Music—or in some cases the lack of same— has always been a key ingredient in the greatest of all horror films. Could The Bride of Frankenstein be quite so electrifying without Franz Waxman’s suspenseful “creation” cue, or be as sweepingly romantic and satirical without the pealing bells that greet the Bride standing upright? Imagine Psycho without the Bernard Herrmann strings. Try to picture Halloween being nearly as nerve-wracking without John Carpenter’s pulsing score.
In a separate category are some of the magnificent songs that have emerged from the thriller genre. When it was time to select some of the cheesiest songs in movie history, I made sure to pay tribute to Lon Chaney Jr.’s morbidly magnificent crooning of the Spider Baby title tune; Paul Williams delivered a stunning array of unforgettable melodies for his rock re-imagining of the opera-house-stalking Faust saga, Phantom of the Paradise. I’m partial to the theme song from The Blob; but then, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you may already know why.
Then we have the integration of pop tunes into shocker soundtracks. If you’re looking for the ideal example of this device in action, look no further than the excruciating transformation of David Naughton from man to wolf in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, played against a Sam Cooke rendition of “Blue Moon.”
There’s also a fourth category of music performance in horror pictures that we’ll be focusing on here, often overlooked but frequently no less vital: onscreen music performances taking place in non-music-themed films of the uncanny. This is where the live performance of a song or musical piece either plays an important role in the dramatic action, or is maybe built into the movie specifically for the promotion of a musical star or group—or maybe just comes out of the blue to stop the production dead in its tracks.
I’ve scared up a few of my favorites:
1. “Faro-la Faro-li” from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Who doesn’t have a soft spot in their heart for Lon Chaney, Jr. when Lawrence Talbot gets wigged out at the least little thing? That’s really Larry’s go-to moment in all of the Wolf Man pictures; sulking about and bemoaning his curse to all who will listen, pleading (some might call it whining, but let’s be gracious, it’s a hairy problem he’s got) for someone, anyone, to release him from his curse by killing him. And then just losing it in front of everybody when they try to talk him out of it.
In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Talbot has one such explosion when he attends a festival among the villagers where this folk song is performed. While you might find the scene in the film a little on the melodramatic side when he flips his lid, who among us can claim we’ve never listened to a song and felt some deep kinship with whatever’s ailing us at the time? In fact, it’s easy to see why “Faro-la Faro-li”—also known as the “Song of the New Wine”—would get under Talbot’s skin: There’ll be no music in the tomb/So sing with joy and down with gloom…
This is a peppy cover version (!) of the Hans Salter/Curt Siodmak song, performed by Zip Caplan and A Cast of Thousands, dutifully honoring the pleasures of the patented Chaney Jr. tantrum at the very end:
2. “Shame & Scandal,” from I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Turns out 1943 was a banner year for songs in horror movies. When fans hear the name Val Lewton, they know they’re getting a dose of high class along with their grim chills. In producer Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourneur, Trinidad and Tobago-born actor/singer Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard (aka Sir Lancelot) brought calypso music to the silver screen—for the first time, so it is claimed—with the tune “Shame & Scandal.”
Sure, the goofy antics surrounding Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” (The Banana Boat Song) are amusing in Beetlejuice, but let’s instead take a look at how this particular musical style, so charming on the surface, can be converted into pure menace:
A tip of the skullcap to Chris R., the horror-addicted friend who reminded me of this unsettling moment of the musically macabre.
3. “Tivoli Night” from Reptilicus (1961)
The other day, I suddenly realized the missing ingredient in contemporary horror films: lounge music.
German director Werner Herzog, in an attempt to touch base with his cinematic forebears, undertook to make his own version of F.W. Murnau’s legendary silent vampire classic Nosferatu; it seems to me that Danish bad boy Lars von Trier might benefit from following that example by mounting his own production of this craptastic monster movie from Denmark.
Björk could stand in for Birthe Wilke and supply what would no doubt be an extraordinary (or at least extraordinarily odd) rendition of “Tivoli Night,” though I suspect the Icelandic star would choose a less conservative dress than the one worn here by “Denmark’s Doris Day.” Ms. Wilke is nevertheless quite fetching in that retro kind of style:
4. “Wigglin’ Wobblin’,” from The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
I’ll admit it: I include this selection more out of a feeling of obligation than enthusiasm. There’s a whole subset of fear films that are lousy with this kind of stuff. They’re the pictures I rarely gravitate towards, but it’d be kind of silly not to acknowledge…well, this sort of thing:
5. “Sumer Is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973)
OK, now we’re talking. If you’ve never seen Robin Hardy’s seminal The Wicker Man, to quote Martin Scorsese from Taxi Driver: That you should see.
If you’re new to the film, you may be in real luck–if you live at or near any of the cities on the list to exhibit the director’s restored “final cut” in the fall of this year. If not, simply add this British cult classic to your home library post haste.
Because Christopher Lee. And Ingrid Pitt.
And Britt Ekland. Like you’ve really rarely seen her.
Uninitiated viewers who have enjoyed the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg “Cornetto trilogy” of supernaturally-flavored comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now, The World’s End) will recognize a progenitor of their underlying “community gone mad” concept; other newcomers can simply marvel at the unruly strangeness simmering in this weird, wild tale of a devout Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) drawn into the frightening world of paganism.
The medieval round “Sumer Is Icumen In” figures prominently in the creepy climax of The Wicker Man. To prevent spoiling the film proper, let’s enjoy the song in a more innocent setting—with this amusing and melodious a capella rendition by the post-punk group The Futureheads:
I’m out of quarters. Keep the MovieFanFare jukebox playing by adding some titles to our set list.
No, I haven’t forgotten this one:
And it’s truly great. But can you name us some others?
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