Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much.
Quick…when I say ‘shark’, what sound pops into your head? There’s a solid chance most of you heard John Williams’ iconic theme from Jaws, that splendidly ominous two note sequence that is ingrained in the dark side of America’s collective idea of summertime. It’s a perfect score, and it accomplishes exactly what a film score is supposed to do: it sets the tone of the film and aurally paints a picture for the viewer to immerse them even deeper into the experience of consuming the film.
Horror films are no different. Behind every iconic horror film, there is an iconic soundtrack. The Exorcist features work by English musician Mike Oldfield, whose song “Tubular Bells” is so closely associated with the film that it’s often referred to simply as “The Exorcist Theme”. Bernard Hermann’s piece for infamous shower scene Psycho is little more than shrieking stabs of strings, and yet is has, much like Williams’ theme for Jaws, become one of the most widely known pieces of music in film. Ennio Morricone’s minimalist score for The Thing mimics the heartbeat of…something, and immerses the audience in full blown paranoia, keeping them uncertain as to who is who and, more importantly, who is what. John Carpenter’s eerie score for Halloween, written in a 5/4-time signature to keep listeners subconsciously unsettled, is instantly recognizable. Just as Carpenter crafted his score to be subtly unnerving and to make the audience feel constantly unsafe, Steven Spielberg used Williams’’ music to great effect. For the first two acts of Jaws, any time we see the shark or see the shark’s point of view, we hear the music. When the shark makes it’s glorious iconic lunge at Roy Scheider as he’s lamenting having to lay out the chum trail, there is no music, and it is all the more shocking because Spielberg had used that music to lull us into a quiet complacency: if the music isn’t playing, we won’t see the shark. And then just as we’re feeling safe, bang. He gets us. There’s the shark.
Atmosphere is a large part of the experience of watching a horror film, and music goes a long way in establishing that atmosphere. Lighting and set design are important, sure, but a score can make or break a horror film. There are a lot of horror films I enjoy that I know for a fact I wouldn’t like as much if it weren’t for the music accompanying them. Like adding salt to ice cream to really make the flavor pop, a good score can open up the film to whole new interpretations and allow the viewer to see it in a different light. It can change the entire experience of the film.
I’m going to talk about some of my favorite film scores and how they’ve affected my viewing their parent films. I already wrote a bit on how the music in horror films affects me, but this will be more comprehensive. This isn’t going to be so much of an academic piece as it is a glimpse into my own personal experience and ordeal of said film. And not all of them are going to be strictly horror films. They will all be horror-adjacent, but for this piece I’m going to widen the net so to speak. It’s not in any particular order and just because a score isn’t on here doesn’t mean I’m not a fan; this is just a sampling of the pieces of music I’ve heard in a film and been moved by.
1. Jonathan Snipes – Starry Eyes
A thinly-veiled allegory for getting ahead in Hollywood and what that might cost, Starry Eyes unfolds like a lunchtime collaboration between Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. The story of a young actor who moves to L.A. desperate to make it in the film industry who finds herself entangled in a weird quasi-Satanic ritual, the film bounces back and forth between body horror and classic noir. The spooky atmosphere is enhanced by Snipes’ new wavey score: a pulsing electronic number that feels like a nighttime trip down Mulholland Drive with John Carpenter in the passenger seat. In addition to the driving synth bassline, Snipes adds touches of bells and choir to lend a hint of ominous religiosity to the score. It’s a favorite of mine to jam while driving around in the Halloween season. If you’re curious for more, check out the episode of Horror Business on Starry Eyes.
