I was a bit of a black sheep in theater school because I didn’t like musicals. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I thought they were so damn cheesy. Just the idea of someone bursting into song mid-conversation seemed so ridiculous to me. I needed something with a bit more danger. My aversion to musicals continued to this day, even though I ended up as a background singer in two musical productions.
I underestimated the work writing this list would involve when I volunteered to do it. At the time, I could only name two or three horror musicals. There was also the pressure to satisfy you, dear readers, especially those of you who sing these songs every day in the shower. Over the last month, I crammed hard. I found horror movies based on Broadway plays and Broadway plays based on horror movies, like Evil Dead: the Musical and the Toxic Anger: the Musical.
To take on this task, I had to lay down a few ground rules. Firstly, only one musical per director. I’ll gladly mention the other productions they’ve been involved in, but I want to cast my net as wide as possible. Secondly, I disregarded the foreign language musicals like The Lure and Takashi Miike’s the Happiness of the Katakuris. I would need to understand the lyrics to truly appreciate the genius of the songs. Finally, I left out animated films such as the Haunted World of El Superbeasto and the Nightmare Before Christmas. That’s a whole other beast to deal with. Now, on with the list! Music, maestro!
10. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006)
To spite his high school sweetheart Wendy for turning lesbian during her first year at college, Arbie joins the workforce of the American Chicken Bunker, a fast food restaurant protested by Wendy. Little do the workers know that the site of the franchise is built on top of an ancient burial ground. The fried chicken makes the customers violently ill, eventually mutating them into zombie chickens. Arbie and the kitchen staff must fight for their lives, as the walls are splattered with blood, radioactive vomit and diarrhea.
This outrageous premise is the perfect ingredient for a Troma film. It’s politically incorrect, and gut-wrenchingly disgusting. I didn’t want to eat chicken for at least a week after watching this. The musical numbers are corny as hell, but overall fun. Also, it’s got a kickass punk rock soundtrack with songs by the Dwarves and Zombina & the Skeletones.
Favorite song: “Murderous General”
9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
A barber returns to Victorian London after being exiled for fifteen years for a crime he did not commit. Assuming a new identity as Sweeney Todd, he seeks to exact his revenge on Judge Turpin, the man who robbed him of his family and former life. Todd sets up his new barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop. Together they hatch an evil plan: Todd slices the throats of his unsuspecting clients, and Mrs. Lovett grinds and bakes their corpses into her pies (a terrible business model, if you ask me). Todd’s revenge plot finally leads him to his enemies, and his own tragic undoing.
Based on the 19th century penny dreadful character, later adapted into a musical in the 1970s. It was then given the Tim Burton treatment: with the darkest possible color palette, and (surprise!) Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the lead roles. The film adaptation also stars the late great Alan Rickman as the antagonist, as well as Sacha Baron Cohen as the comic relief.
Favorite song: “Epiphany”
8. Don’t Go In The Woods (2010)
A soft rock band heads out into the woods to camp and write their next album. The band leader Nick enforces strict rules to maximize creativity: No drugs. No booze. No girls. No phone. That goes out the window when the band’s girlfriends show up unexpectedly, ready to party. Nick is not amused and spends most of the movie sulking away from camp, trying to write his next great opus. But the musicians’ process is interrupted by a maniac stalking about in the woods, bludgeoning anyone who wanders off alone. The killer proves to be a blessing in disguise for Nick, who uses the state of panic as inspiration for his hit song.
Written and directed by acclaimed actor Vincent D’Onofrio, whose voice appears on the radio in the opening scene as his country singer alter-ego George “Geronimo” Gerkie. The set up of a band attempting to write music gives a reason for the characters to burst out into song, usually while sitting around a campfire. The music itself is quite generic, but the lyrics are where the true artistry comes through.
Favorite song: “Blind”
7. Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
It’s Christmas time in the small Scottish town of Little Haven and all the townsfolk are in a cheery mood. Everyone, except for Anna, who yearns for a bigger purpose. Unfortunately, a zombie apocalypse is not what she had in mind. Overnight, half the town, including the military, are infected. Anna and a small group of her high school classmates are the only survivors. Using various Christmas decorations as weapons, Anna and her friends fight through hordes of zombies in search of a safe refuge.
Originally conceived as a short film, Anna and the Apocalypse was developed into a feature after the original creator Ryan McHenry passed away due to cancer. It hasn’t been theatrically released yet, but it has received rave reviews at several film festivals around the world. The songs themselves never reference zombies. Out of context, it’s as if they were plucked directly from High School Musical. The combination of bloody horror and teenagers coming of age through song makes for a very entertaining watch.
Favorite song: “Hollywood Ending”
6. Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
Set in a dystopic future, where an epidemic requires citizens to get designer organs, provided by biotech corporation Geneco. However, if the citizens do not pay off their debts to Geneco, their organs will be repossessed (specifically, ripped out of their bodies), without warning, by Repo Men. Shilo, a young girl stricken with a unique disease, longs for a life outside her quarantine. She’s unaware that her father is a murderous Repo Man, indebted to Geneco CEO Rotti Largo, who looks to Shilo to become the heir to his empire.
