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11 Underappreciated Horror Movie Composers You Should Know

Meet some of the talented sound artists who, through films such as 'The Shining' and 'Paranoiac,' have been giving us all nightmares for decades.

by Terence Hannum
Nov 1 2017, 4:00pm

Photo via Getty Images

Every year around Halloween, I put together a radio show and podcast called Dead Air that revolves around horror film soundtracks. I am incredibly enthusiastic about movie soundtracks in general, and listen to them year-round, but there is one aspect of the genre that truly bothers me: namely, the glaring gender disparity between composers. Most of the best-known horror composers have been men, and while certainly women make it on my radio show—like Mica Levi and her excellent score for Under the Skin, or Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's classic collaboration for The Shining— I knew I needed to dive deeper if I wanted to try and confront this disparity myself.

Right now, there are gorgeous vinyl reissues coming out on multiple labels such as Mondo/Death Waltz, Waxwork Records, One Way Static—and almost all of the composers featured are men. I think the lack of representation of non-male composers in horror film has a lot to do with the horror audience itself, as well as the nature of the business; licensing and legal issues often prevent more obscure soundtracks from being reissued, or even getting a first pressing. I don't blame these labels entirely, because the dearth of well-known non-male horror composers really is symptomatic of the values of our current culture, which is full of doubts towards women's abilities (in addition to the outright misogyny of the film industry). As a genre, horror stereotypically finds more room for cutting up women on camera than giving them opportunities behind the camera.

Now, as a fan of horror I will admit that this open to some interpretation; for example, there is the horror film trope of the Final Girl, which is often an intelligent, or more moral female character who outsmarts, survives, or is responsible for the death of the killer(s) at the end of the movie. For example, consider Ripley in Alien, or Laurie in Halloween. These female characters tend to be offered up as foils to balance out the slicing and dicing happening onscreen. The Final Girl can be used to provide an effective demonstration of a character's tenacity and intelligence, but her existence still does nothing to answer the problem of just who is involved in making the movie behind the scenes.

This year, while compiling tracks for Dead Air, I took some time to dig up a number of horror (and horror-adjacent) soundtracks composed by women that really stood out to me, with the intention of paying tribute to their contributions to the medium. I am well aware that this is not a comprehensive list, but if I missed someone or a film score you really enjoy, please contact me on Twitter.

The Innocents (1961) - Daphne Oram

Jack Clayton's take on Henry James', gothic-ghost story, The Turn of the Screw is already one of my favorite horror films. Supernatural and atmospheric, this open-ended gothic is bolstered further by contributions from one of the pioneers of electronic music, Daphne Oram. Oram was a true innovator of electronic music and a pioneer of musique concrete, a pre-cursor of electronic music that began in the early 1940s using found sounds and audio tape instead of instruments. Oram's skill and technique add to the already engaging score by Georges Auric, himself an avant-garde master associated with the composer Erik Satie and avant-garde writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The Legend of Hell House (1973) - Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson

Like Oram, Delia Derbyshire is viewed as one of the major innovators of electronic music, known primarily for her work with the BBC Radiophonic workshop as well as for translating Ron Granier's theme for the seminal TV show Doctor Who. One of the last projects she worked on before stopping producing music in 1975 was the score for John Hough's The Legend of Hell House. It's a bit difficult to come by, but is a haunting display of her powers. Recorded at television composer and sound technician Brian Hodgson's Electrophon studio, this creepy electronic score fits the supernatural haunted house film incredibly well.

The Shining (1980) - Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind

Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind wrote approximately four hours of material for Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Stephen King's novel The Shining. Carlos was an innovator in so many ways; as an out trans woman, she popularized and evangelized for the synthesizer as an instrument while generating memorable scores for Tron and A Clockwork Orange. Carlos built instruments, and on The Shining's soundtrack, a controller she called the Circon (with a circuit built by Bob Moog) comes to the fore allowing for irreducibly ghostly tones. This is absolutely one of my favorite pieces of music composed for film.

Forbidden World (1982) - Susan Justin

I've long admired this sleazy picture, coming off the success of Alien (1979) and produced by Roger Corman, Forbidden World is a low budget sci-fi sex romp entirely trapped in the 1980s with some excellent effects. However, Susan Justin's weird, funky, new-wave score is something to jam to. Justin would really get her moment when she did the score for survival slasher horror film The Final Terror (1983).

