Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gene Kelly + Rape: a short history of frightening context

Everyone knows that music is one of film’s most manipulative elements. The most innocuous stair climb can be made terrifying by the inclusion of a foreboding orchestral score. Think of the scariest music from iconic horror films: John Williams’ ominous “Jaws” theme, John Carpenter’s nerve-plucking piano music in “Halloween,” Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s haunting main title theme in “The Shining” and of course, Bernard Herrmann’s screaming strings in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

But what happens when filmmakers go for irony? The juxtaposition of a cheery pop song with a horrific scene can sometimes make the viewer even more uncomfortable than a bit of the baroque. And, if the film is successful enough, that song may never be heard in the original context again. See if the hairs on your neck (or in your ears) don’t stand up at our list of songs that have been forever changed by scary (or at least intense) movies.

“Singin’ in the Rain” in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s classic take on nihilism and the old ultraviolence is rife with irony; Extreme sociopath Alex (Malcolm McDowell) has no feeling for any human, but waxes poetic about the beauty of the music of “Ludwig Van” (that’s Beethoven, folks). In one especially harrowing scene, Alex and his droogs break into the home of a wealthy couple, beat the elderly husband and rape his young wife while Alex sings Gene Kelly’s lilting, gentle love song, “Singin’ in the Rain.” The usage of the song is so horribly brilliant that it’s become almost as associated with “Clockwork” as with the eponymous 1952 movie musical in which it originated.

“Hip to Be Square” in “American Psycho” (2000)
One of the more genius ideas in Mary Harron’s portrait of ultimate narcissism and disassociation is the notion that yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) has really, really awful taste in music. The image-obsessed Bateman spouts monologues about the merits of Whitney Houston and Phil Collins (as prelude to murder). But the most bizarre pairing of music and act is the rain-coated jig that Bateman does to Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” right before planting an axe in the head of a fellow Wall Streeter. Mr. Lewis himself was so upset by the usage of the song in the movie that he had it pulled from the soundtrack release.

“Stuck in the Middle” in “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)
Perhaps no song’s context has ever been more altered by a movie than this 1973 track by British one hit wonder Stealers Wheel. While Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan wrote the song about the relationship between musicians and record company executives, after 1992, nobody will ever associate the Dylanesque tune with anything other than sadistic mutilation. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” the vicious Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) does a little shuffle to the tune while slicing off the ear of the cop he has tied up in a warehouse. The movie’s entire ‘70s AM soundtrack (integrated into the action of the movie via a “Super Sounds of the Seventies” radio marathon) adds a gleeful playfulness to the sinister goings on in the oft-imitated, rarely matched “Dogs.”

“Blue Moon” in “American Werewolf in London” (1981)
John Landis’ genre-twisting horror-comedy utilizes three different versions of the 1934 Rodgers and Hart standard, “Blue Moon.” Sam Cooke’s romantic 1950s take on the song serves as the soundtrack to David’s (David Naughton) excrutiatingly painful first transformation into a werewolf. While the usage throughout the film of songs with the word “moon” in the title seems obvious at first, the fact that most of the tunes are upbeat or romantic makes them a perfect fit for a movie that’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.

“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in “Manhunter” (1986)
Iron Butterfly’s iconic 17-minute song takes up one full side of their 1968 album of the same name. Legend has it that the title comes from a drunken lead singer Doug Ingle slurring the original words, “In the Garden of Eden,” but for fans of the original Hannibal Lecter flick, the song has nothing to do with paradise. In Michael (“Miami Vice”) Mann’s stylish thriller, the murderous Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) cranks up the song as he’s preparing to do away with the blind woman who almost pushed him to find his own humanity. Will the cops get there in time to stop him? They’ve got 17 whole minutes!

“In Dreams” and “Blue Velvet” in “Blue Velvet” (1986)
Nobody’s better at making the normal seem twisted than David Lynch, and in “Blue Velvet,” everything has a seedy underbelly, right down to the robins. Both Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” and the standard, “Blue Velvet” (most notably recorded by Bobby Vinton) are used numerous times in the movie, sung by a creepy brothel boss, an unhinged blackmailed masochistic chanteuse and Dennis Hopper’s threatening fingers. For fans of Lynch, these two songs will forever bring forth goosebumps, regardless of the context.

“Comanche” (but not “My Sharona”) in “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Nobody’s better at marrying music and movies than Quentin Tarantino, but even he doesn’t always get to use the songs he wants. While the usage of the Revels’ version of Link Wray’s “Comanche” is perfect sleazy accompaniment to the scene where mobster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is raped by the hillbilly pawn shop owner and the cop, that song wasn’t QT’s first choice. Tarantino wanted to use the Knack’s 1979 new wave smash, “My Sharona” over that scene, but not everyone in that one-hit act was down with their sole legacy becoming forever associated with S&M, sodomy and rape. Go figure.

“Tubular Bells” in “The Exorcist” (1973)
The music from William Friedkin’s terrifying adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel is such a perfect fit that many people assume it was written for the film. In fact, music from Mike Oldfield’s then-new album “Tubular Bells” was licensed as a last minute replacement for a rejected score by composer Lalo Schifrin. While sales of Oldfield’s prog-rock opus benefited from the association, whatever original meaning the music had was immediately and permanently supplanted by images of a possessed little girl projectile vomiting, spinning her head 360 degrees and saying just awful things about Father Karras’ mother.

“Goodbye Horses” in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
By far the most obscure song on this list is this track by Q. Lazzarus, a band named for its deep-voiced female lead singer. While director Jonathan Demme first used the song in his 1988 comedy, “Married to the Mob,” it is inexorably linked to his Oscar-winning 1991 thriller. “Goodbye Horses” plays on an old turntable as serial killer Buffalo Bill / Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) does his infamous “tuck dance” sporting makeup, nipple rings and a feather boa, anxious to finish his flesh suit in order to transform into a pretty lady. Brrr. We’re willing to bet that (unless “Lambs” is your favorite movie or Q. Lazzarus is your favorite band) you can’t conjure the tune in your head. But the odds are even that if you happened to hear it somewhere, you’d get a creepy feeling and start looking over your shoulder, even if you aren’t “a great big fat person.”

Every Halloween, some people put a speaker in their window and play some frightening movie soundtrack or White Zombie disc to either enhance the kiddies’ trick-or-treating or frighten them off. But what would happen if one of those audiophiles ditched the Jerry Goldsmith “Omen” score and tossed a Huey Lewis disc in the player instead? The kids may not get scared, but there’s a good chance their parents would (even if they’ve never seen “American Psycho”)!
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN for MTV.COM in 2006, but never published.

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