5 Beautiful Pieces of Music Unexpectedly Used in Horror Films
“Horror fans are the most enthusiastic movie fans you can possibly find, and often they’re the ones with the widest film culture too. Filmmakers aren’t in it just for the paycheck or to make the next blockbuster; they genuinely love what they do and they care about bringing something fresh and new to their audience. And despite all the guts and blood and violence on-screen, the horror community is where you’ll find the nicest, sweetest, most peaceful people.” (Horrorhound Issue 15)
Our genre is just as worthwhile, worthy of praise, and capable of being considered genuine cinematic art as any other genre. Sure, not every film in it is a Silence of the Lambs or an Exorcist, but they still all deserve to be taken on their own merits. The genre is capable of showing grotesque horrors, gory violence, and psychotic deviants… but people forget it’s just as easy to find true beauty in it as well.
That’s where this list comes in. One of my favorite parts of watching horror movies are the conflicting ideas they can sometimes create when music of great beauty is used to underline films and events that are anything but. While there are clearly more than the five listed here in no particular order (with one stated exception), these are my favorite 5 beautiful or compelling pieces of music unexpectedly used in horror and exploitation films. I’ve purposely limited myself to one selection per composer.
Quite possibly the most stereotypically “horror” song on the list, I love this one because, as odd as it sounds to say, it “sounds” like a resurrection whether you actually have the visual or not. It starts very slow and calm, as if one’s staring down at Frank Cotton’s bones. Then slowly, over the course of two and half minutes, it speeds up and gets progressively louder before reaching its crescendo as Frank resurrection concludes. In addition to that, it has a mechanical quality that fits with the Hellraiser mythology created through the Lament Configuration as well as the gory mess of the visual resurrection. While it would be challenging for this song to be in a genre outside of horror, it would make sense in any movie where a villain was brought back to life or ascended to power, like a superhero movie.
Of the Simonetti/Goblin themes for Argento movies, “Opera” is probably the least stereotypically synthy. The addition of the female vocalist and lighter instruments fit well with the dramatic/operatic setting of the film and make the selection stand on its own outside of the genre. Quite possibly the last thing an uninitiated person would think of upon hearing it for the first time would be that it came from a film in which a black-gloved killer restrained a woman repeatedly and taped needles to her eyelids, forcing her to watch his crimes to prevent injury to herself. Later, after Simonetti formed the electronic metal band “Daemonia”, he would record new versions of his classic themes (and some from other horror films as well). I am not embarrassed in the slightest to say that hearing Daemonia’s version of “Opera” for the first time was the first time a song literally brought tears to my eyes.
This is another case where the song is absolutely beautiful on its own yet it fits into the film perfectly because of what the film is. In many ways, Carrie, both the book and the movie, is about both Carrie’s telekinetic powers AND her puberty and coming of age under her mother’s oppressive thumb. While the music is perfect on its own, it’s made twice as good as when used in the movie over the opening sequence in the showers as it betrays nothing but Carrie’s innocence that is about to be broken in that shower. The song doesn’t end until Carrie’s period starts and the world as she knows it until that point crashes down around her. Thus, the song is a perfect way to start the movie, basically wrong-footing the audience from the start using the musical equivalence of purity and innocence as a set-up and segue into menstrual blood and horrific bullying.
I saved this and the next one for last because they illustrate my point possibly the most clearly of all five of these. This one’s first because it’s a more well-known example. The theme of Cannibal Holocaust is so slow, soft, and almost happy that it’s almost the diametric opposite to the horrors and shocks the movie has to offer. For the record, if you DON’T think the movie is shocking, I’d suggest you try doing what I did the very first time I saw it: watch it in 35mm, uncut, and without being able to stop or fast-forward the film. It’s… uncomfortable (though I enjoyed it). Getting back to the song, this is another instance of wrong-footing the audience. As it’s initially used, the main theme plays over idyllic overhead helicopter shots of the jungles. It fits perfectly because it’s as beautiful as the scenery we watch fly by below. In many ways, I’m pretty sure Ortolani did this on purpose so that, later in the film, the EXACT SAME SONG makes an already horrible, despicable scene twice as uncomfortable. By using identical music during the burning of the native village, the movie plays with the viewer’s mind, simultaneously showing them destruction and scoring it with a song initially associated with nature and happiness. And there is nothing that makes someone feel more uncomfortable than the combination of watching a realistic shock sequence… set to happy music. This, of course, is not to even mention the OTHER scene in which this is used in the later parts of the movie.
This, by far, is my favorite example of this phenomenon. I watched Nekromantik for the first time in 2010 and loved it. That’s not to say I don’t have problems with it. As we just mentioned Cannibal Holocaust, all I will say here is substitute “sea turtle” for “rabbit” and you’ll know if you should ever watch this movie. I get why it’s there artistically speaking, but it in no way excuses it. I completely understand the people who’ll never watch it for that very reason, much less the subject matter. However, unlike Cannibal Holocaust, I watched Nekromantik alone, in my apartment, and was able to stop the dvd if I needed to. I did so a few times more to process what I was seeing than literally not being able to take it. But the moment that immediately became one of my favorite movie scenes of all time was a sex scene scored by this. Click play on the video and close your eyes and listen a bit before reading on, if you like. It’s a beautiful, haunting little piano melody that could be used for basically ANYTHING. Jörg Buttgereit and Daktari Lorenz, because at least one of them was the GOOD kind of mad genius, decided they would use it over a scene in which two people fit a piece of steel pipe on a corpse and have sex with it and each other (hence the title “Ménage a Trois”, a French idiom for a threesome). This is the kind of piece I’d like to play for a mainstream film critic who’d never seen the film and ask their opinion of it. I’d expect to hear words like those I used to describe it above and the like. Then I’d watch their eyes shrink and their mouth drop open once they heard how it was used. And, again, much like Cannibal Holocaust, it gets used yet again later on in a far more disturbing scene.
Always remember: Horror can be beautiful. Horror can be grotesque, shocking, and disturbing. However, horror can also be both at the same time and deserves some level of respect for that. And Horror Freaks should never be embarrassed to love the genre or be who they are just because “normal people” think differently of them or don’t understand it. Quite frankly, if everyone were normal, then we’d all be the same. Just think how scary and boring that would truly be.