Subscribe

(Credit: YouTube)

Music

How the soundtracks of classic Italian horror movies drove fear into the hearts of audiences

For this entry of Far Out Fear Club, we’re taking a deep dive into how the soundtracks of the Italian horror and ‘Giallo’ movies of the 1960s and ’70s managed to speak to the innate sense of fear within human beings, generating a truly terrifying sensation like never before.

Analogue, atmospheric and often laced with prog, the Giallo soundtracks remain some of the most fitting scores ever released in cinematic history. Peter Strickland’s 2012 film, Berberian Sound Studio, captures the essence of this piece perfectly.

Although some of the soundtracks can also be regarded as semi-dated on reflection, at the time, the creations were nothing short of pioneering. Take, for example, the soundtrack for Dario Argento’s 1975 classic Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), created by Italian prog-rock band Goblin, which managed to capture the seedy horror that was set against the backdrop of the historic and creepy city of Turin, with all its tight, claustrophobic streets. Furthermore, the score was so brilliant that it helped to augment the film’s essence, one that eventually had a significant impact on two of modern cinema’s biggest titans; John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino. The Pulp Fiction mastermind even picked the film as one of his favourite horror movies of all time, explicitly remembering being “rattled” by it as a teenager.

Profondo Rosso is one of the definitive horror films and would not be hailed as such without Goblin’s classic soundtrack. Ominous but groovy, it was ’70s horror in a nutshell. Of course, no discussion of spine-chilling soundtracks would be complete without discussing Goblin’s iconic theme for Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria. The analogue recording captured the supernatural atmosphere of the film’s plot, and via the band’s use of creepy ’70s synths, traditional instruments such as the bouzouki and the tabla, topped with whispering vocals, they created a psychedelic yet ominous sound that brought the occult, paranoid themes of the film to life. 

The motif of the keyboard arpeggio has the ability to force the hair to stand up on the back of your neck. If you were to play the song walking home late at night, the existential dread would be too much to handle, and you’d be running home within seconds. Another classic example of this devastating impact is Piero Umiliani’s soundtrack for Mario Bava‘s 1970 classic film Five Dolls for an August Moon. A traditional Giallo, Umiliani’s soundtrack is a strange, mumbling piece of work underpinned by jazz and bossa nova. It ranges from the more languid to the ramped-up, heart in the mouth kind of jazz, with haunting vocals and quick dynamic changes. 

The 10 most terrifying horror films, according to science

Read More

Using a wide variety of instrumentation, particularly percussion with bells and African drums, at points, the soundtrack is a sinister trance that has the listener spinning out, looking over their shoulder when watching the movie. An unusual but brilliant skill, the music genuinely makes the viewer feel as though the film’s unseen assailant is behind you. 

Carlo Rustichelli’s central theme for Bava’s 1964 outing Blood and Black Lace also needs mention. Entitled ‘Atelier’, it is used as a motif throughout the brutally erotic film. There’s a foreboding element to the relaxed jazz of the track, sounding like you’re walking around Rome at night. Highly suggestive; there’s a distinct feeling that something terrible is about to happen. The wail of the brass feels like the band know something evil is about to occur and that they are helping to bring things to a macabre climax with the crimson velvet of their insouciance.  

For more reference, Riz Ortolani’s score for Lucio Fulci‘s 1972 film Don’t Torture a Duckling has some of the most terrifying strings ever recorded. Dissonant and covered in delay, it strikes fear into the heart of the listener. Capturing the film’s paranoia and supernatural themes, the tension he creates has you shuffling in your seat, with the hands becoming increasingly clammy. Ortolani masterfully weaves optimism, referencing the children in the film with the sinister child murders that drive the plot, creating a juxtaposition that leaves you uncomfortable and restless. One second, he draws you into some plodding, banal, nursery rhyme, and the next, you literally fear for your life via his subtle use of tone and dominating string sections.

There’s something extraordinary about the soundtracks of the Italian horror and Giallo movies of the 1960s and ’70s. Driven by iconic composers who understood the emotive effect of music and how it can augment a film’s plot, there will never be a genre that is quite like it. This expert knowledge was also enlarged by the room that analogue recording gave to the music, making it sound as if the band were playing live whilst watching the movies. 

The minimal compression created a totally chilling atmosphere. In tandem with the striking and gory visual horror, they drove fear into the hearts of audiences worldwide. 

Listen to the Profondo Rosso soundtrack below.