Music

10 films to rewatch for their absolutely haunting music

Composers Ennio Morricone, Wendy Carlos, Mark Korven, Michael Abels and others have all added to the fear factor.

Composers Ennio Morricone, Wendy Carlos, Mark Korven, Michael Abels and others have added to the fear factor

Evan Alex portrays the character Pluto in Jordan Peele's 2019 psychological thriller, Us. (Monkeypaw Productions, design by Melody Lau/CBC Music)

With Hollywood delaying the release of feature films due to the COVID-19 pandemic, movie-goers have missed out on the usual array of slashers, sci-fi thrillers and psychological dramas that typically arrive in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

So, while the public awaits the release of Halloween Kills, Malignant, A Quiet Place Part II and other eagerly anticipated titles, revisiting past favourites will have to suffice.

As music enthusiasts, we're especially drawn to films whose scores and soundtracks significantly contribute to the fear factor. With that in mind, below we present 10 films to rewatch for their absolutely haunting music.


Film: The Shining (1980)
Composers: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind

From director Stanley Kubrick's perspective, The Shining centred on a man whose madness he could empathize with. The horror of being trapped in a situation of one's own making, staring at a blank page day after day, creativity and vitality giving way to time and the leaching dependency of a child and wife. But when composers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind watched The Shining, they saw something else: a horror film about toxic masculinity and the way it hides in full view of a society that is only too sympathetic to the anger of men and blaming the victims.

Kubrick ended up scrapping the majority of Carlos and Elkind's original material but their main theme, an interpretation of the "Dies Irae" section of Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, sets the tone for the entire film. Carlos and Elkind's creation broods and stomps, a big brass shadow stalking its prey. There's a brief pause and the silence gives way to a spectral buzz before morphing into the dystopic, high-pitched whine of a siren and the resonant trudging resumes. It's foreboding, but the more ominous tension arises out of the clash of organic and synthesized sounds. There's a real panic and chaos as our brains try to make peace with the dissonance. That haunted, hunted feeling from the music becomes tangible; we can feel it under our skin, a chill between our blood and our bones. Destabilizing the viewer's certainty through the score is what separates a good horror movie from a great one. Carlos and Elkind are masters. — Andrea Warner


Film: The Thing (1982)
Composer: Ennio Morricone

Remembered for his poignant melodies ("Love Theme" from Cinema Paradiso, "Gabriel's Oboe" from The Mission) and sparse but evocative scores for Sergio Leoni's westerns, Ennio Morricone also occasionally wrote music for horror movies, such as Jonathan Carpenter's The Thing. Set at a research station in Antarctica where a chameleonic alien decimates the staff, the film boasts exemplary pre-CGI effects, a magnetic protagonist (played by Kurt Russell) and of course this marvelous score in which Morricone uses synthesizer to augment the expressive potential of the orchestral instruments. Heartbeat motifs, foreboding brass chorales, pointillistic drip-drop effects, maniacal pipe organ — a soundscape inspired by prog rock that represents a wonderful detour for this composer. — Robert Rowat


Film: Alien 3 (1992)
Composer: Elliot Goldenthal

Alien 3 regularly gets dismissed as the weakest link in the beloved sci-fi thriller franchise, and while its production was beset with obstacles, the film was actually remarkably successful at creating a credible setting (a penal colony on a remote planet) and building suspense (there's a xenomorph on the loose, of course.) Rewatch it not only for its fine ensemble cast (Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Peter William Postlethwaite) or for its status as David Fincher's first feature film (he would later disown it), but also for the haunting score by Elliot Goldenthal, who tapped into the Gregorian chant craze of the early '90s to underline the characters' isolation and employed a neo-medieval, Carl Orff-esque soundscape for the action sequences. — RR


Film: The Happening (2008)
Composer: James Newton Howard

If you watched 2018's Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock, then you already know the basic concept behind this admittedly awkward M. Night Shyamalan movie in which Mark Wahlberg plays a sweater vest-wearing high-school science teacher trying to survive a plague with his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and a young girl. When it was released — on Friday, June 13, naturally — people expected an action-packed summer blockbuster, but instead got a moody, off-kilter, apocalyptic thriller. In his astutely orchestrated score, James Newton Howard makes recurrent use of a solo cello (played by Maya Beiser) that becomes a sort of spectral character in the film, sometimes consoling the protagonists and sometimes terrifying them. — RR


