The Walt Disney Company has spent 91 years solidifying its place as the world’s premiere organization providing wholesome, family entertainment. While this may be true, Disney is not above providing some genuine scares. This is the company that made a theme park attraction called “The Haunted Mansion” a household name. And, by the popularity of the film “Maleficent,” Disney may be planning a string of villain-based films in the not-too-distant future.
A key ingredient in providing authentic frights for moviegoers is the film’s score – the instrumental music that accompanies a film. Over the years, Disney has spawned films with scores so sincerely startling, if removed from the film, you might never realize it actually was Disney music! Therefore, in celebration of the Halloween season, we scoured the archives to offer for your enjoyment, a list of the top ten scariest Disney movie soundtracks.
Read on, and feel free to share your favorite scary Disney movie moments!
10. “Sleeping Beauty” (1959, score by George Bruns, based on Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet)
No, it’s not really a scary film, but thanks to that lovely horned fairy Maleficent, George Bruns’ score to “Sleeping Beauty” is ablaze with jarring, blackened drama. Kicking off when she interrupts Aurora’s birth celebration, the music surrounding Maleficent is bold, abrasive (almost to the point of blistering), and leaves a foreboding scar across the rest of the score. This darkened cloud culminates in a devilishly delicious one-two punch of ‘Forbidden Mountain’ and ‘Battle with the Forces of Evil,’ where Maleficent eventually receives her brutally-just comeuppance. BONUS scare: The Walt Disney Records Legacy Collection release of “Sleeping Beauty” features a deleted, creepy little tune ‘Evil-Evil’ that was supposed to be sung by Maleficent’s minions!
9. “Fantasia” (1940, conducted by Leopold Stokowski)
You say “Fantasia” is not scary? Apparently, you have forgotten that Mickey Mouse, Disney’s own mascot almost drowns in it! “Fantasia” jumps right in with Bach’s ‘Toccata & Fugue in D Minor,’ a piece of music famously associated with darkness and horror (the music is often used for television commercials promoting regional haunted attractions). Proving to be both delicate and thunderous, it is a true musical “beauty and beast” in one composition. And near the close of the film, we are treated to Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ which not only introduced the world to the Disney-fied Slavic demon lord Chernabog, but was so utterly grim and unsettling, it’s hard to imagine something so visually bleak to come out of the Disney studio (especially so early in its film career). Musically, it evokes the gloom of night and the ungodly creatures that frolic in the midnight mist. Zoinks!
8. “Hocus Pocus” (1993, score by John Debney)
While not a composer usually associated with things that go bump in the night, Debney proves he has the chops to churn out some spine-tingling fun with this genre-splitting horror comedy. In the “spirit” of “Beetlejuice” and “The Witches of Eastwick,” the fun of the score to “Hocus Pocus” is in disseminating the childlike wonderment from the subversive frightfulness. There is an air of John Williams about the score that recalls a touch of “E.T.” and the aforementioned “Witches of Eastwick,” but not enough to overpower Debney’s own heartfelt style. Still, it’s jam-packed with creepy thrills that have made it a mainstay of annual Halloween marathons for over 20 years.
7. “The Black Cauldron” (1985, score by Elmer Bernstein)
Sounding like an illegitimate sequel to “Ghostbusters,” music-wise, Elmer Bernstein utilizes a near-identical sound palette for “The Black Cauldron,” presumably Disney’s darkest, and arguably least-publicized film. Bernstein makes full use of the Theremin and classic Hollywood orchestration to create a score that is adventurous when it needs to be, fun when the action calls for it, and most relevantly, creepily brooding for the rest of the film. At its core, it is an adventure/fantasy story (based on the eponymous novel inspired by Welsh mythology), and a good chunk of the score frolics as such, but when those dark cues involving the villain, known as The Horned King, kick in, they really knock you back in your seat, making you forget any semblance of the fun and adventure that preceded it. Sadly, the brilliance of the score was undercut by the lack of box-office bank, and Disney ultimately disowned the film for over a decade! Thankfully, Intrada, in cooperation with Disney, released the score on CD in 2012.
6. “Tower of Terror” (1997, score by Louis Febre)
The first film based on a Disney theme park attraction, “Tower of Terror” was a made-for-television movie that attempted to break the stigma of TV movies. With a score that emulated the classic tropes of horror, “Goonies”-style suspense, “Tower of Terror” exemplified the sardonic, magical whimsy akin to “Hellraiser” or “Puppet Master” without being overly malicious. Although obviously scored on a strict budget, the music does not suffer from lack of authenticity. While not as bold and fearless as a theatrical release, it is above the standard for television films of the era. The twist on the ‘It’s Raining, It’s Pouring’ nursery rhyme is almost as creepy as “A Nightmare on Elm Street’s” ‘1, 2, Freddy’s Coming For You’ or “Trick ‘r Treat’s” ‘Trick Or Treat’ ditties. The score is not jump-out-of-your-skin scary, but it is creepy enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. To date, an official soundtrack has never been released.
