Music and horror. Horror and music. Whether it be John Carpenter’s score for Halloween, or 80’s hair band Dokken‘s hit for Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, music functions as an indispensable tool for filmmakers to create a whole range of emotions. This tool isn’t limited to originals, however. Horror has a real knack for turning good things evil, and even your favorite upbeat jam isn’t safe from its grasps! Today, we’re going to look at ten of the best examples of joyous songs that horror flipped the script on, and in some cases, never allowed you hear the same cheerful way again. Let’s get started!
10. Final Destination – “Rocky Mountain High”
The filmmakers behind Final Destination knew John Denver died in a plane crash right? Right? Of course they did! An upbeat, peaceful acoustic classic, “Rocky Mountain High” gently plays in the background as Mrs. Lewton suffers a grotesque fate. A combination of an exploding computer, an accidental Molotov cocktail, a knife-block, and a chair makes clear that death does not appreciate being cheated.
9. The Strangers – “My First Lover”
Home invasion via three masked boogeymen apparently wasn’t tragic enough for those behind The Strangers. We also have to witness dying love, as Liv Tyler’s Kristen rejects Scott Speedman’s James‘s marriage proposal. As we watch the broken couple sit among the heartbreak and tension, the “Man in the Mask” plays peekaboo with poor Kristen. As she stumbles backwards in terror, the record player begins looping the lyrics “quicksilver girl” from Gillian Welch’s “My First Lover”. The bit makes for a freakishly unsettling atmosphere. Well played, record player.
8. American Psycho – “Hip to Be Square”
Patrick Bateman really, really loves Huey Lewis and The News. In a scene that lives in cinematic lore, Christian Bale’s character hacks Jared Leto’s Paul Allen to pieces as “Hip to be Square” rocks out in the background. From Bateman‘s crazed breakdown of the song’s meanings to the shiny chrome ax he uses, the scene lives on as an iconic interweaving of music and film. As an added bonus, we get to watch Bale’s wicked dance moves, which we won’t soon forget.
7. Halloween III: Season of the Witch – “London Bridge is Falling Down”
This one might not be a hit on your favorite radio station, but I still feel the need to shoehorn it in here. Set to the tune of a nursery rhyme you surely sang in preschool, the Silver Shamrock commercial packed a grotesque trick for any trick or treaters watching. How straight-up evil is it to melt children’s heads into snakes and bugs to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”? Extremely, which makes Halloween III a fascinating venture onto ground very few films before it dared to walk on. Eight more days ’till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween!
6. 1408 – “We’ve Only Just Begun”
There are few more unnerving ways to begin your stay in a (notoriously haunted) hotel room than your clock radio firing off the cryptic warning “We’ve only just begun…” That’s how John Cusak’s Mike Enslin‘s long, long night begins. The hit song from The Carpenters carries some extra haunting weight when you realize member Karen Carpenter died at the too-young age of 32 due to anorexia. Hollywood sure knows how to blend fictional horror with real life tragedy don’t they?
5. The Strangers: Prey at Night – “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
A second appearance for our favorite home invaders! While the scene technically takes place in today’s time, it’s shot in such a deliciously 80’s theme you’ll actually feel your hair growing taller as you watch. The “Man in the Mask” and Lewis Pullman’s Luke face off in a pool among neon-colored lights and Bonny Tyler’s 80’s mega hit. The whole scene makes for one of the most visually stunning fights you’ll ever see in a horror film. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m all out of hairspray and I need MORE.
4. The Autopsy of Jane Doe – “Open Up Your Heart (and Let the Sunshine In)”
There’s something inherently creepy about demonic/devilish entities using religious songs to torment their victims. In this case “Open Up Your Heart”, played on a static-filled radio, acts as a paranormal cue for some real horrific stuff to happen in the Tilden‘s morgue. A song that encourages you to smile to ward off the devil, it really proves terrifying in this capacity.
3. Gremlins – “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
When you really break down Gremlins, it basically plays as the anti-Christmas story. Instead of the birth of Jesus and peace on Earth, devilish creatures terrorize the innocent (though some more deserving than others, aka Mrs. Deigal). What better way to introduce the mutant mogwai than to the tune of a Christmas carol? The backstory behind the holiday classic makes its placement here even more deviant. Created by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, the song was “a plea for peace” written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we all know, peace isn’t exactly in the nature of a gremlin. We get our very first look at them right after the song, as it chows down on the head of one of Mrs. Peltzer’s gingerbread men.
2. Halloween II – “Mr. Sandman”
While John Carpenter’s legendary spine-tingling score opens the original Halloween, the 1981 follow-up Halloween II begins (and ends) with a different-yet-equally unsettling use of music. A terrifying lesson in musical irony, The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” plays as we revisit the final scene of Halloween where Laurie narrowly evades Michael. Let’s look at an excerpt of the lyrics – “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen. Give him two lips, like roses in clover. Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over…” Yep. Michael Myers is lucky Laurie’s “Mr. Sandman.” The use of the song adds heavy weight to the oft-debated psycho-sexual overtones of Halloween – Michael embodying the fears of a virgin Laurie’s introduction to men.
1. Insidious – “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”
As I mentioned before, music is a vital tool for filmmakers. This is especially true for low-budget horror. Music can be a cheap, yet highly useful tool to create unnerving atmospheres and invoke emotion. With that in mind, James Wan’s Insidious is the holy grail of unsettling atmosphere. Using the high falsetto of artist Tiny Tim’s version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, Wan uses the song to unnerving perfection throughout the film. We eventually find out that the song is a favorite of the “lipstick-demon”, as he sharpens his claws gleefully to the tune in his lair within “the Further”. I believe this is one example where a film envelopes a song, whereas you will surely never hear it the same way again. Bravo, James Wan.