Oh, and here's a video of her performing some of Forbidden World live in an excellent jacket!

Final Destination (2000) - Shirley Walker

Shirley Walker was one of the first female composers to earn a solo score credit on a major Hollywood film, 1979's The Black Stallion. She is perhaps most famous for her work on Batman: The Animated Series, for which she won a Daytime Emmy, but she also worked with horror composer Richard Band on Dungeonmaster and Ghoulies, as well as composing additional music for Nightbreed, receiving co-composer credit alongside John Carpenter and Alan Howarth for Escape from L.A. and Brad Fiedel (who had his beginnings with the lesser-known slasher film Just Before Dawn) on True Lies. To her own credit, the work she did for the Final Destination series stands out for all of its haunting, creepy glory.

Under the Skin (2013) - Mica Levi

As an avid listener of horror and sci-fi film scores, I admit it is a rare soundtrack that makes you actually want to listen all of the way through. Mica Levi did just that on her work for Jonathan Glazer's haunting sci-fi-fi horror film, Under the Skin (based off of the novel of the same name by Michael Faber). Levi—who is also known for her work as Micachu of the art-pop Micachu and the Shapes—uses time-twisted violins to craft an unnerving score that would've made Kubrick jealous while retaining human elements that pull us back to earth as listeners. Anyway, it's one of my favorites.

Z for Zechariah (2015) and Compliance (2012) - Heather McIntosh

Heather McIntosh's musical resume runs deep. Before she moved into film composition, McIntosh was a member of hardcore band YearZero and indie rock group Japancakes, as well as a prolific live collaborator with groups from Animal Collective to St. Vincent. McIntosh grabbed my attention with her chilling score for 2012's thriller Compliance that was based off of true events about control and sexual assault, and then her work for 2015's post-apocalyptic Z for Zechariah with its haunting score of orchestra and elegiac harmonium pieces.

They Came Back (2004) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - Jocelyn Pook

I first came to know Jocelyn Pook's work through her unnerving score for the cerebral zombie film They Came Back; the film asks conceptual questions about what would happen if our dead loved ones suddenly returned, and Pook's score is just as pensive. After digging deeper into her oeuvre, I realized I'd been more familiar with her soundtrack work than I thought, thanks to her evocative work on Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. In addition, Pook has not only an impressive film resume, but also boasts extensive theatre and dance credits.

Berberian Sound Studio - Broadcast (2012)

Broadcast began as a quartet, but for the last six years, existed as a duo comprised of musicians Trish Keenan and James Cargill. Keenan died in 2011, and their final recording together is the incredibly solid, and almost Mobius strip-like soundtrack for Peter Strickland's movie-within-a-movie, Berberian Sound Studio. This film, and their soundtrack, take gory horror films tropes and fold them in on themselves. It was no secret that Broadcast used sound libraries as sources—as was common in many horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, Dawn of the Dead and Last House on Dead End Street among them—but what comes off as unique is that authentic patina they give to the score itself. This is a soundtrack I always find myself turning to for my radio show, because it is just so good, and the film is one that sticks with you.

Beloved (1998) - Rachel Portman

This novel had a big impact on me when I read it in high school, and remains something I still think about, especially the way Toni Morrison would turn a phrase or combine a ghost story with African-American folklore. The film is incredibly disturbing; it bends reality and refuses to sanitize the experiences of slaves and former slaves, and to this end Rachel Portman's bleak, often minimal score enhances the sense of desperate tragedy via use of a single voice, or flute. Portman is also an Academy Award winner, and probably better known for her score for Emma, but it's the score for Beloved that most resonates to me.`

Paranoiac (1963) – Elisabeth Lutyens

Hardly anyone has composed for more horror films than avant-garde English composer Elisabeth Lutyens. Lutyens trained in the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg and aspired to classical composition and production, however she paid her bills by bringing a particular jarring atonality to the early 1960s Hammer Horror films (as well as to their competitor, Amicus Productions). She got her break with Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) and my favorite, 1963's Paranoiac. Fun fact: she also composed the score for science-fiction film The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) which some see as a precursor to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and I think even the score may owe something to Lutyens' outré genius. In the 1970s, she enjoyed a critical resurgence and reached outside the soundtrack world, dabbling in compositions for performance.

Terence Hannum is busy making his own terrifying noises onstage with his band Locrian and on Twitter.