Ever since I deemed myself too old to trick-or-treat, my favorite Halloween tradition has been to conjure the spirit of the holiday through the realm of music. When I was a kid, my parents would play a cassette tape out the front window of our house during All Hallows’ Eve. It contained a loop of atmospheric sounds—witches cackling, cats meowing, men screaming, wind howling—that proved to both delight and intimidate every costumed tyke who approached our door. I loved this gimmick so much that by the time I reached middle school, I decided to curate my own compilations of spine-tingling scores to set the mood for those few special hours of neighborhood festivities. It is such a joy to hear some of the greatest film music ever composed ricocheting off nearby houses while causing countless strangers to smile and shudder with glee.
Here are six of my favorite soundtrack albums to blast out my window on October 31st, in order of their release dates. The last one is brand new, and I can’t wait to share it with the candy-hunting public this year…
Though any Danny Elfman score for a Tim Burton film is a welcome addition to Halloween—“The Nightmare Before Christmas” being the most obvious example—their second feature collaboration may be the most euphoric one of them all. The inventive spontaneity of Burton’s 1988 horror comedy, “Beetlejuice,” is reflected in the playfulness of Elfman’s music, which is apparent right off the bat in its opening incantation, “Daylight come and me wanna go…” This line turns out to be an excerpt from the album’s centerpiece track, Harry Belafonte’s classic “Day-O” number, that bewildered characters lip-sync to against their will in one of the funniest sequences ever put on film—a ghostly possession played for laughs. Michael Keaton’s titular troublemaker unleashes his mischief in the track “Showtime!”, as malicious carnival sounds fill the air (Burton’s fear of clowns would’ve made him an ideal choice for the “It” remake). Bookending the score is the whimsical theme for recently deceased couple Adam and Barbara, whose chipper disposition can’t even be dimmed by their own demise. Only Winona Ryder’s Lydia, a Charles Addams-esque heroine, can see them, as she navigates her way between parallel dimensions much like the kids in “Stranger Things.”
It’s an ideal time to revisit the score for 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” since its director is now back in vogue, along with the commercial viability of horror comfort food. I doubt M. Night Shyamalan will ever come close to topping what he achieved here, fusing a spectacular thriller with a psychological drama of startling power. The chief strength of James Newton Howard’s score is its masterful subtlety, knowing precisely when to pounce and when to pull back (the most tear-jerking scene has no music at all). Various tracks can turn on a dime from warm and soothing to incredibly unsettling, such as “De Profundis,” which suggests the gradual appearance of a spectre hidden in plain sight. There are some old-fashioned monster clangs worthy of William Castle, as confused souls stumble through their afterlives while terrorizing young Cole, a boy cursed with the same abilities as Lydia. The loneliness of his plight is best conveyed in the track “Hanging Ghosts,” as Cole describes how to sense when a ghost is present (hint: the hairs on the back of your neck stand up). Yet as Cole learns how to communicate with the dead, the score builds to a different sort of climax. “Tape of Vincent” starts out like “De Profundis,” but instead of ending in terror, it concludes on an epiphany.
In interviews, Howard spoke of how his “Sixth Sense” music was designed to make listeners feel as if an invisible animal had entered the room with them. You can hear it, smell it and occasionally feel it, but you don’t where it is and have no idea what it will do next. That’s precisely how I feel about Jonny Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece, “There Will Be Blood,” which I’d argue is the musical equivalent of a prowling lion. One of the most gratifying moments of my life occurred when I played this score out my window and a trick-or-treater exclaimed, “This is the best Halloween music ever!” That being said, the album is best played out of order for maximum impact. Begin with “Henry Plainview,” a piece reminiscent of György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (memorably featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), channeling the agonized howl of a wounded creature dragging itself over rugged terrain. Then follow it up with “Stranded the Line” (carrying echoes of Bernard Herrmann) and “Prospector’s Quartet,” which sounds like a slumbering lion dreaming of distant memories. The lion awakens with a start in “Future Markets,” leading to the Penderecki-influenced title tune, where repressed bloodlust threatens to erupt from the surface like rivers of oil.
