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News Article

Ten Horror Movies That Spooked Me With Sound

I've filled up a lot of these pages with my love for horror movie music and all the ways a truly brilliant musical score can turn tension into terror. But the score is only one of many elements to a film's soundtrack. Along with dialog and practical sound effects, there are often dozens of layers to a film's sound design, and many of the scares can depend entirely on how well those audio elements are edited, mixed and manipulated. If you have any doubts about this, just pick out any movie that ever terrified you, then remove all of the sound except for the dialog. Is it still scary? I'm gonna say hell no. Think about it: even horror films of the silent era were accompanied by tension-filled music and sound effects performed right in the theater. Many movies have sustained scares with little or no music (as a working composer, I feel kinda uncomfortable admitting that), but without inventive sound design, it just doesn't work.

Need examples? Can do! Clips too? Got 'em. Hit the jump for a list of horror  movies whose sound design really put the freak on me... and I'm betting if you've experienced these classics yourself, you'll agree. Roll sound!

Alien

Enough praise and analysis has been heaped on Ridley Scott's original sci-fi horror epic to reach to LV-426 and back (see what I did there?), but I can't stress enough how Scott's famous attention to detail came into play in this film's sound design. From the ominous hum of the ship's oxygen supply, to layers upon layers of cold, clinical computer clicks and buzzes, finally peaking with multiple blaring self-destruct alarms, every second of this film manipulates crafted audio elements for the sole purpose of keeping you on edge... before you finally crap yourself in terror. You've all seen this horrific double-kill scene, but pay close attention to the way the alien's presence comes with an envelope of insect-like chattering, and the way the final victim's death screams are amplified through the ship's communication system...

The Birds

Again we have an undisputed classic, this time from the master of screen suspense himself. Even if you've never seen the film all the way through (and if you haven't, go straight to the spanking machine), you've probably seen clips of those giant gulls crashing into windows and setting off explosions and plucking people's eyes out. But did you ever stop to notice that this film has no musical score? Hitch employed Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann to electronically distort and simulate bird calls, then carefully edited them for maximum shock and awe... and it works. You're so freaked out by those sounds that any brief moments of peace start feeling like the eye of a hurricane. Like in this amazing scene, in which you hear nothing on the soundtrack but a classroom full of kids singing an extremely goofy nursery rhyme while Tippi Hedren's character waits nervously in front of a playground jungle gym...

Black Christmas (1974)

True horror fans know this early Bob Clark effort as a prototype for the slasher films of the late '70s and early '80s, and I've written a little love letter to the film which you can read here. As I pointed out in that article, the most effective element in this film is its unbelievably fucked-up nemesis "Billy," who is never actually seen on camera, and only identified by a voice on the phone. Sure, crank calls and heavy-breathers are annoying and all, but this guy takes it to a whole new level of creeposity, making each ring of the phone more terrifying, because you never know what kind of freaked-out babble he's going to scream at them next. Oh sure, there's also the whole problem with him killing everyone in the house, but that's beside the point! Not even Wes Craven's Scream could make a phone call scarier than this. Check out the trailer below for some examples...

The Changeling

Thanks to DVD, this classic ghost story has experienced a welcome revival among the horror community, and it's well-deserved. Director Peter Medak wisely chose to let the intense horror build within the mind of the viewer, instead of parading monsters across the screen, and so much of this he achieved through sound. We never actually see any supernatural presence in this film – only the impact it makes on the physical world – so there are plenty of opportunities to drop subtle hints and clues using sound effects and music. Also, since George C. Scott's character is a composer, it's a perfect solution to make the story's main mystery revolve around a piece of music, and the way this tune works its way through the plot is ingenious. You'll hear just a hint of it in this scene, which is one of the rare moments where they ditch the subtle approach and go for the old pants-wetting shock...

Eraserhead

If you haven't seen David Lynch's first feature, you're in for a treat.. and by "treat," I mean months of nightmares followed by intense therapy. At least that's what it felt like when I saw it for the first time. In his usual obtuse way, Lynch has suggested that the film is about his fear of parenthood, and anything that scares this guy should probably carry a warning label of some kind. But it's also a fine example of his long and fruitful artistic collaboration with the late Alan Splet, who was one of the most inventive sound designers in the film world. The movie itself has very little dialog and only a few moments of actual music, most of which are songs by jazz great Fats Waller, played on a church organ – except for a creepy tune sung by the tumor-faced "Lady in the Radiator" – but the sound effects are relentless, filling every nook and cranny of the mix. Here's a scene that actually made me jump, thanks to one quick cut and a loud blast on the organ...

