The best horror films become iconic for several reasons. They offer up monsters or murderers who are insidiously memorable. They provide violence and visions of death that chill the very marrow in your bones. They provide a sense of dread that lingers long under your skin. And they provide nightmare (and daydream) fodder for days to come. They also thrive on the aural aspect of the genre, given over to thunderclaps and banshee shrieks, guttural growls and creaky wooden doors. There’s also the music – eerie, unnerving sounds that shiver the soul while suggesting the creepshow content within. Now Silva Screen Music has put together a four CD, 60 track set of some of the greatest horror (and sci-fi) movie themes of all time. While the title considers this compilation “definitive”, there are definitely some gaps (and gasps…and gaffs) along the way.
Setting itself up to work backwards chronologically, we begin with the rather uninspired selection of 2009 – 2001. There we see such unusual choices as the gorgeous “Eli’s Theme” from the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In and the equally sublime “The Labyrinth” from Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s Sunshine‘s ambient “Adagio in D Minor” and another Danny Boyle selection, “In the House – In a Heartbeat” from the edgy 28 Days Later. But then we have to put up with the syrupy tripe known as Twilight (“Edward at Her Bed (Bella’s Lullaby)”) as well as the oddly out of place cinematic cheerleading of the “Main Theme” for The Mummy Returns. Again, when put up against Drag Me to Hell (“End Titles (Original Version)”) or “This is Going to Hurt” from The Ring, something like “Roar” (From Cloverfield) or “King Kong Suite” (from Peter Jackson’s remake) seems odd.
It’s a sticky situation that remains throughout most of the remaining discs. 1999-1984 will provide glimpses of genius like “Suite” from Hellraiser or “Dance of the Witches” from The Witches of Eastwick alongside more Mummy nonsense (“The Sand Volcano/Love Theme”), a dose of disco-fied drek (the main theme for They Live, not one of John Carpenter’s best), and the thoroughly action-oriented “Prelude/Ripley’s Rescue” from Aliens. Of course, many of the same melodic cues were used when Hellraiser II: Hellbound was conceived, so including that here seems redundant, and both the main theme from Predator and “The Carousel/End Titles” from The Haunting are less than memorable indeed. In fact, when one thinks about the 15 years represented on this CD, of the myriad of horror movies made during this time, the exclusions make the inclusions all the more questionable.
At least the next disc, 1983 – 1977 gets its mostly right. The first eight tracks alone – “Main Theme”: Nightmare on Elm Street; “Bad to the Bone”: Christine, “Main Theme”s from Poltergeist, The Thing, Halloween II and The Fog, “The Gallery”: Dressed to Kill, and “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” from The Shining all live up to the collection title hype. Even later on, the original Halloween theme, as well as selections from Phantasm, Suspiria, and The Fury, fill out the musical mandates of what makes for memorable horror movie scoring. It almost makes up for the languid elusiveness of “Main Theme/The Storm” from the Frank Langella version of Dracula, or the shockingly silly material used in the sequel to one of the greatest films of all time, The Exorcist (Exorcist II: The Heretic‘s “Regan’s Theme.)
Naturally, the biggest leap comes with the fourth CD. There, instead of traveling back six, fifteen, or eight years, we go from 1976 to 1922 – five and a half decades! There’s just no way any anthology, no matter how smartly put together, can cover over half a century of horror. Indeed, the missing material from some of the best ’50s schlock is all but absent, as is a great deal of what some would call “classic” fright night selections. Sure, we get Nosferatu (“Overture”), Bride of Frankenstein (“Creation of the Female Monster”), and Dracula (“Main Title/Finale”), and Horrors of the Black Museum is a nice treat. But suddenly we jump to the original Haunting (“The History of Hill House”), Rosemary’s Baby (“Lullaby”) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (“The Young Lovers/ Ride to the Ruined Church”). Granted, you can’t deny the evil majesty of “Tubular Bells”, or “Ave Satan” from The Omen, but instead of expanding the set another couple of discs, covering so much content in such a small dose is disrespectful to the genre and the art of film composition.
Still, for its many misgivings and missteps, The Definitive Horror Music Collection is a heady hit or miss treat. There’s no getting around the fact that many of these movie moments have become part of the social fabric, that when we hear the discordant notes of the Halloween theme, or the demonic menace of the Hellraiser scores, we can’t help but be whisked back to the seminal scary sequences from each film. Even better, there are some forgotten gems among the more recognizable turns, including the wicked ways of Phantasm and Carpenter’s Village of the Damned update. Still, it would have been nice to hear more Goblin, especially their work for George Romero in Dawn of the Dead, and would it have hurt to include more foreign films. Of the 60 titles presented, we get more TV themes and sci-fi/action film findings than macabre outside the US mainstream (and don’t even mention that lack of B-movie fare from the likes of AIP, Roger Corman, and during the direct to video days, Charles Band).
As a primer for how powerful movie music can be, for a lesson in how certain themes and melodies can instantly bring back memories of a specific filmmaker or film, The Definitive Horror Music Collection is a wonderful if incomplete overview. Sure, we don’t need reminders of Dexter or TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the lack of historical context (and Hitchcock, for that matter) could be seen as criminal. Still, for the novice fright fan, new to the genre and desperate for a look at where sound stands in the creation of fear, this is a fascinating compendium. While not quite as authoritative as the label suggests, this is still an excellent scary movie souvenir.