Sunday, July 25, 2010

October 28, 2009: The Eleven Most Memorable Musical Moments from Monster Movies!

Well, kids, Halloween season is winding down, which means I’ll soon be folding Rock & Roll posts back in among the horror nuggets. To make the transition just a little bit smoother I’ve cobbled together a post that focuses on both sides of Psychobabble’s Jekyll and Hyde persona: monster movies and music. So get on your death shrouds and boogie shoes, because I will now chronologically present The Ten Most Memorable Musical Moments from Monster Movies!


1. “Fort Collins Calypso Song” from I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

When RKO Studios told producer Val Lewton that his next project would have the goofy title I Walked With a Zombie, the cagey director started work on a film that was essentially an adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë classic Jane Eyre reset on a sugar plantation on the zombie-plagued island of Saint Sebastian. Filling in for Brontë’s Jane is Betsy Connell (Francine Dee), a nurse who learns that the Rand Family, for which she has come to care, has a dark past via a catchy ditty sung by Calypso legend Sir Lancelot. When the “Fort Collins Calypso Song” is first heard, Wesley Rand (James Ellison) flies into a fit of rage. Later, Sir Lancelot sings the song in a gloomier rendition aimed at Betsy. Calypso never sounded so creepy.

“Fort Collins Calypso Song” by Sir Lancelot


2. “The Headless Horseman” from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Disney’s telling of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be the most faithful version of this oft-told tale. Well, that is if you ignore Bing Crosby’s snappy songs. But why would you? For a film that isn’t generally ranked among Disney’s greatest, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad has some truly memorable musical numbers, the best of which is this complex piece in which yellow-bellied Ichabod Crane learns of the headless Hessian haunting the woods surrounding Sleepy Hollow.

“The Headless Horseman” by Bing Crosby


3. “Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly (Lullaby)” from The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Is there a more haunting scene in film than the riverboat escape in Charles Laughton’s masterful The Night of the Hunter? Two young children flee from Demonic Preacher/Big Bad Wolf Robert Mitchum and take to a little wooden boat. Suddenly, the manic, terrifying tone shifts toward the eerily dreamy, and the little girl begins to sing a beautiful song about an escaping fly in an incongruously mature voice (actually sung by former vaudeville singer Kitty White). The journey downriver is accompanied by various tableaux that draw equally on fairy tales and wild nature: a perfectly spun spider’s web; a croaking frog. There may have never been a more transcendentally beautiful marriage of music and film as the “Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly” sequence, but special mention should also go to Mitchum’s creepy rendition of “Hymn #59” (a.k.a. “Leaning”), which he sings whenever he’s on the hunt.

“Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly (Lullaby)” by Kitty White (the music begins about 1:20 into the clip)

“Hymn #59” by Robert Mitchum


4. “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man (1973)

A lot of viewers stumble into The Wicker Man without knowing it’s a demented pagan musical. The soundtrack is a trove of wonderful British folk songs that comment on the action of the film in unexpected ways. We get to hear Christopher Lee’s port-rich bass as he sings the rollicking “Tinker of Rye” and multiple fine songs by Paul Giovanni & Magnet. Yet no song is as evocative as “Willow’s Song”, sung by Lesley Mackie (who plays Daisy in the film) and lip-synched by Brit Ekland as she frolics in the nude in an attempt to lure Edward Woodward to his doom. Ekland’s voice is not the only phony in this scene—as she was pregnant at the time, director Robin Hardy incorporated a stunt butt to substitute for the Bride of Rod Stewart during her rear shots.

“Willow’s Song” by Lesley Mackie & Magnet


5. “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkin had a bastard of a time finding an appropriate score for his little demonic possession opus The Exorcist. After violently rejecting the music he commissioned from Lalo Schifrin, who is most famous for writing the theme to “Mission Impossible”, he resorted to the needle-in-a-haystack method of hunting through random records in Warner Bros.’s music library. That’s when he happened across the yet-to-be-released Tubular Bells, a severely pretentious new age symphony by former Soft Machine bassist Mike Oldfield. Friedkin was so enamored with the creepily tinkling music that he used the first movement of “Tubular Bells, Part 1” as a running theme throughout his film, so there isn’t necessarily one moment with which the piece is best associated. But it became so powerfully linked to the blockbuster that Oldfield’s highly uncommercial album ended up selling in the neighborhood of 16 million copies throughout the world. It’s hard to believe anyone can listen to “Tubular Bells” today without conjuring up images of green vomit and spinning heads.

