Film and video game soundtracks are a broad umbrella, offering composers a chance to experiment with whatever styles they may find necessary to invoke specific moods and feelings. In this pursuit, artists have turned to all manner of weird and wonderful sounds, with a wide array of varying results. Far removed from the fantastic but familiar orchestral scores of John Williams, here we dive into some of the more left-field original soundtracks ever put together for the big screen.
The Revenant (2015)
The score for Western man vs. nature epic The Revenant is perhaps experimental Japanese artist Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most mainstream project, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s fascinating to see Sakamoto’s work with such big production values, but despite grand orchestral themes, this is still quirky ambient music at its core. The score feels formless and hazy, drifting forward with a staggering poignancy made all the more real by the knowledge that Sakamoto was still recovering from throat cancer during its creation. Throughout, he collaborates with Alva Noto and, less frequently, Bryce Dessner of The National to give weight to this modern classic.
The Lighthouse (2019)
If The Witch saw Robert Eggers flexing his creative muscle, The Lighthouse is the director doubling-down on what made that film so darkly exciting – a fierce commitment to his vision regardless of how out-there his ideas are. His work thus far has seen him spin old folklore and mythology into imposing modern horror masterpieces, and alongside him on both occasions has been composer Mark Korven. Korven’s experimentations with dark harmonic and textural territories have elevated the otherworldly allure of Eggers’ work, with the blaring foghorns and bleak themes of his The Lighthouse score working in unison with the film’s almost square aspect ratio to make the viewer feel as trapped as the film’s protagonists.
The second outing from visionary director Panos Cosmatos got a lot of attention from metal fans for being “the most metal film of 2018”, but whilst it is metal-as-fuck – from the serene but hallucinatory opening half to the brutal fistfights and chainsaw duels of the second half’s revenge arc – Mandy’s soundtrack borrows from the genre only in bits and pieces, be it the wailing guitar of ‘Dive-Bomb Blues’ or the low-end thuds of ‘Waste’. The final full outing from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who will more likely be remembered for his Oscar-nominated scores for Sicario and The Theory Of Everything, the Mandy OST showcases some of the Icelander’s greatest work. Lingering primarily on poignant ambient music and menacing orchestrations, the release features guitar-work from Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley and was co-produced by Randall Dunn, so it’s no surprise that it sounds huge. Even its love theme is a bleak affair, full of forlorn guitar swells that instil a sense of foreboding dread.
First Man (2018)
Somehow managing to elegantly straddle the line between scoring the emotive journey of protagonist Neil Armstrong and capturing the sense of wonder that comes with such astronomical subject matter, Justin Hurwitz’s score for First Man is poignant in all the right places, with just a touch of otherworldly allure (courtesy of a theremin) keeping things a cut above more grounded fare. As motifs are repeated, Hurwitz finds new ways of squeezing every drop of emotive power out of each delicate melody – fitting for a film that’s more of an intimate study of grief than the space-race adventure tale many went to the cinema expecting. Hurwitz is a longtime collaborator with the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, but his work here is more subtle and yet just as powerful (if not more so) than their previous team-up for musical drama La La Land.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Without wishing to open the “where do you stand on Radiohead” can of worms, the band’s experimental side has certainly aided in member Jonny Greenwood’s foray into film music. His work on Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is perhaps his most inch-perfect score to date, refusing to hog the limelight but never missing an opportunity to bolster the strange, poignant and kaleidoscopic world Ramsay creates in the film. Style-wise it’s all over the shop, ranging from the disconcerting electronica and purposefully off-centre beat of ‘Nausea’ to the John Carpenter-esque aura of ‘Dark Streets’. The soundtrack’s main attraction is ‘Sandy’s Necklace’, which begins like a soundcheck for an avant-garde band before segwaying into a swinging but tension-building groove that’s accentuated by unnerving plucked guitar and a bleak string melody. The whole thing only grows more off-kilter as it proceeds, remaining stuck in your brain long after it fades out.
A Ghost Story (2017)
Despite a premise that sounds ridiculous on paper (given that the protagonist spends the majority of the film under a bedsheet), A Ghost Story is a powerhouse of a film that needs to be seen to be understood. David Lowery’s exploration of a man who dies and is then forced to watch the world pass by from the home in which he once lived is a gorgeous but heartrendingly tragic tale of both love and loss, and Daniel Hart’s accompanying score is suitably powerful as a result. His work is lush and string-heavy, constantly ascending but never breaking free of its saddened shackles – without it the film would lose a significant portion of its imposing impact. Such an expressive score makes for a captivating listen away from the film as well, just be ready to feel things.
When it comes to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtracks, the obvious choice might be The Social Network, or perhaps even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but this writer would argue that their score for Trey Edward Shults’ powerful 2019 drama Waves is just as impactful. It is sparse and minimal for the most part, yet still manages to stand out despite being stacked up against a whole host of contemporary rap, pop and R&B. Whilst tracks by the likes of Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky and many, many more have been carefully selected to suit certain scenes and reflect the lives of the film’s protagonists, the OST explores their inner turmoils. The director explained the film’s use of music in detail in a piece for the A24 website, so if you’re interested, that is well worth a read.
