Spooktober Soundtracks Vol. 3 – Contemporary Horror

by Gavin Mead ’15

The previous two installments of Spooktober Soundtracks has been focused on distinct eras in the history of horror films, attempting to provide a look into exploitation horror of the 70s, exemplified by the Giallo movement in Italy, and the surge in dark underground films in the 80s, as led by the work of John Carpenter. The world of horror movies in our current day and age is interesting in that mainstream horror has become completely solidified as a genre. Horror directors are no longer working on the outskirts of the movie industry, and horror films have become huge cash cows for the major film studios and staples in their annual wave of summer blockbusters. Not only has this stifled experimentation in plot and visuals, but the scores for these movies have also become much more predictable as well by using the same jump-scare tactics and canned strings that were introduced to the genre over 20 years ago.

While this decline in quality in blockbuster horror movies is unfortunate, really interesting work is going on in independent film. Horror directors have delved back into the underground, using experimental tactics that in many ways make it difficult to distinguish their work from that of arthouse cinema. The composers of these films have followed suit, melding together references to the sound of horror’s past while also moving in more experimental directions, drawing from recent trends in electronic and contemporary classical music.

Here are a few of my personal favorite horror soundtracks of the 2010s so far:

Broadcast – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Of all the reference-heavy horror movies released in the past couple decades, beginning with Scream in 1996, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio might be the greatest. The film follows a British Foley artist who travels to Italy to work on a Giallo film. For a film so concerned with the effects of sound and illusion on the human psyche, it is hard to imagine a soundtrack better serving the film than the one produced by the British band Broadcast.  The score is undoubtedly reverential towards the great composers of horror’s past, evoking sounds of Ennio Morricone, Goblin and Tangerine Dream, James Bernard’s work with Hammer Films, and Paul Giovanni’s uniquely British soundtrack for The Wicker Man. However, these countless nods to inspiration never obscure or overpower the tenacious vision at the music’s heart. Broadcast stretches the few main motifs in every direction possible, wringing them for every ounce of meaning.


Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is remarkable for the way in which it makes the everyday seem alien by detailing the exploits of an extraterrestrial femme fatale as she cruises around Glasgow, seducing and then feeding upon unsuspecting men. Like the film itself, Mica Levi’s score is equal parts sexy and discomfiting. While Levi at times draws heavily from horror movies of the past, sometimes recalling György Ligeti’s dissonant orchestral pieces used to such great effect by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, other moments seem uniquely otherworldly. Most captivating is “Death,” the recurring composition used whenever Scarlett Johansson’s character harvests another victim, in which a thumping beat and a glacial drone underscore a sickly erotic string melody that sounds like the Alien soundtrack as remixed by Demdike Stare.


ROB – Maniac (2012)

Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac is the rare horror remake that is actually as good as, if not better than, the work it was based on. It draws on the essential parts of what made the original interesting in the first place, while also possessing enough vision of its own to actually justify the remake. The same goes for ROB’s soundtrack, which is heavily reminiscent of Drive in its allusions to the ultra-slick production and neon-lit atmosphere of 80s post-disco. While this soundtrack lacks a huge single like Drive’s “A Real Hero,” it possesses the perfect mix of polish and menace to accompany such a gloriously bloody and inventive film.