If you’re a horror fan or even just a cinema fan, you’re surely aware that the Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria has just hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and is opening soon everywhere else. Love it or hate it (and audiences will certainly do both), you’re almost certainly going to see it and pay attention to things like how they handle color, how they rearrange the plot, how the characters have changed, and so forth. But one thing I urge you not to forget is the score. The scores to Argento films are as vital to their success as anything, and he has worked with some of the best musicians Italy and the world have to offer, including long overdue Oscar-Winner Ennio Morricone.
For your reading pleasure today, I’ve taken on the task of assembling the ultimate ranking of Argento’s horror movie scores from the 70’s and 80’s (nobody needs me to talk about Dracula 3D). Without further ado, prepare to have your eardrums rattled…
#9 The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) – Ennio Morricone
OK, you might have to get a little further down the list to be rattled particularly hard. Argento’s oft-forgotten sophomore feature Cat o’ Nine Tails is a little more relaxed than one might expect from the man’s oeuvre. The tune feels like a medieval bard sat down to write a Western, and while it’s incredibly relaxing, that’s not really what I’m looking for from my horror flicks.
#8 Phenomena (1985) – Goblin
Of all the films from Argento’s early output, Phenomena (also known as Creepers in the US) is the one that most relies on actual extant songs for the soundtrack, bringing in a lot of heavy metal from bands like Iron Maiden and Motörhead. That’s probably part of the reason Phenomena feels less idiosyncratic to Argento’s style, and the score itself just isn’t propulsive enough to make up for it. It’s more kiddy and inviting, like something you might hear as a theme song to an “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” rip-off, with operatic trills over a poppy metal riff that feels a little too trendy for its own good.
#7 Opera (1987) – Brian Eno, Claudio Simonetti, and Bill Wyman
With a name like Opera, music obviously must play a huge part in the movie. Now we’re onto the part of the list where we’re transitioning from the shakier efforts to the B-level successes, and nothing says B-level success like Opera. This score has a crunchy, staccato feel that pulls you into its ceaseless rhythm. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly opera-y, but it definitely feels more in tune with its own sense of atmosphere and creeping dread, mixed with some fun wobbly 80’s synth.
#6 Inferno (1980) – Keith Emerson
Inferno is the first theme on this list that unmistakably belongs to Argento’s wheelhouse. It’s loud, in-your-face, and uses a seemingly infinite variety of instruments beneath the Latin chanting. Unfortunately, Keith Emerson isn’t Goblin, and his attempts at mirroring their kitchen sink approach to composition doesn’t quite hit the mark as hard as it could have. It’s certainly chaotic like Goblin’s best work, but it feels a little random and unfocused, pounding on the piano like a kid with eight Pixie Sticks coursing through their veins.
#5 The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone spent a lot of time working for Argento in the 70’s before he moved onto bigger, more startling themes. But Morricone is known as a master for a reason. Generally, the themes he provided create more of a counterpoint to the horror onscreen rather than emphasizing it. But unlike his Cat o’ Nine Tails theme, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage integrates some rather creepy elements into the folk song-esque piano tinkling. It moves forward with a hypnotic certitude, dragging you face first into the off-putting “la la’s” that sound like a child’s nursery rhyme gone horribly wrong.
#4 Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – Ennio Morricone
Morricone’s third and final score on the list is by far his most out-there. The drums give it a pounding heartbeat while the vocals cackle and caw like a dying animal over a series of jazzy electronic wails and scales. It’s bizarre and aggressive, and it’s the only one of his scores that hints at the heights of what is to come from Argento’s musical tastes.
#3 Deep Red (1975) – Goblin
Deep Red is the first time Argento collaborated with Goblin, the band that would come to define his work for the rest of the decade. Clearly it was a fruitful relationship, because they already were pulling out all the stops, foregrounding their funky baseline within a crescendo of noise that mashes an Exorcist-esque riff with electronic falsettos and pulsating drums that erupt into a carnival calliope of sheer music. Goblin sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard before, and while Deep Red still sounds recognizable as an orchestration made by actual human beings, it’s the beginning of their reign of terror over your eardrums that will result in some of the best musical scores in cinema history.
#2 Tenebrae (1982) – Goblin
As the kids these days say, this song is just a straight-up banger. This theme is so infectious, it was actually sampled in a song by French house music duo Justice. It sounds like if Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade went to Hell, and it’s by far the easiest track to listen to separate from the image just as a piece of music. Though who would want to, considering what Argento has cooked up for Tenebrae?
#1 Suspiria (1977) – Goblin
I mean, come on. The score to Suspiria is the ultimate in organized chaos. It’s pure sensory overload, from the gravely whisper (a grotesque permutation of the “la la” themes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) that dominates the title track to the random clangs and clunks that leap out of the fray. It’s a tinkly music box ear worm that expands into a full prog rock orgasm designed to rattle you out of your seat. When paired with some of the best imagery of Argento’s career, this score proves that in the late 70’s his skill as a stylist was beyond compare the world over.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. You can find his other work on his Dread Central column applying film school theory to silly horror movies, his Ghastly Grinning column pairing the week’s releases with the perfect classic horror double feature, and his blog Popcorn Culture where among other movie reviews, he is running through every slasher film of the 1980’s. Also check out his podcasts, Scream 101, where he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month, and Attack of the Queerwolf!, an LGBTQ discussion of horror classics that he produces for the Blumhouse Podcast Network.