THX 1138 (1971)
Before George Lucas became a legend for creating Star Wars (and subsequently public enemy number one for ruining it), he took his first feature-length foray into the world of sci-fi on THX 1138. As you’d expect for a film in which people function under the influence of mind-altering drugs and are oppressed by android police, the soundtrack is ominous, unsettling and really bloody bizarre. Amidst the film’s ambient background hum of radio voices, this score is moody and bleak, but simultaneously grand and ceremonial. Lalo Schifrin nailed the atmosphere – just maybe don’t stick this one on in the dark unless you’re craving nightmares.
The Last Of Us (2013)
This one’s technically not a film, but Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic action-adventure survival horror boasts a compelling narrative that’s truly touching, and it was a stroke of genius to bring in Gustavo Santaolalla for the score. The Academy Award-winning Argentine’s soundtracks are instantly recognisable for his minimalist approach (see also: Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Biutiful), often favouring soft but emotionally-weighted acoustic plucking as well as some more out-of-the-box instruments and recording techniques. His work is a driving force in the game’s impactful storytelling, focusing primarily on sombre and poignant tones rather than seeking to creep you out as you may expect from a game of this nature. Santaolalla sought to challenge himself whilst creating the score, and the result is perhaps his best and most affecting work to date – until The Last Of Us Part II, that is.
Just as Alex Garland has proved himself a master of sci-fi visuals and storytelling, on their second score for the director, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury have shown themselves as experts in crafting vast sci-fi soundscapes. Their work accentuates the film’s mystical allure and palpable sense of otherness, taking on a far grander atmosphere than that of their synth-heavy Ex Machina score, which favoured minimalism and a more tempered pallette. For Annihilation, the work is more orchestral, allowing the ominous aura to take on a more encompassing feel, with synths still playing a key role throughout. There’s a range of techniques going on here, from the acoustic guitar of one of the score’s main motifs to manipulated vocal effects, and they’re all used to fantastic effect on album highlight ‘The Alien’. A suspenseful twelve-minute monolith with one hell of a crescendo, the track makes the film’s climax that much more impactful.
As is shown on several examples on this list, left-field filmmakers have always turned to those on the fringes of popular music to score their films, and no one could argue with director Ari Aster’s decision to turn to Colin Stetson for his debut feature-length. Stetson may be best known for his work with Arcade Fire but his limitless solo albums, brimming with post-rock majesty, are perhaps more of a touchstone here. Just as Aster’s storytelling and cinematography enraptures audiences during Hereditary’s runtime, the score has viewers holding their breath, but as dark as the music is it’s not always accentuating horror. Hereditary’s occult themes occasionally play second fiddle to its exploration of a family experiencing grief, and the score is what brings these two sides of the film together. Stetson’s work is unsettling, but it’s rarely dramatic, instead complementing the visuals with a score that seeps, moans and scratches, at all times operating in a realm between freaky and mournful.
This Italian horror classic called upon oddballs Goblin for the score, and they delivered with aplomb. The whole thing is weird as fuck, like a prog rock opus gone badly, badly wrong. Mandolin and glockenspiel sit oddly alongside spooky synthesisers on a record that feels ridiculously dated in the best kind of way. Thom Yorke shot himself in the foot by agreeing to try and outdo this on Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake, because whilst his work is certainly good, it will always be in the shadow of this unsettling masterpiece.
Under the guise of The Haxan Cloak, Bobby Krlic has been championing sinister and atmospherically rich music for over a decade, so it’s no surprise that his score for folk horror Midsommar, the second Ari Aster film to make this list, is so commanding. Having been given what is arguably a more difficult task than scoring Hereditary, Krlic shows remarkable proficiency in crafting everything from delicate, soothing elegance (‘The House That Hårga Built’) and moments of pure clarity (‘The Blessing’) to crushing despair (‘Gassed’, which makes excellent use of Florence Pugh’s grief-stricken screams) and imposing, ominous soundscapes (‘Hälsingland’). Krlic often weaves one into the other – something evident from the moment the fairy tale-esque radiance of opener ‘Prophesy’ soon fades into something much darker – and in doing so accentuates the film’s opposing elements flawlessly. Such a blurring of lines is perhaps the score’s defining trait. Closer ‘Fire Temple’, for instance, is intense and unsettling, but simultaneously sorrowful, grand and oddly reassuring.