Film: Under the Skin (2013)
Composer: Mica Levi 

Mica Levi's film-composing debut in Jonathan Glazer's 2013 film Under the Skin is an essential component to the movie's DNA. The slow, dragged-out strings and that dreadful thump that fills in the sonic gaps of men carefully following Scarlett Johansson's extraterrestrial footsteps into a dark void all help narrate the film's every move while giving us a vague glimpse inside the mind of Johansson's nameless character. The score's spareness is equal parts alluring and ominous, always spelling danger around the corner and keeping viewers on their toes. — Melody Lau 


Film: It Follows (2014)
Composer: Disasterpeace 

Most horror fans are aware of the groundbreaking scores of John Carpenter, and in the decades since Halloween, They Live and The Fog, many have tried to replicate his spooky sounds. First-time film composer Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace, clearly took a lot of cues from Carpenter on the 2014 hit thriller It Follows. From the sharp, shrieking synths to the overall '80s inspiration, Vreeland's own take on horror combines the old with the new (he's also known for creating music for video games). It almost mirrors what David Robert Mitchell's film does by taking menacing, stalking creatures and adding a new spin: only cursed people who inherit this fate through sexual transmission can see and be killed by these monsters. — ML


Film: The Witch (2015)
Composer: Mark Korven

Robert Eggers' debut film was probably the scariest watch of the year. The slow-burning psychological horror about a pioneering family living in the woods, a missing baby, a talking goat and a witch (whom we barely see) is the stuff that burns itself into your nightmares. However, since the action was slow, a huge part of that tension comes from the score. Canadian composer Mark Korven created the unsettling music with some unconventional instruments, including a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa, a hybrid of a violin, piano and harp that's tuned to a medieval key, and a water phone, which looks and sounds nothing like an actual phone. But most notably, Korven used something of his own design called the apprehension engine, an instrument made up of metal rulers, scrap metal, springs, vibrating strings and magnets that creates the most disturbing and dissonant sounds imaginable. You can also hear the apprehension engine prominently in Korven's haunting score for The Lighthouse. Neither film would be the same without it. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin


Film: Arrival (2016)
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson

The sudden death in 2018 of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who was only 48 and whose credits included The Theory of Everything and the TV series Trapped, marked a huge loss for the movie industry. Some of his finest work resulted from collaboration with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve — first, 2015's Sicario, whose score got an Oscar nomination, then the sci-fi drama Arrival, which garnered Jóhannsson a Golden Globe nomination, and deservedly so. Just as Amy Adams' character devises an impromptu language for communicating with the story's alien visitors, Jóhannsson forges a postmodern amalgam of acoustic and electronic music, fleshing out these amorphous life forms. The music is fascinating, destabilizing, enticing, foreign, even repellent at times — all in service of the drama. — RR


Film: Annihilation (2018)
Composers: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow

Alex Garland's films often fall under the sci-fi category, but its exploration of the dark unknowns always brings out something deeply unsettling. For 2018's Annihilation, based on the Jeff VanderMeer book trilogy, Garland teamed up once again with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Portishead) to create a score that helps build the mystery (and dread) of an uninhabited area that's been taken over by an alien presence. Salisbury and Barrow's music combines a wide range of elements: choral, electronic, orchestral and even acoustic guitar. But when sparsely sprinkled among all the echoing open spaces, it comes together in an almost psychedelic way that creates the same disorientating sensation as Garland's dreamlike imagery. — ML


Film: Us (2019)
Composer: Michael Abels

When Jordan Peele was putting together his first feature film, 2017's Oscar-winning Get Out, he went in search of an African-American film composer. With so few in the industry, Peele eventually found Michael Abels on YouTube when he discovered one of Abels' concertos. Since then, Abels played an integral role in Get Out and Peele's 2019 followup, Us. For the latter, Abels' use of strings is at times wistful and moving, but it quickly curdles into something more sinister. The film itself follows a family that goes on a summer getaway, but whose members are suddenly confronted by their doppelgängers, a group of people living underground called the Tethered looking to untether themselves from their counterparts. Abels' musical centrepiece for Us is featured prominently in the trailer and the film: a haunting mix of Luniz's 1995 track "I Got 5 on It." Both balletic and deranged, Abels' version transforms a classic hit into the perfect soundtrack to Peele's chilling jump scares. — ML

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