shiver 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.
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, and 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.
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.
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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 and Assault on Precinct 13 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. It utilises the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray transfer beautifully.
The cave itself is an effective soundscape - the setting’s innate eeriness and claustrophobia 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.
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.
With the remake (scored by Thom Yorke) in cinemas, 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.
You'll want your AV receiver turned up to 11 for this one.
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.