2. Al White – Starfish
Starfish was my favorite film of 2018 and has since made its way into my list of favorite films of all time. We were lucky enough to have Al on an episode of Horror Business, and you can read my review of Starfish here. It’s a deeply melancholic film that wallows in the bittersweetness of a relationship gone wrong, and the score highlights that feeling. Listening to it makes me simultaneously feel the joy of a first kiss and the horror of realizing there will be no more kisses with that person. It’s simple and tender and subdued and achingly beautiful. The film’s soundtrack makes use of similarly atmospheric pieces by other artists (notably Sigur Ros’ “Ekki Muk”) to really drive home the sense of loss and nostalgia, but it is the original pieces that feel the most personal and hit the hardest. “All The Lost Stories” is tear inducing in how gorgeous it is. I think it distills the overall feeling of the film into a single perfect musical moment.
3. John Carpenter – Christine
I was torn between this and the soundtrack for The Fog; come October, I’ll probably say that The Fog is my favorite. The score for this film is typical Carpenter fare: lush and electronic and eerily melodic but also extremely menacing. It has quietly brutal rhythm that calls to mind Christine’s unrelenting drive to completely dominate Arnie Cunningham’s life. The scene in which Christine stalks a terrified Moochie Welch is one of Carpenter’s best executed scenes and the music accompanying it makes it all the more haunting. Also, George Thoroughgood’s “Bad To The Bone” makes an appearance.
4. Benjamin Wallfisch – It: Chapter One
I am something of a Stephen King fanboy and It is one of my favorite books of his. The ending in particular has become more relevant to as I’ve gotten older and, now that I’m on the cusp of being the same as age as The Losers were when they returned to Derry, a lot of the themes in the book have become ones I’ve dealt with myself. Loss of innocence, grief, guilt, and heartache all feature heavily in King’s novel, and while these themes aren’t as heavy-handed in Andy Muschietti’s vision, they are still present. Wallfisch’s piece “Blood Oath” is an aural cocktail of emotion: the thrill of that first crush that is so overwhelming it’s almost scary, the quiet sadness that comes with the realization of your own mortality, and the searing pain of grief over the loss of a loved one. It’s all in this score. Wallfisch uses a combination of strings and synth and electric piano and flute to create a sweet but mournful melody that soars. At the end of the novel, Bill Denbrough wakes from a dream he had about leaving Derry as a boy. In the dream, it is sunset when he is leaving town, and he is going from landmark to landmark and remembering the times he had with his friends in the summer of 1957 when they met and defeated It. This of course leads to the literal last sentence of the novel, in which King writes about how Bill almost remembers his childhood and the people he spent it with. Almost. It’s this hazy sense of recalling ones past that Wallfisch’s piece brings to mind, and all the mile markers of doing so. A first kiss. A first breakup. A first death. A first fight. A first fuck. Going to prom. Going away to college. Graduating college. Starting your life. Maybe ending it when things become too much to handle. It’s all in this piece. All the beauty and grace and horror and ugliness we face in life and either overcoming it or get rolled over by. And I love it.
5. Fred Myrow – Phantasm
There aren’t many films like Phantasm. By no means is it a deep cut in the genre, but it’s not exactly the most well-known film either. It’s far weirder than most horror films from the late ‘70s, and much of it feels like a fractured fever dream that grows increasingly surreal and terrifying. Certain elements of the film leave it open to the interpretation of it possibly being just that: a dream. And not in the corny, lazy way that horror movies sometimes do just to end a movie. Phantasm actually plays out like a dream would. Especially if the person having it was a twelve year old boy who lost his parents in a car accident and then lost his older brother. Everything about it seems tailor-made for this concept: Angus Scrimm’s iconic Tall Man is the representation of a looming death; his minions, strange halflings who were once human but are now freakish dwarves in hooded robes, are friends and family who are now merely strangers; the big brother character is a larger than life hero who effortlessly bests evil and gets the girl; and his brothers’ best friend is the goofy but competent sidekick. Myrow’s score (his original one anyway; the version I have in the Spotify playlist below is indicative of the more “actiony” theme of the second film) sounds like a lullaby remade into something ominous and melancholy. It calls to minds images of bleak autumn skies, of suburban streets littered with dead leaves as the sun goes down, of abandoned back roads bracketed by towering trees that hide god knows what. And, above all else, it sounds like something that would play at a caricature of a funeral. Like a dirge, gloomy and defeated, quietly played on the organ as the casket of a beloved is carried away.