“Tubular Bells, Part 1 (excerpt)” by Mike Oldfield


6. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brooks was adamantly opposed to the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance number Gene Wilder wrote for Young Frankenstein, feeling it strayed too far from the Universal Monster Movie parody at the heart of the film. Brooks had a point, as Wilder’s Frankenstein and Peter Boyle’s Monster high-stepping to Irving Berlin’s standard seems to come out of nowhere, yet it may be the most famous scene in this most famous horror-comedy. The spectacle of Boyle answering Wilder’s lines with a yowled “Puttin’ ona riiiiiiss!” doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy gold, but it’s the scene’s bizarro incongruity that makes it stand out among the picture’s innumerable gags.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle


7. “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The most popular Midnight Movie is also the greatest monster musical, so The Rocky Horror Picture Show has no shortage of revered songs. Still, I doubt that many of the film’s crazed followers would argue that its most supreme musical moment is this insanely catchy rocker that informs squares Brad and Janet that time-traveling ecstasy is just a pelvic thrust away. The three solo spots in the song—Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) careening from Karloffian lugubriousness to Bon Scott screeching, Magenta (Patricia Quinn) sing-speaking like the Bride of Bela Lugosi, Columbia (Little Nell Campbell) chewing her lines like a Queens car hop—are exhilarating. It’s just a jump to the left…

“Time Warp” by the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show


8. “In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)” from Eraserhead (1977)

Few filmmakers integrate music as seamlessly into their films as David Lynch. Even the sound of steam escaping from a radiator takes on a musical quality in Eraserhead, although actual music is used relatively sparsely in Lynch’s debut feature. There are a couple of organ pieces by Fats Waller and this childlike ditty sung by Peter Ivers and lip-synched on screen by actress Laurel Near. Following the birth of his monstrous baby, Henry X (Jack Nance) starts seeking solace from Near’s tiny, puffy-cheeked figure residing in his radiator. At one point, she interrupts his nightmarish visions to emerge from the darkness and serenade him with a song essentially impelling him to commit suicide, because “In heaven, everything is fine.” It’s beautiful and haunting in execution, oddly disturbing in intent, and absolutely unforgettable.

“In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)” by Peter Ivers


9. “Blue Moon” from An American Werewolf in London (1981)

The film that basically gave birth to the ironic use of music, An American Werewolf in London sports a soundtrack loaded with moon-themed oldies. After Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” plays out in its entirety as David Kessler (David Naughton) nervously paces around his new girlfriend’s apartment waiting to turn into a ravenous man-dog, he settles in for the evening as Sam Cook’s version of “Blue Moon” oozes from the soundtrack. Suddenly, Kessler screams in agony as he undergoes the single greatest werewolf transformation ever conceived. The sweetness of Cook’s voice matched with the violence of Rick Baker’s werewolf effects achieves weird transcendence.

“Blue Moon” by Sam Cooke


10. “96 Tears” from Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye (1985)

The filmmakers responsible for Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye did not secure the rights to the original version of “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, but I will forever associate the classic garage rock anthem with this fairly decent anthology nevertheless. This somewhat generic remake by the Northern Orchestra is featured in the first and best segment of Cat’s Eye: “Quitters Inc.” James Woods plays a schlub struggling with a mean nicotine addiction. He tries a radical solution that involves his wife being placed in an electrified booth in the event he sneaks a ciggie. Of course, he does, and wifey winds up hopping and screaming to “96 Tears” in the “Cat Room.” It’s an ironic combo of disturbing torture and danceable Rock & Roll that makes for the most memorable scene in the picture.

“96 Tears” by The Northern Orchestra


11. “Partytime (Zombie Version)” from Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Goth-metalists 45 Grave did not write the horrifying “Partytime”—a truly depressing song about the rape and murder of a five-year old girl—for Return of the Living Dead, but surely that’s where the vast majority of folks heard it. At the behest of Orion Pictures, 45 Grave frontwoman Dinah Cancer agreed to dump the original bleak child-abuse lyrics in favor of dopey ones that are far more in step with the fun-loving zombie flick. In the film, the track plays as the dead first start rising from the grave en masse, but it’s equally memorable for its place of pride in the trailers that ran on late night TV constantly throughout the mid-‘80s. There are better songs on the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack than this goofy headbanger (contributions from the Cramps, the Damned, and TSOL), but none that better sum up the movie with the tagline “They’re back from the grave and ready to party.”

Trailer featuring “Partytime (Zombie Version)” by 45 Grave

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