This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
What makes the guts and gore of a good horror film entertaining, whereas a similar story, read on, say, Wikipedia, would just be disturbing? My money’s on the magic of movies — the narrative and filmic elements that elevate films beyond reality — and nothing delivers a pure hit of movie magic quite as well as a killer soundtrack. Being chased by a masked murderer in the dead of night? Not fun. Being chased by a masked murderer in the dead of night while a cool classic rock song sets the scene? Fun! It’s simple math, really. Add one perfect needle drop and you’re there. Our list of the best horror movie soundtrack moments spans genres and decades and includes songs that punctuate scenes with both humor and dread.
The horror-loving cadre of Film School Rejects writers known as the Boo Crew — Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and myself — have come together to bring you 31 horror lists this October. Get your groove on with this list of our favorite horror needle drops and listen along with the Spotify playlist below.
10. “No One Lives Forever” by Oingo Boingo – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Sprechgesang is a vocal technique typically reserved for operas or chamber music that is somewhere between speaking and singing. In musical theater, this creates the patter song. In popular music, you could call it rap. Oingo Boingo‘s “No One Lives Forever” exists somewhere in between, both feeling inspired by and having nothing to do with these more popular musical styles. Which makes it perfect for the first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which both is and isn’t a horror movie. Acting like a revving chainsaw, the clipped staccato guitar cutting through your pulse is the perfect entrance for Leatherface, barreling down on a couple of dickbag college kids playing chicken on a lonely stretch of highway. As this ode to embracing death happens in the film’s opening sequence, it acts as a pump-up jam hurtling us through the remainder of the film’s satirical red comedy. It may not be the best song to sing karaoke too, but I dare you to not get this earworm stuck in your head. (Jacob Trussell)
9. “Floe” by Philip Glass – The Church (1990)
When it comes to memorable musical moments in horror, it’s hard to beat the halcyon days of Italian movies. Whether it’s the prog jams found in classic Argento efforts or the heavy metal of Demons, oftentimes, Italian horror films boast some oomph with their musical cues. This is also true in The Church, which opens with a group of Templars massacring a village to this beautiful and lively composition by Philip Glass. The juxtaposition of this particular piece and the madness that’s taking place on the screen is strange, but it works and adds to the film’s beautifully bizarre qualities. (Kieran Fisher)
8. “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz feat. Michael Marshall – Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s sophomore film broke box office records earlier this year, and while it’s loved by many, I’m still caught up on the slice of perfection that is the trailer. The Us trailer is one of the best I’ve ever seen, in large part thanks to an incredible soundtrack choice that mixes the uncanny with the familiar. As a Bay Area resident, the 1995 hit “I Got Five on It” by Oakland duo Luniz (featuring Michael Marshall) is like comfort food to me; it plays on throwback radio stations and blasts from the speakers of passing cars and even blares from the boomboxes that city residents sometimes carry down the street. Us — both the film and the trailer — takes that built-in love we have for the NorCal classic and twists it, slowing it down, adding an echo, and pacing the beats to match the rhythms of the scenes. The result of composer Michael Abels’ work is an ominous earworm for the ages. Rarely has a remix ever sounded so satisfying. Listen to it, divorced from the context of the film, and you’ll still feel your hair stand on end. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
7. “Fame” by David Bowie – The House That Jack Built (2018)
There are two things you need to know about The House That Jack Built’s “Fame” needle drop. The first is that it is one of the most expertly deployed comedic bits in horror history; a blazingly manic refrain, reinforcing and mocking our psychopathic protagonist’s self-serious ambitions that he’s destined to be famous. Jack speaks with big words and fancy turns of phrase and thinks he’s smarter than everyone in the room. And then, as Incident Two unravels in a cascading comedy of errors, the film shows its hand: Jack is a fucking moron. A subject of ridicule. A big, blundering, dummy. Bowie’s half sneering acclaim booms as Jack completes his final idiotic coup de grâce, driving off with the body in tow, leaving a chunky, crimson, incriminating trail behind him. Adding insult to injury, not that Jack would see it that way, Bowie returns throughout the film with increasingly uneasy and hilarious results. Oh yes, and the second thing you need to know about Jack’s “Fame” needle drop is that fellow Boo Crew member Anna Swanson and I love it so much we sang it at karaoke once. And in true Jack fashion, we only knew one word. Guess which. (Meg Shields)
6. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan – Zodiac (2007)
Classifying David Fincher’s 2007 masterwork as a horror film feels dubious, but this is amended by the fact that thanks to Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is one of the most bone-chilling songs ever. Its lyrics juxtaposing the brutal murders but its melody crafting a rhythm for the violence makes its existence in the film all the more unsettling. Its reoccurring presence in the film functions as a mirror for one of the most notorious unidentified serial killers to exist. You never know when and where it could creep up on you next. The tune, released by Donovan in 1968, is recontextualized to eulogize a free-loving San Francisco that was shaken to its core by the revelation of the Zodiac Killer’s presence, a theme the film is finely tuned to. This film about a powerful and even dangerous obsession is made all the better by a song that worms its way under your skin and creates a viscerally uncomfortable and wholly unshakable impression. (Anna Swanson)