Also worth noting is this fun little jawn.
6. Tangerine Dream – The Keep
My stanning of Stephen King is matched only by my stanning of writer F. Paul Wilson, whose books are among my favorites of all time. Wilson’s best-known book is the 1980 gothic/cosmic horror novel The Keep, which served as the basis for the…uneven film of the same name by Michael Mann. Unlike the source material — which serves as a springboard into a much larger mythos full of Lovecraftian entities, sinister organizations, and ghastly horrors hellbent on turning our reality into a living hell — The Keep is a watchable horror film with some cool imagery. One thing that Mann definitely got right however is the feeling that the score evokes. Instead of resorting to a classic orchestral score to evoke feelings of doom and horror, Tangerine Dream cranked out a soundtrack that is psychedelic and folky. And it works. It’s just the right amount of psychedelic to call to mind a vast cosmic landscape, of which we are a miniscule part, of two incomprehensible entities vying it out for control of our world. And it’s just the right amount of folky to bring to mind a vaguely medieval feeling, which is also present in the book. Granted, not much of what I just wrote really shines through to the uninformed viewer, but for me personally it feels like the perfect soundtrack to a “sword and sorcery” tale with a solid core of Lovecraftian cosmic horror at its heart.
7. Alan Howarth & John Carpenter – Halloween III: Season Of The Witch
Another classic Carpenter theme. Sure, it’s partially Alan Howarth. And yeah, the opening theme sounds almost like Morricone’s score for The Thing. And, yes, FINE, it kind of sounds like every other score Carpenter has ever looked at. But goddamn “Chariots Of Pumpkins” is, to me, the most Halloween piece of music there is. There’s just some glorious unquantifiable thing about this score that sets it apart. It’s got that weird, ominous, insectile chirping for a rhythm track, those sweeping synth washes for atmosphere, and the classic Carpenter bass pulses under it all. It’s always reminded me of the sound of computers talking to each other. Like old analog dinosaur computers that just ran DOS, with monitors that were just green pixelated bullshit. Which is fitting given the climax of the film in the Silver Shamrock lab.
8. Charles Bernstein – The Entity
At the risk of being the snottiest piece of shit you’ll come across today, I thought the book was better. I remember reading it and being blown away at how strange it was. I couldn’t tell how much was “based on a true story” and how much was fabricated. And then I saw the movie and…it’s fine. Barbara Hershey is amazing, maybe too amazing because her performance makes me genuinely uncomfortable, but the rest of it is just kind of medium rare. Except for Bernstein’s scoring. Especially the track “Relentless Attack”. Holy Jesus. It has this nightmarish and jagged feel to it, a perfect anti-melody that spits in the face of what we consider “music”. It’s like if a song was a sheet of stained glass, and it got smashed all to fuck, and then was badly put back together to barely resemble music. I love it.
9. Disasterpiece – It Follows
Much in the way that Bernstein’s score for The Entity brought to mind a sense of chaotic horror that sweeps one up in a perfect storm of unreality, Disasterpiece’s soundtrack for It Follows envelopes the viewer/listener into something close to a dream that quickly rots into a true nightmare. Every single track on this album is vintage horror gold, but the track “Heels” is honestly aural hell. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be chased by something that only you can see, and it looks like some random person from your life, and it is hellbent on murdering you in some godless and unspeakable way, “Heels” can help you get there mentally. It’s a jarring, stabbing, terrifying piece of music that you don’t so much listen to as you endure. And I don’t mean like “duuuuuude it’s so EXTREME!” I just mean that listening to this song puts you in the shoes of the characters in this film in a way that few songs do, and it really makes you feel a sense of raw animal panic.