Unlike many movies on this list, Repo! The Genetic Opera is legitimately horrifying. It also stands out due to its dark, industrial goth musical numbers. The backstories of each character are explained in animated comic strips spread throughout. The cast features some familiar faces; Largo’s children are played by Bill Mosely, Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy, and Paris Hilton as Amber Sweet, addicted to plastic surgery to point of her face falling off. The director Darren Lynn Bousman, along with half the cast, would later go on to make The Devil’s Carnival and its sequel Alleluia!
Favorite song: “Zydrate Anatomy”
5. Stage Fright (2014)
Musical theater kids rejoice when they’re able to let their freak flag fly at summer camp. But camper Camilla is mortified when she learns that the camp with be mounting a kabuki adaptation of the Haunting of the Opera, the musical in which her mother was mysteriously killed backstage ten years ago. Regardless, she auditions and lands the lead role, the same her mother played before her murder. Camilla’s worst fears come true when her castmates are killed off one-by-one by the masked Opera Ghost. But the camp is already deep in debt, so the show must go on.
Imagine Phantom of the Opera at Sleepaway Camp. It features a fantastic performance by Meat Loaf as the camp’s owner, as well as some Canadian talent, like Melanie Leishman of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. Stage Fright pokes fun at backstage drama, with some creative kills thrown into the mix.
Favorite song: “Metal Killer’s Revenge”
4. Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Loosely based on the real life story of the Alferd Packer, the first man in American history to be convicted of cannibalism. Set in the frontier times, five miners travel from Utah to Colorado in search of gold. When they get lost in the mountains with no food supply, the travelers resort to cannibalism to stay alive. The lone survivor, Alferd Packer, is tried and found guilty in a nearby town. While waiting to be hanged, he tells a reporter of his harrowing journey.
This is the first film by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. More comedy than horror, there’s still some wonderfully gorey scenes, especially at the beginning. The film initially didn’t reach many viewers, but was later redistributed by Troma Films after the success of South Park. Nearly twenty years later, Parker and Stone proved their musical chops when they received nine Tony Awards for the Book of Mormon.
Favorite song: “That’s All I’m Asking For”
3. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
A rock n’ roll reimagining of the Phantom of the Opera. When record producer Swan steals the work of composer Winslow Leach to open his own wonderland, called the Paradise, Winslow sets out to destroy the production. In the process, Winslow is disfigured in a horrible accident, losing his voice. Hiding his face with a mask, Winslow keeps to the shadows of the Paradise, sabotaging the show with deadly results. Swan yields to Winslow and cuts a deal. He gives Winslow a synthetic voice and casts the woman he loves in the lead role of the opera. In exchange, Winslow must continue to write his masterpiece. How ironic that the show is an adaptation of the tale of Faust, since Winslow doesn’t realiz he signed a deal with a devil.
The house band of the Paradise undergoes many musical evolutions, from doo-wop to surf rock to proto-horror punk. Paul Williams, who starred as Swan, wrote the music, which was later nominated for Best Original Score at the Oscars. As for director Brian De Palma, you probably know him for his later work in Carrie and Scarface.
Favorite song: “Life At Last”
2. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
A small flower shop on Skid Row becomes the talk of the town when Seymour, the florist’s assistant, puts a bizarre plant in the window. The plant, named Audrey II after Seymour’s crush, doesn’t require sun or water to grow. No, it needs blood. At first, Seymour feeds it droplets of blood from his own finger. But Audrey II grows hungrier as it grows bigger. It demands fresh corpses, and it’s up to Seymour to provide them.
The Little Shop of Horrors originated as a Roger Corman comedy from the 1960s. It was adapted as an Off-Broadway musical, which was then adapted for the screen by puppet master Frank Oz. And who better to play the nerdy Seymour than Rick Moranis. The voice of Audrey II was provided by Levi Stubbs of the Motown group the Four Tops. The film also stars Steve Martin as a sadistic, gas-huffing dentist, and features some non-musical cameos from Bill Murray and John Candy.
Favorite song: “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Was there any doubt in your mind that this movie wouldn’t be on this list? I was simply saving the best for last!
When their car breaks down in the middle of the countryside, a young couple goes knocking on the door of a nearby castle, in the hopes of using their phone. There, they meet the sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The doctor brings the lovers to his lab and unveils his latest experiment: Rocky, the perfect man. The couple is invited to stay the night. Chaos and hilarity ensues, leading to lots of infidelity and an alien conspiracy.
Originally a stage production written as a tribute to sci-fi and horror B-movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a beloved cult classic. Seeing it in the cinema is a real treat (there’s usually showings every Halloween), because the audience becomes engaged by calling back to the dialogue, throwing rice and dancing along to the numbers. The film stars Tim Curry, the man of many voices, in his breakthrough role as Dr. Frank. Laverne Cox revamped the role in the 2016 remake, but there’s no outdoing Curry’s performance. Fans of this movie should also watch Shock Treament by director Jim Sharman and writer/actor Richard O’Brien.
Favorite song: “The Time Warp”