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Psycho, Jaws, Inception, and more: The 10 best music cues in genre movies

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Jun 13, 2020

Genre filmmaking of all kinds can be amplified by stunning special effects, memorable performances, and sly screenwriting. But one of the biggest ingredients is one that you can’t even see: music.

So many of the most memorable pieces of film music are courtesy of genre films, from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Two of the most incredibly iconic and influential horror films of all time, Psycho and Jaws, celebrate major anniversaries this month, as the Hitchcock classic turns 60 and Steven Spielberg's first hit turns 45.

Coincidentally, both films are known for their iconic scores. So there's no better time to celebrate the 10 best musical cues from genre films, in order.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Some of the best pieces of film music are hopeful and inspiring. Most of those pieces, of course, don’t have a huge place in genre filmmaking (or, at the very least, they’re not as recognizable as musical cues). But the same can’t be said for the main theme of the 1991 Disney film The Rocketeer.

This adaptation of Dave Stevens’ comic book series depicts the story of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), a go-getting pilot who stumbles upon a jet pack that enables him to fly around and save the day as needed. Though The Rocketeer sadly wasn't a massive hit upon its release in the summer of 1991 (another film shortly to be discussed on this list stole its thunder), the James Horner score is among the finest pieces of modern film music, and easily the composer’s best work.

It’s stirring, soaring, and as rousing as anything you’ll find in genre cinema.

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy has plenty of fans: The 2010 sequel to the cult sci-fi film Tron has inspired a cult of its own over the past decade. Walt Disney Pictures bankrolled the massively big-budget blockbuster, but sadly, audiences at the time didn’t turn out the way it hoped.

That said, one of the many unique touches within the film is the pulsing electronic score courtesy of the French group Daft Punk. Their score is one of the best parts of Tron: Legacy, with no cue more exciting and thrilling than “The Grid,” which comes early. As Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) describes to his young son about the electronic world he’s built, the score blasts through with a hybrid of excitement and eerie thrills. The world he’s describing sounds alien, and so too does the score in this memorable moment.

Tron: Legacy arguably suffers from its script, yet the marriage of visuals and sound works wonders in moments like these.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

One of the great films of the last decade, Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of action movie that throws in just about everything but the kitchen sink. The two-hour dystopian story is wall-to-wall action, with massive car chases staged throughout the desert at the risk of actors’ and stunt people's lives and limbs.

At the very start, an apocalyptic tone is struck with “Survive," the opening track on the soundtrack composed by Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) lives in a world of fire and blood, and as a prelude to the destruction, we hear this thrumming, unnerving piece over the opening credits.

It might be easy to forget about the music in this loud, wild, unforgettable masterpiece, but the Junkie XL music captures the apocalyptic vibe perfectly.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

There’s a version of this list that only includes cues from the work of John Williams. By now, as the elder statesman of film composition slows down his work (he’s 88), Williams is widely agreed to be one of the greatest composers of all time.

And while it’s hard to pick a single piece that may be as recognizable and as chilling, one of his very best would have to be “The Imperial March” in the second Star Wars film. Though audiences had already met Darth Vader, his true theme of villainy didn’t kick in until the 1980 sequel, with horns blasting as he stalked through a Star Destroyer, flanked by rows and rows of Stormtroopers.

This music, like another piece of Williams’ music we’ll get to soon, is synonymous with evil, and has been for 40 years. When you hear this theme, you better run.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

One of the many terrifying things about Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the sheer implacability of the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a time-traveling robot sent to the early 1990s to kill a young boy who could otherwise grow up to lead a human resistance against dominant computers.

The T-1000, for a long stretch of the film, doesn’t seem like it can be stopped. It’s appropriate, then, that the main theme of the film, from composer Brad Fiedel, is a low, thrumming, electronic theme that mirrors the villain by simply going and going and going, as if it can’t be stopped itself.

Fiedel isn’t the most well-known composer to have worked with Cameron — his collaboration with the aforementioned James Horner on films like Titanic is unforgettable. But as much as T2 is championed for its groundbreaking special effects and social commentary, the score should be remembered too.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

When aliens arrive on this planet, how will we communicate with them? (Presuming, of course, that they even want to communicate with us, which is no guarantee.) In the 1978 science fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the answer is with music.

The intense, colorful climax of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic depicts a face-to-face encounter between human scientists and a gargantuan alien ship, with each group communicating through musical themes. The five-note theme that serves as the common language between the two, courtesy of John Williams, is partially inspired by the quavering theme of Disney’s animated classic Pinocchio, “When You Wish Upon a Star." But Williams’ gift as a composer is that this new theme feels fresh, alien, and strangely hopeful. It’s unforgettable.

Halloween (1978)

The best musical themes can be boiled down to only a few notes. Such is the case with the main theme of the 1978 horror film Halloween.

John Carpenter didn’t just direct and co-write the film — he composed the full score for the low-budget slasher in which high school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tries to survive the October holiday while being attacked by the implacable Shape (otherwise known as Michael Myers).

The forbidding, bordering-on-intentionally-monotonous piano theme playing over the opening credits set the dark tone for Halloween, and seems to portend the arrival of the Shape every time it’s stalking Laurie or any of her friends on screen.

Carpenter’s work as a filmmaker has been championed over the years, but don’t sleep on his compositions — they’ll sneak up on you.

Psycho (1960)

What musical instrument would best be able to replicate the sound of a knife piercing flesh? The answer may be obvious enough — a string instrument like a violin — but the way in which composer Bernard Herrmann employs violins in Psycho still feels fresh and disturbing 60 years later.

For audiences now, who are likely somewhat aware of the fate of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Psycho may not be quite as shocking as it was to audiences in 1960. But the way in which Alfred Hitchcock stages the death of the presumed lead character of the horror film less than an hour after it started was jaw-dropping, thanks in no small part to Herrmann’s compositions. The key track is fittingly called “The Murder”, in which a series of violins shriek as Marion is stabbed by a mysterious figure while taking a shower.

If you’ve ever been afraid of taking a shower, this scene is probably the reason why. And it’s all thanks to the score.

Inception (2010)

The more iconic a score is, the higher it’ll place on a list like this.

In the 2010 science fiction/heist film Inception, the premise is that Leonardo DiCaprio leads a band of dream thieves — people who can use technology to break into another person’s mind and either steal their ideas or implant them with new ones. The Christopher Nolan film, turning 10 next month, is one of his very best, a high-concept thriller with many unforgettable elements... including that Hans Zimmer score.

You know the cue — BWWAAAAAMMMMPP. (Pretend I’m shouting that at you for full effect.)

It appears at the start of the film and is seeded throughout many of the tracks on Zimmer’s soundtrack. And this cue has essentially inspired a decade’s worth of genre compositions since, even as Zimmer’s own scores for Nolan films moved beyond them.

When you influence that many films, it’s hard to deny your power.

Jaws (1975)

How could the No. 1 cue be anything else?

There are few pieces of music as recognizable — you know it even if you haven’t seen the 1975 classic — and as iconic as the "Theme" from Jaws. (There’s no clever soundtrack listing for this one — it’s just known as the film’s theme.) Composer John Williams became almost as famous as the film itself thanks to the thrumming, two-note theme that heralds or warns of the arrival of a bloodthirsty Great White shark stalking the people who just want to spend time on the beach during the July 4th celebration on Amity Island.

The theme is what opens the film, as Steven Spielberg’s camera travels through the murky ocean waters at night, and it’s what occurs each time the shark is on the prowl. Williams justifiably won an Oscar for his score, one of the most unforgettable of all time.

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