Soundtracks have always been an important part of film. Hitchock’s Psycho wouldn’t have the same eerie resonance without those frantic violins, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy wouldn’t have the same epic scope without Howard Shore’s soaring, but esoteric compositions. I’m not exactly sure when films began incorporating popular music into their soundtrack instead of using only original scores (I’d wager Elvis was involved somehow), but the marriage between film and pop music really came into its own in the 80s with the advent of music videos and with the success of films such as The Blues Brothers and Footloose. Horror films have been no exception to this ongoing practice, and plenty of songs have been forever altered by their inclusion in the genre. While no list could be definitive, here’s the first installation of my ten favorite uses of pop songs in horror films. All of the songs in this list were good (or at least well-known), but were made even better by their inclusion in film. I’ve included the relevant video clips if you feel like singing along with this post.
10. “Blue Moon,” by The Marcels – An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Is the ending of An American Werewolf in London supposed to be funny, absurd, sad, or horrifying? I tend to think that it evokes all of these emotions at once, and the inclusion of the bubble-gum happy, doo-wop version of “Blue Moon” helps the film achieve its complex anti-resolution. Of course, Landis had already pioneered the art of combining pop music and film in National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers, but I think this is his crowning achievement.
9. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” by Bauhaus – The Hunger (1983)
The first time I ever heard a Bauhaus song was in Tony Scott’s cult-classic film about vampires in the dark underbelly of Manhattan’s fashionable circles. While I didn’t rush out and paint my lips and fingernails a nice shade of raven-black in honor of these founding grandfathers of Goth music, I did buy a copy of Press the Eject and Give me the Tape, the live album from which “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was taken. The inclusion of the song during the opening credits gives the film a brooding, creepy cool. It was so effective that Bauhaus used the sequence as a stand-alone video for their song.
8. “Hip to be Square,” by Huey Lewis and the News – American Psycho (2000)
For me, the highlight of American Psycho is Patrick Bateman’s long-winded, manic explication of the merits of Huey Lewis and the News as he dances to “Hip to be Square” and prepares for Paul’s brutal murder. It proves that Bateman is as pathologically shallow and soulless as the 80s pop culture that so defines his personality. Somehow, he manages to make that harmless goofball Huey Lewis seem downright horrifying, and to this day, I cringe a little whenever I happen to hear him on the radio.
7. “Bad to the Bone,” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers – Christine (1983)
I know that cars are central to American culture, but it’s still hard to believe that a film could make you both fear and feel empathy for a large hunk of metal, glass, and rubber. John Carpenter pulls it off, beginning with the opening sequence of Christine as we watch the car being assembled to the tune of Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” The actual song doesn’t occur until a minute or two into the video, but it’s worth watching from the beginning, as the lone rumbling of Christine’s engine dovetails perfectly into the song. Undoubtedly, both the song and the car become all the more badass when combined together.
6.”Goodbye Horses,” by Q Lazarus – Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I think the way we listen to all of the songs in this list changes after their inclusion in film, but this is especially true of “Goodybye Horses,” the song to which Buffalo Bill dances in all his freaky, drag queen glory. It’s actually a very catchy song, but you’ll NEVER catch me humming it in public, as it now so thoroughly belongs to Silence of the Lambs. The song is still creepy even when Jason Mewes dances to it in Clerks 2.
Which songs will make the final cut? Will the 80s continue to dominate this list? Stay tuned for part two of “Pop Music and Horror Films” to find out!