10. Fabio Frizzi – City Of The Living Dead
There’s not too much to say about this aside from I love this movie and I love the soundtrack for it. It’s a little heavy on the proggy Goblin-style soundtracks that a lot of European horror seemed to love during this time. Just like Goblin’s untouchable Dawn Of The Dead soundtrack, Frizzi’s score for this film is lush and weird, at times sound vaguely medieval and other times being downright funky. It fits the imagery of the film perfectly: surreal, free form, and almost without boundaries, all the while maintaining an air of unease and menace.
11. John Murphy – 28 Days Later
There are two bits of music (maybe three) that horror fans likely associate with 28 Days Later. The first is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings” in the iconic scene where Cillian Murphy is wandering about a post-plague London, shouting desperately to empty buildings and corpses for help. It’s an unforgettable scene, no doubt. However, John Murphy’s piece “In The House, In A Heartbeat” that plays during the harrowing penultimate scene where Murphy (Cillian, not John) besieges the compound that he, Selena, and Hannah are being held captive at is the piece that has wormed it’s way into my brain. You’ve heard this song before, and it’s been used in a few other movies since then. It starts out super quiet, with just a reverb-soaked piano playing a simple two-note melody over and over while an acoustic guitar plays wispy notes in the background, and a clean guitar plays the lead melody over it all. Murphy adds layers upon layers to this foundation until it explodes in a frenzied cascade that keeps up perfectly with what we’re seeing onscreen: panicked soldiers fleeing through a mansion lit by lighting as they’re chased by infected rabid ghouls and a half-crazed and bloodied Cillian Murphy. It feels like a Lewis Carroll story told by Dario Argento as Goblin noodled around in the background.
12. Angelo Badalamenti – Mulholland Drive
This is the ideal David Lynch film, and Badalamenti’s soundtrack is the ideal soundtrack to a Lynch film. Badalamenti has scored many of Lynch’s projects, notably Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, and his style in this film is no different. The use of ‘50s pop songs to create a bright and sunny façade in the opening scenes is classic Lynch all the way, as is the near seamless transition into absolute “what the fuck” territory (and the all-time greatest jump scare). Badalamenti further heightens the feeling of the familiar becoming strange and unknown by including a Spanish cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”: it’s a familiar song that has become unfamiliar (to English speakers anyway; either way it’s a gorgeous cover). Rebekah del Rio’s rendition of Roy Orbison comes on the heels of a love scene between Naomi Watts and Laura Herring. The song that plays during that scene is a variation on the main score of the film, itself already dreamy, and becomes a melancholy, smoldering, and powerfully erotic piece. The love scene isn’t set up in a pornographic manner at all: it’s an extremely intimate and vulnerable moment between two people who feel lost in a strange world and seek a connection. It sounds hokey, but it really highlights the idea of “ships passing in the night” style connection. It’s so beautiful it almost hurts. We’re put into a very exposed mindset with this scene, but the music almost lulls us into not feeling threatened even if we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. By the time the films wraps up, it serves to show us how far from the dream the characters have come and how deep into a waking nightmare they’ve found themselves.
13. Brad Fiedel – The Terminator
This soundtrack is still fresh in my mind from this piece, although honestly it’s never far from my mind. Fiedel’s score for T2 is also one of my favorites (and the backdrop for one of the greatest opening credits sequences in film history) but the original’s score is the one that sums up the themes of the Sarah Connor trilogy: the blurring of the lines between humanity and machines, both physically and metaphorically. It’s very weird and robotic sounding, but there’s also very warm feeling to it; a bittersweet melody that counterbalances that sterility of the rhythm, written in a 13/16 time signature that gets under our skin. The sweeping synth strings washing over the melody further blend the two opposing themes of coldness and warmth. It’s sad and emotionless and hopeful and dead all at once, a wonderful paradox of noise that shows us exactly what the film is about.
Most of these songs are available on Spotify; the Starry Eyes main theme, The Keep soundtrack, the end theme of Mulholland Drive, and Charles Bernstein’s piece “Relentless Attack” from The Entity are available on YouTube.