The Kubrickian tones of Greenwood’s score are entirely appropriate, considering how “There Will Be Blood” explores the devolution of man and the caustic toll of capitalism on the human soul. Another question that consistently preoccupied Stanley Kubrick was whether mankind was all that different from the machines it creates, and that idea lies at the heart of Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 thriller, “Under the Skin,” which begins with the creation of a fabricated female. Mica Levi’s mesmerizing atonal score emulates the meticulous network of otherworldly technology that enables a mysterious creature to take the form of Scarlett Johansson. The track “Lips to Void” sets the tone for all that follows, with a rhythmic beat providing a form of hypnosis, guiding Johansson’s helpless victims toward their doom, punctuated by an eerie refrain. As Johansson starts to grow an awareness of “her” body, “she” starts to experience “her” own feelings of terror, discovering that humans aren’t all that different in their capacity for evil. What makes this an especially fitting film for Halloween is the fact that Johansson’s identity is nothing more than an elaborate costume. Levi later earned an Oscar nomination for “Jackie,” where she made the White House resemble a similarly alien landscape, as the First Lady returns home in her bloodied pink suit.
Few albums are guaranteed to make trick-or-treaters jump with fright quite like Mark Korven’s score for Robert Eggers’ 2015 period piece, “The Witch.” It utilizes archaic instruments to craft a viscerally unsettling portrait of 1630s New England, where witches had a similar function to the monolith in “2001,” serving as a source of knowledge and power to primitive minds. No wonder Korven’s track “Caleb’s Seduction” evokes the terrifying grandeur of Ligeti’s “Requiem,” as a young boy is tempted by an apparition’s open sensuality. Celestial voices rise like bubbles in a cauldron, reaching a feverish pitch until they are undercut by the jarring snap of a gnarled hand. Equally frightening is the track “A Witch Stole Sam,” comprised of ritualistic claps and the saw-like sounds of violins, hinting at the unspeakable things a witch is doing with the body of a captured infant. The family targeted by this malevolent force are made even more vulnerable by their puritanical faith, pumping them with paranoia that has already set them on a path toward self-destruction. How can wide-eyed Thomasin (played with aching sensitivity and fierce strength by Anya Taylor-Joy) resist being seduced by Satan’s invitation to hop on a broomstick and “live deliciously”? Isn’t that what Halloween is all about?
With Anthony Perkins deservedly selected as TCM’s Star of the Month, I encourage every self-respecting cinephile to seek out “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” a brilliant horror film that marks an unforgettable collaboration between Perkins’ sons, Osgood and Elvis. Like the previous five composers on this list, Elvis had been in a band long before he approached the realm of cinema. His acclaimed work as a recording artist has a poetic quality that also characterizes his first film score. “Blackcoat’s Daughter” is Osgood’s directorial debut, and it is a haunted picture in every sense, awash in the alienation and mounting unease of its protagonist, Kat (an extraordinary Kiernan Shipka), who, like Thomasin, is forgotten by “the angels.” Elvis’ voice can be heard on three tracks, including “In the Garden” (sung in the film by Shipka), which is chockfull of foreboding poetry about roses and necks. “To the Furnace Room” charts nothing less than a descent into hell, where Kat is nourished by warmth and empowerment. The faint echoes of her satanic possession can be sensed in the track “You Had Your Chance,” while Satan himself (Paul Jasmin, one of the uncredited actors who performed the voice of Mother Bates in “Psycho”) can be fleetingly heard in “Mare’s Milk.” One can almost picture violin bows soaked in blood during later sections of the score, as gothic organs, chimes and a pronounced knock (rapping at Kat’s chamber door) contribute to the black magic of Elvis’ galvanizing artistry. The score received a gorgeous vinyl release, and you can bet that it will be the first one you’ll hear emanating from my window on Halloween…