5. “Return to Oz” (1985, score by David Shire)
What? An Oz movie that’s scary? Not so much scary, but quite freaky and bleak of atmosphere, “Return to Oz” quashed any brilliance and fun that made “The Wizard of Oz” an immortal classic. This resulted in a film that scarred children’s imaginations more than it nourished them. Shire’s score, likewise, is more akin to a Pino Donaggio thriller and thrusts poor Dorothy into a maelstrom of grays before allowing her any hope of brightness or wondrous color. Granted, the film was in line with the dark-fantasy vibe of “The Dark Crystal” and “The Neverending Story,” but it had the misfortune of bearing the name of “Oz,” which bound it to doom even before it was released. A CD of the score was released alongside the film, but has long since gone out-of-print, along with many folks’ memories of the film.
4. “Dragonslayer” (1981, score by Alex North)
Most folks do not associate “Dragonslayer” as a Disney film, as it was released in North America through Paramount Pictures, however, the film was indeed a joint venture production between the two companies. A period adventure story about a would-be sorcerer pledging to rid the land of the last vicious dragon (with the ridiculously cool name Vermithrax Pejorative), “Dragonslayer” was a favorite film among fantasy-buffs in the early 1980s due to its grimness and gritty realism regarding medieval life (there was rarely a clean face among the cast) and its accompanying superstitions. North’s score drove the feeling home with sinister, in-your-face brass blasts, and eerie wood-and-string arrangements that are still freaky to this day. Rather than play up the pomp of knights and nobility, North chose to focus on the frailty of life and the unfortunate brief span of life during the period. Dismal and unwelcoming, the score still managed to convey an underlying brilliance of hope – through magic and a really big weapon! Sadly, an official soundtrack for the film did not surface until 2010 (thank you, La-La Land Records)!
3. “The Black Hole” (1979, score by John Barry)
A science fiction adventure, and Disney’s near-disastrous attempt to cash in on the “Star Wars” craze of the late 1970s, “The Black Hole” is one of those films Disney fans rarely mention. Not only did it not feel (or look) like a Disney film, it also lacked the light-hearted humor that was a staple of the Disney brand. The score was composed by John Barry, whom most people recognize for his James Bond work. Coincidentally, the film that shot James Bond into outer space (and scored by Barry), “Moonraker,” was also released in 1979. However, Barry went to great lengths to express individuality for each film. “The Black Hole” begins like a space ballet, a weightless drama enunciating the vastness and wonder of space. But as the score progresses, and the villains become more central to the story, the music intensifies, and wonder turns to isolation and fear. The score becomes closer to “Alien” than “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (two more space films released in 1979) and, through the integration of electronic instrumentation, becomes claustrophobic, foreign, and foreboding.
2. “The Haunted Mansion” (2003, score by Mark Mancina)
Based on the immortal Disney park attraction, “The Haunted Mansion” tells the tale of a real estate agent who gets trapped, with his family, in a mansion filled with cursed ghosts, secret passages, and a talking crystal ball. Yes, the film was universally reviled, especially by Disney park fans, and it was therefore quickly swept under the proverbial rug. Unfortunately, that included Mark Mancina’s mirthfully creative score, which paid homage to Danny Elfman and Vic Mizzy by way of John Debney – utilizing the latter’s loop score originally designed for Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor attraction as the base. For comparison’s sake, one could say that “The Haunted Mansion” score lies somewhere in the marshlands between “Beetlejuice” and “The Addams Family.” Rife with “wall-to-wall creels and hot and cold running chills,” Mancina’s work can dubiously be lumped in the category of “great scores for bad films.” Removed from the film, the score is the perfect backdrop for a properly frightful trick-or-treating experience, if only Disney had made it commercially available. Check out a full review of the score here.
1. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983, score by James Horner)
Probably the only film in Disney canon to legitimately be classified as straight horror, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is easily a lost classic in the annals of Disney film history. Set in autumn and based on the eponymous Ray Bradbury novel, the film tells the tale of a pair of boys and their run-ins with a cursed carnival. Scoring the film was James Horner, long before achieving Oscar gold for “Titanic” and blasting audiences to the other end of the universe with “Avatar.” Resembling very little else from his career, Horner embraces the autumnal spirit and creates a darkened soundscape so rich you can almost smell the burning leaves, and yet so ominous, you’d swear your bedroom was infested with spiders. Close listening will reveal some tricks of sound Horner would later use to scare the world in 1986 on “Aliens.” Unlike most Disney films with dark content that offer silver linings throughout the proceedings, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is mesmerizingly murky through to the end.