The Road (2009)
Anyone who’s seen The Road knows it’s a bleak film. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that’s dull and lifeless save for hunters and cannibals, it’s a film that explores themes of violence, loss and hardship – who better for the score, therefore, than Nick Cave, here teaming up once again with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s best-seller, the film is gloomy and punishing, so you could be forgiven for knowing what to expect from the accompanying score. Yet for all the solemn music in Cave’s back catalogue, The Road’s soundtrack focuses primarily on the small glimmers of hope rather than the impending sense of doom. There is tension, yes, as well as heart-wrenchingly poignant tones and one or two bouts of overwhelming chaos (see: ‘The House’, ‘Cannibals’), but just as the film’s truly important moments are those that show the mere hints of humanity left in the world, the most memorable passages here are those of tender piano and achingly mournful violin. When it comes to balancing the light with the dark, Cave and Ellis are masters.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The worst thing about silence isn’t the complete absence of sound, it’s the small uncomfortable noises that are apparent when there is no music playing, no people talking and no TV humming somewhere in the background. Indeed, so quiet is this Coen Brothers classic that it may seem a surprising choice for a list such as this. No Country For Old Men, another Cormac McCarthy adaptation, features just sixteen minutes of music over its two-hour runtime, with several of those comprising the credits. Ethan and Joel Coen decided to minimise the music as much as possible, with diegetic sound – the soft creak of a sign blowing in the wind, thudding footsteps on wooden floors – instead building the atmosphere with remarkable effectiveness. What this means, however, is that the music itself is all the more impactful when it is finally utilised. Carter Burwell’s score is minimalist in all the right ways, ever-so-subtly accentuating brief moments in the film before providing some haunting tones for the closing credits.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Structured around a lullaby but exploring more macabre tones, Javier Navarrete’s score for Pan’s Labyrinth reflects the film’s own blend of reality and fiction. Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 epic takes place in Spain in 1944 in a country oppressed by a fascist dictatorship, but blends this very real historical basis with fantastical elements to create a dark fairy tale that subverts the tropes of its forebears in the most interesting ways possible. Though much of Navarrete’s score was cut during production, del Toro himself ensured the entire thing was included on the soundtrack’s official release, and it’s a captivating listen well deserving of the Academy Award nomination it received.
Marvel’s fierce determination to see out their vision without comprise has led to them parting ways with several talented directors over the years, but after a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), one or two more risky moves were in order to keep things fresh. Perhaps their oddest move yet was to bring New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi on board for the third Thor film, a director whose past credits included the absolutely brilliant vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows as well as a string of quirky comedies such as Boy, Eagle vs Shark and Hunt For The Wilderpeople. The film’s composer, Mark Mothersbaugh, had a similar desire to shake things up, having seen YouTuber Every Frame A Painting’s video essay critique of the MCU’s bland soundtracks. The resulting score blended retro ’80s synths with a grand orchestra to bridge the gap between the previous two films and the colourful cosmic adventure of Waititi’s brilliantly bizarre third instalment.
The juxtaposing themes of this beautifully sadistic French-Belgian horror are magnificently elevated by Jim Williams’ effective score, which, much like Williams’ work on the likes of Kill List, Beast and A Field In England, opts not for the overwhelming drones you may expect and instead for subtlety. Moments of intense sonic dread are bookended by acoustic guitar-driven movements (entitled ‘Child Music 1-6’) that are often deceptively soft and serene, mirroring the naivety of the film’s protagonist before she finds herself on the slippery slope into cannibalism (we’ve all been there, eh?). The sweetness of these acoustic tracks only adds to the terror of the weighty organ when it does arrive, and when this score truly ascends it reaches some mind-bending places.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Comedian Bo Burnham’s tale about a young girl’s final days of US middle school is an astute exploration of a younger generation that the comedian-turned-filmmaker identifies as having been “forced by a culture they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment.” The accompanying score is one of the film’s many triumphs, with Scottish experimentalist Anna Meredith always finding the perfect electronic tones to inject an extra degree of anxiety and thus reflect the mindstate of our protagonist, Elsie Fisher’s Kayla. It is interwoven into the film, merging with the cinematography and actors’ performances with uncanny perfection. Though it often pulses disorientingly, it somehow remains understated, save for specific scenes that call for something a bit more in-your-face.
First Reformed (2017)
Known for essentially birthing the dark ambient genre, Brian Williams, better known as Lustmord, has spent a lot of time working as a sound designer and additional composer on a host of Hollywood films, including The Crow and Underworld. His 2018 work for First Reformed is a rare full score from him, and it’s a perfect example of why more films should be hiring him going forward. The soundtrack has been released with extended versions of the songs, allowing it to be listened to as a standalone album, but whether you experience it alongside the film or apart from it, you won’t be able to escape the overwhelming sense of foreboding brought forth by the ongoing wave of gargantuan drones. The monolithic reverberations slowly ensnare the listener, dragging you down as if you’re sinking into the ocean’s murky depths. It’s a magnificently chilling experience.
Under The Skin (2013)
The uncanny valley tells us that there are few things more unnerving than something that is almost human but not quite the same as one, and in this film the protagonist is an alien in human skin, preying on unsuspecting victims seemingly without motivation. Suitably, then, the film’s score is unsettling and dense, its reverberations and drones occasionally resembling more familiar horror territory but ultimately refusing to conform, proving itself a bizarre mix of live sound and digitised effects. Mica Levi absolutely blows this one out of the park, the meticulously-crafted score heightening the film’s themes with perfection. Listen to the music away from the film itself, and a whole new level of disquiet arises.
Words: George Parr