The Exorcist

While fans, critics and essayists have written volumes about this landmark of horror cinema, I still feel obligated to point out how much of its success is due to the way it manipulates sound to create an atmosphere of dread and doom. It's not exactly subtle, especially in the film's final act, but it's definitely unique, especially since no one had seen or heard anything like this in 1973. The soundtrack is filled with animal sounds, human voices in reverse, and low-frequency vibrations that you can feel in your intestines, often blended with excerpts of avant-garde classical music and electronic tones. Of course, there's the deep, gravelly and brooding voice of actress Mercedes McCambridge as the demon. She was allegedly so dedicated to capturing that now-legendary performance that she abused herself to the point of puking and passing out. But for my example, I chose a quieter moment from the film, a little moment of calm before the storm, if you will...

The Haunting (1963)

Have you ever sat alone in a completely silent room at night? I mean really silent, without city sounds or nature sounds to fill up the space? Ever notice how every tiny creak of your house or apartment seems louder and more... unnatural? Then your pet wallaby or lemur or whatever runs through the room and you lose your shit? That whole uneasy atmosphere is the mechanism that drives this classic, widely considered the perfect example of the "less-is-more" approach to horror filmmaking. Based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, this is a film with no answers, no explanations and no clear definition of what's going on... but whatever it is, the people who spend the night there are afraid for their lives. When a movie about an allegedly haunted house shows you nothing supernatural on camera, then much of the burden falls on the soundtrack to get the job done. Well, in The Haunting, the job gets done just fine. Check out this scene and listen carefully...

The Shining

From here on out, I'm gonna say "screw subtle." That's because none of these remaining three films is very low-key when it comes to sound design. Take Stanley Kubrick's iconic adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller, for example. While Kubrick lets the ominous mood build slowly and steadily, never revealing his cards too soon, the soundtrack is always busy, swarming with the drones, stabs, rattles and screeches of abstract orchestral works by Penderecki, Ligeti and Bartok, and the electronic atmospheres of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Not content to use those compositions out of the box, Kubrick's music editor Gordon Stainforth cut them into tiny pieces and carefully rearranged them for maximum effect, and the rest his horror history. Speaking of horror history... grab an axe and let's swing, baby!

Suspiria

Dario Argento is best known for his masterful use of color, light and shadow, which he uses to paint his horrific visions in bold, broad strokes. But he also had a good ear for music, having worked with legendary composer Ennio Morricone for his early giallo films, and later tuning in to the potential for rock music as a  driving force for suspense and terror. He hooked up with the progressive band Cherry Five to score his next film, and that group would rename themselves Goblin. Their collaboration on Deep Red in 1975 was so successful that Argento decided to push their music front-and-center two years later. Suspiria is one of those films where the line between music and sound design is completely blurred, to the point where the score actually busts through the fourth wall and screams the word "witch!" directly at the audience. Most of the film's scariest scenes have minimal  dialog and sound effects, and what's there is nearly obliterated by Goblin's relentless musical assault. Here's the film's most famous scene, which represents Argento and Goblin at their absolute best. (Ironically, the audio is kind of low on this clip, so you may want to give it a boost.)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

This is a great flick to wrap up with (although it's purely by chance, because I listed these titles alphabetically), because it's a superb example of a filmmaker with a singular vision that extends beyond just illustrating a scary story. Tobe Hooper wanted to create the atmosphere of a living nightmare, where logic fails and nothing looks, sounds or feels right. When it came to sound, Hooper knew that a standard musical score wouldn't cut it; the audio had to feel as broken and twisted as the visuals. So he and composer Wayne Bell concocted a sonic stew that is so warped, so grating, so nerve-wracking, that it literally makes your teeth hurt. They did such an expert job incorporating the sound design into the story that many of the sounds he used have become as iconic as Leatherface himself... I mean, is anyone reading this not familiar with the sound effect that accompanies the camera flashes in the opening scene? Or the pig grunts and chicken squawks that seem to come from everywhere, even when no animals are on camera (no living ones, that is)? Or the sudden, explosive eruption of the chainsaw itself, in close quarters? I mean, come on, people!

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