TEN OF THE MOST UNCOMMON AND WEIRDEST MOVIE SCORES

We here at 366 Weird Movies appreciate the contribution of music to the tone and impact of a weird movie, and try to highlight it whenever we can, but we’re not musicologists. We had long hoped to publish some kind of feature on bizarre movie scores, but when a pair of actual experts approached us with a similar idea, we jumped at the chance. Here are Butler University composer/professors Michael Schelle and Frank Felice’s choices for ten strange movie scores:

Over the course of film’s history, the styles and indeed the function of a film’s musical score has changed frequently, from the earliest silent film’s “pianist-in-the-pit” to today’s “anti-score” sound design of Hans Zimmer. Most of the time, however, the musical score for each movie serves to intensify the emotional core, underscore/buttress the plot, or some cases, function like an unseen character. For nearly its entire history, this musical underscore has been fairly conservative, with quite accessible classical music providing the basic music for most films, augmented (or replaced at times) by the pop music of the day. However, sometimes directors and producers asked their composers to go further, or more likely, the composers themselves took the risk or writing something unique, and their bosses accepted it. Here are ten scores (well, a few more) that are weird, either in their techniques, or their instrumentation, or how they interact with the images and dialogue.

Body Parts (1991) – directed by Eric Red, score by Loek Dikker

Much of the score by Dikker uses a typical horror music aesthetic and language, but what makes this film unique is one instrument’s frequent use  a bowed musical saw. Just about perfect for a film about lost limbs and their replacements…


(listen for the saw doubling the violins at about the three minute mark)

Crash (1996) – directed by , score by Howard Shore

Howard Shore may derive much of his fame as a composer from his work on Lord of the Rings, but it’s scores like this that show his range—most of the music is derived from the sounds and a few chords played by the opening guitar parts. Other instruments augment this essential music, but the guitar is nearly always there lurking in the texture, certainly adding to the creepiness of this very bizarre film.

The Third Man (1949) – directed by Carol Reed, score by Anton Karas

This is so utterly bizarre! In what is surely one of the best suspense films of all time, wonderfully written, paced, and filmed, the music throughout the WHOLE of the film is performed largely by a ZITHER. Happy and cheerful. Even through the crazy chase scenes. Of course, some of the most intensely acted scenes have no music. Making the return of the zither each time it happens a lot less trustworthy…

Forbidden Planet (1956) – directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron

The first score to be produced completely by electronic means, where the composers even built many of the circuits. This music set the stage for the classic sound designs of the sci-fi films to follow, but also provides the utterly perfect underscore for the feel of the film—this is unlike anything we’ve heard, so it must truly be alien.  Later sci-fi scores would return to familiar sources of music to provide a human connection—not so here! (The New York Musicians Union prevented the Barrons from being given the normal “music by…” credit).

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – directed by Sergio Leone, score by Ennio Morricone

Again, instrumentation makes this one so weird. We believe that many movie goers have certain associations that they bring to their viewings—so, if you’re going to see a film about the American West, you would think that electric guitars (SURF guitars at that), harpsichords, electric harmonica, and female choirs would do the trick, right? (Huh – no banjo or tack piano or fiddle?) Leone and Morricone changed the film world with their films. It seems normal now, but was weird and quite revolutionary for its time.  (Pick any of their collaborations – they all do this).

Wait Until Dark (1967) – directed by Terrance Young, music by Henry Mancini

In many ways a standard ’60’s horror film score, but Mancini’s constant use of the out-of-tune piano from the very beginning of the film sets the stage for the entire film—listen for extended piano techniques throughout (slammed piano keyboard lid, chord clusters, some inside the piano scraping and hammering). Throughout the film I find myself trying to adjust the piano’s tuning to fit. It never will… (PS: the pop tune at the end always feels so false because it lacks the piano. It smells of contractual obligation).

Cobweb (1955) – directed by Vincent Minelli, score by Leonard Rosenman

Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) – directed by Tony Scott, score by David Shire

Although Cobweb is a typical orchestral score and Taking Pelham 123 is played by a jazz band, both of these scores share a common musical technique: their music is written using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally, also known as dodecaphonic or twelve-tone music. Because there is no musical “home-base” this technique easily provides the sense of unease needed for both of these films. Horror movies certainly lived off of many of Rosenman’s motifs and techniques for decades after this.  However, not many subsequent composers used the technique as purely as Rosenman. We love the way David Shire does so—so brash, yet still setting the viewer on edge.

Once a Thief (1965) – directed by Ralph Nelson, score by Lalo Schifrin

Birdman (2014) – directed by , score by Antonio Sanchez

Diegetic music becomes score, in this case the drum solo under the credits becomes the underscore for the initial action, moving from the club into the streets, tweaked and affected, reflecting the drug-based plot, and the murder in the drug store.

This scoring becomes a harbinger for Birdman forty years later, whose entire soundtrack is all drum set. It becomes oddly meta when the actors twice come across a drummer playing the score in the film. Just weird, so bizarre…

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – directed by Stanley Kubrick, score by Khatchaturian, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Ligeti, others…

Kubrick jettisoned Alex North’s more typical soundtrack for 2001 and replaced it with….. Johann Strauss?  Richard Strauss? The normalcy and grandiosity of those composer’s works are what most filmgoers take away from this film, but it’s the avant-garde works of György Ligeti juxtaposed with those other composers that makes this weird. And it wasn’t the only time Kubrick would use Ligeti’s work—check out the weirdness of “Musica Ricercata II” in Eyes Wide Shut.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – directed by , score by Philip Glass

This art house film truly lives as a marriage of sound and image, and yet the minimalist score of Glass often has very little direct relationship with what is seen onscreen—here, the juxtaposition of incommensurate worlds communicates the message of the Hopi title, which translates to “life out of balance.”  Other film composers have embraced the minimalist aesthetic, in more realist settings, and those pairings often do not age as well. Here, minimalist can equal grandiose. Lovely. Odd. Compelling. Weird.

