Ask film music fans about horror film scores and you’ll hear a few composer names pop up almost immediately. Bernard Herrmann and his work with Hitchcock will leap to mind. Jerry Goldsmith crafted some amazing work for The Omen and Poltergeist. Christopher Young is the current master of horror music from the creepy music for The Grudge and the bombastic thrills of Drag Me to Hell. Even Hans Zimmer has taken on the genre with some really intense music for the Hollywood version of The Ring.
But one name you don’t hear too often related to horror scores is the maestro himself, John Williams. This has more to do with the type of films that Williams gets attached to and isn’t a commentary on his skills. Williams has provided some excellent scores to thrillers and individual cues in the Harry Potter films and Jurassic Park have some excellent moments of tension and fear. But these days, Williams works primarily in dramas and fantasies.
You have to journey back in his career, right when it was really taking off, to hear some of his most interesting horror music. The 1970s were fruitful time for a more experimental side to Williams work. He hadn’t been locked quite into the full Golden Age mode he achieved with Star Wars and Superman. But you can hear hints of those scores in some of this work. Instead, this is a Williams fresh from The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure.
1975 kicked it off with one of the most famous monster movies of the decade: Jaws. The movie isn’t wall-to-wall horror, in fact Williams provides the film with a wonderful nautical heroic theme for Chief Brody and his band. But everyone remembers the shark motif, something so simple and primal that it actually builds on images and makes them even more impressive. This motif gets quite a workout in the film, sneaking in and out of the music and building to terrifying levels. This rerecording for the Boston Pops conducted by Williams himself is a treat. Love how the audience chuckles as soon as they recognize it.
In 1977 Williams worked on Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Again his music played a big role in the finale of the film, with his communication theme become instantly memorable. But in the first half of the film, Williams scored the movie like it is a horror film. One of the most terrifying scenes in the movie, is the abduction of young Barry. Williams pulls out all the stops raising the tension to amazingly horrifying levels and making a wonderfully discordant and disturbing track. For real fun, play this back to back with Jerry Goldsmith’s Twisted Abduction track from Poltergeist for a nasty one-two punch.
The next year saw Williams score a sequel to Jaws but more interesting is his work on the Brian Depalma thriller The Fury. Williams creates a lovely main theme that starts off so quietly and then build and builds in power as it carries along. The end credits version is really something else. What is great about this whole score is that Williams takes lots of inspiration from Bernard Herrmann, almost giving The Fury a Hitchcockian feel when it comes the music. For my money this is easily one of Williams best scores of the decade. And yeah this decade includes some of his most impressive work.
In 1979 Williams got to write music for one of the most famous of all horror icons: Dracula. With Frank Langella as the bloodsucker and Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing, well this was something else. The score has a gothic romantic sweep to it, but remains pure John Williams. In fact, you can hear ideas in this score that would be fleshed out further in The Empire Strikes Back during the Cloud City sequences. Sadly this score has never gotten a good release. The archival sound quality is pretty bad. Film score fans are hoping for some good quality recordings to be found, or to have a full rerecording supervised by the Maestro at some point in the future. That said, it is clear that Williams has the chops to craft excellent horror scores, you just have to know where to look.