While this feature often highlights the use of music in contemporary work, with Halloween just two days away, it seems only appropriate to focus on horror movies this week. While it took a good 20 years for horror movies to catch up to popular culture, ever since the use of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, horror filmmakers have been keenly using pop music in a variety of ways. This week, we’ll take a look at some of my favorites.
The Strangers – Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom’s voice has always been a divisive factor in her music. Her almost elfin voice is as entrancing to some listeners as it is off-putting to others. Using this quality of Newsom’s voice to his advantage is director Bryan Bertino. The filmmaker soundtrack’s The Strangers first real scare with Newsom’s “The Sprout and the Bean.” With the specter of looming menace outside our protaganist’s front door, Newsom’s unearthly voice takes on a ghostly quality while her lyrics asking “Should we go outside?” and warnings of “Danger Danger!” seem almost taunting.
Scream – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Few films have have as much reverence for the history of the horror film than Kevin Williamson & Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream. The film constantly pays homage to the lineage of horror movies that proceeded it while cleverly undercutting their cliches. So perhaps no artist is more appropriate for the film than Nick Cave. Cave has spent more than half his career crafting “murder ballads” that are as much rock tunes as they are crime dramas and horror stories. Few songwriters could conjure a boogeyman with the power & imagination of Cave. While his “Red Right Hand” only plays for a minute, it effectively helps undercut the fun playful nature of the film’s early tone, helping to remind audience there’s still a very real and dangerous threat to our characters out there. The song’s impact even helped it become the series’ unofficial theme song with it being remixed for Scream 2 and eventually re-recorded by Nick Cave himself for Scream 3.
American Psycho – Huey Lewis & the News
Perhaps the most famous scene in Mary Harron’s 2000 black comedy/horror film, deranged serial killer Patrick Bateman dances around his living room to the popular 80’s hit “Hip To Be Square” while delivering an impassioned speech about the merits of Huey Lewis & the News before hacking up his office rival with an axe. The song and Batman’s speech not only provide a darkly funny and outrageous backdrop for the scene, but also are right in line with the film’s satire of consumerist culture. Throughout the film, every bit of status and worth equated to individuals from Bateman’s character comes from the brands and names characters appropriate themselves with. For the Bateman character in this scene, his ownership and knowledge of Huey Lewis is a token of self-worth and status. He sees his own appreciation of Huey Lewis as not just making him more sharper or more in touch than his office rival, but also a better person.
The House of the Devil – The Fixx
This is a personal favorite on the list, as it’s a film that I still feel is something of an underappreciated gem. The House of the Devil is a modern indie horror film that slavishly pays homage to the horror films of the 80s in every bit of it’s aesthetic. Rather than being a non-stop thriller, Ti-West’s 2009 film is a slow-burner that creates a building sense of dread as it goes along, the film’s tense atmosphere only grows as our protagonist finds herself babysitting in this creepy house. The film’s one break in this tension is a dance scene set to the The Fixx’s One Thing Leads To Another. While in most films, a scene like this would feel like a throwaway, but The House of the Devil, it feels perfectly appropriate in adding to the film’s 80’s aesthetic. West’s use of this groovy 80’s tune is a perfect example of how something as simple as a well-chosen song can be perfect in setting a time & place.
Sinister – Boards of Canada/Aghast/Boris/Sunn O)))
Of all the ways pop music has been used over the 35 years, no film perhaps has as wisely used popular music as Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. Take the ambient and drone music of artists like Aghast and Sunn O))). Rather than simply using these artists music to characterize his film, Derrickson’s soundtracks some of the film’s biggest scares with this music to create a more unsettling tone than that of your average horror film. Take the use of Boards of Canada’s “Gyroscope” in this scene. The song creates a disorienting and chilling atmosphere that at continues the sense of dread from the previous scene while reflecting the character’s mental state. The music’s eerie childlike nature is the perfect compliment for Derrickson’s images.