Frank Felice and Michael Schelle are both active composers of concert music who also teach at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Eclectic composer Michael Schelle has been commissioned and/or performed by 350 orchestras, wind bands and professional chamber ensembles all over the world.  He is the author of the acclaimed book “The Score,” a set of interviews by many of Hollywood’s biggest film composers, and has three times been named as a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in music. (http://schellemusic.com/)

Frank Felice is also an eclectic composer who writes with a postmodern mischievousness: his music can be comedic/ironic, simple/complex, or humble/irreverent. Recent works have focused on music for violin and piano, pieces for solo instruments and live electronics, and music incorporating voice. (www.frank-felice.com)

11 thoughts on “TEN OF THE MOST UNCOMMON AND WEIRDEST MOVIE SCORES”

  1. I’ll toss in my top ten weird movie scores, sticking to Certified Weird entries and excluding musicals (sorry, “Hedwig,” “Rocky” and “Phantom of the Paradise”). In alphabetical order: “2001,” “Carnival of Souls,” “Fantastic Planet,” “Naked Lunch,” “Pi,” “Satyricon,” “Suspiria,” “Triplets of Belleville,” “Vertigo,” and “The Wicker Man.” Thanks for your insights, guys!

    1. I’ll have to think a tad on something similar. For now, I’d add another Kubrick-“The Shining,” which uses the adagio from Bela Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion, and celesta (The BPO conducted by Karajan ). Being Bartok, it’s hardly a run of the mill adagio. Being Kubrick, he uses it quite effectively in a idiosyncratic way, of course.

    2. I definitely agree with Pi and Fellini Satyricon! The first makes you feel like you’re having a seizure and the second provides some of the “historical science fiction” atmosphere.
      The Wicker Man is unique for using folk music in a horror movie.

  2. Here are some of my favorites:

    1. Since Korzynski’s weird Possession stock has risen in the last decade, it’s soundtrack (also composed by him) is a great piece of analog electronic spookiness. There are doomy tracks that might be mistaken for something Fabio Frizzi would compose along with carnivalesque waltz time tracks.

    2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like Suspiria’s famous opening which perfectly marries music to image, the TCM soundtrack similarly announces itself prominently right from the start, but rather than pulse pounding music, we get weird scraping, bizarre synth runs, metal sheet shakes, sounds of planetary eruptions and wincing flash bulbs set to the digging up of a corpse.

    3. Fantastic Planet. Another movie that made the 366 cut, the trippiest animated movie has one of the most psychedelic rare groove soundtracks.

    4. Under The Skin had one of the most PERFECT scores I’ve ever heard. When I saw the movie for the first time, the music just oozed out of my TV set like Samara, transforming the film into not only something I just watched, but something totally ENVELOPING. It’s a weird soundtrack too! The music was so good, nearly every review I read the film gave accolades to the score. It threw Mica Levy into the top tier of film score producers overnight.

    5. Every time I watch the movie BRICK, the music always stands out. It’s an underrated film score. It’s an odd but satisfying mix of noir-ish jazz cues, americana accents (bells, piano) delivered in a slightly experimental, loose manner. Check out tracks like Laura’s Theme, Pinivan and War on YouTube.

    6. Say what you will about Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s music sells the atrocity of movie hard! Riz Ortolani is in my top 5 favorite film composers along with Bruno Nicolai

    7. Childhood of Leader. This score by Scott Walker really did have a strong grip on the film acting like a hotplate that helps turn the understated narrative into an alien, simmering dread that you know is going to explode at anytime.

    8. The Greaser Strangler – An Instant Classic.

    9. Any of the Many Popol Vuh soundtracks. I actually own a fabulous box set.

    10. Manfred Mann – Venus in Furs Soundtrack. Truthfully, Jess Franco might have been the best selector of music for his own movies. How ever flawed, cheap or bad any Jess Franco movie might seem to the average viewer – the music in his films are pretty incredible. But the best example of this is the exciting, brilliant music in the psychedelically tinged Venus in Furs. To me this movie and its score are like alternative universe lost classics. For whatever reason the soundtrack has never made it on to CD, yet almost every fan or critic review I’ve ever read on this movie takes time to praise the score. Almost every track is a stunning companion to the scene it’s set to – including the opening theme, the dreamy beach rescue and Dennis Price in a room of mirrors being lusted to death.

    This movie looks great on DVD too.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyo7Z2mByDo
    Check out how invigorating the jazz is in this scene:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leYxyQ5ogc4

  3. It’s hard to believe that Chris Young’s extremely exotic score to Richard Jefferies & Chris Walas’ The Vagrant, a quirky 1992 flick , didn’t make the 366 cut — especially from these Young-friendly authors! Young’s score is replete with extremely rhythmic human breathing, typewriter tapping (a tie-in with the office scenes), eerie solo violin licks and vocalizations, music boxes, castanets, and accordion, as well as electronics and incredible sound editing. It’s great as a stand-alone audio experience that would hold up in a traditional music concert, and perhaps even more fun within the movie itself.

  4. I would just like to mention the score for Woman in the Dunes. Jarring electronics mixed with mixed with some bizare percussion

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