Horror movies often rely upon music to convey the correct tone. Whether for tension, suspense, or comedy, the right song can create that desired effect. However, the disconnect between music and tone can be powerful as well. As a passionate music enthusiast, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of my favorite song choices in horror films. Granted, I cannot write about all my favorites, but I hope the ones I picked will make you turn up the volume loud and let the tunes roll.
1. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" - Bonnie Tyler: The Strangers: Prey at Night
The sequel to 2008's cult film The Strangers is starting off the list. The original movie closely replicated '70s home invasion and exploitation films. In contrast, The Strangers: Prey at Night embraces its '80s slasher influence with some great pop classics from that era. More specifically, the scene at the pool where Luke (Lewis Pullman) has to fight off Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin) and The Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei) as Bonnie Tyler's beloved single "Total Eclipse of the Heart" plays in the background. The grueling hand-to-hand combat combined with that distinct pop sensibility allows the movie to highlight the brutality of the killers and violence while giving the film its unique identity compared to the original.
2. "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" - The Dead Kennedys/Ain't Rights: Green Room
I adore punk music and culture and love the aesthetic and usage of it in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room. What truly stands out is when the band Ain't Rights accidentally arrives at a neo-Nazi bar for a concert and decides to play "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" in front of a bunch of drunk skinheads. In a film filled with main characters making horrible decisions, this is the least of them despite being spit on and dodging beer bottles. Even in a room filled with neo-Nazis, it perfectly encapsulates the scrappy and defiant energy of the characters.
3. "Don't Fear the Reaper" - Blue Öyster Cult: Halloween
Although probably best known for the SNL sketch "More Cowbell," this classic rock staple appears in John Carpenter's influential slasher Halloween. Although it might be considered cliche to have this track play in a horror film, the usage of the song appearing when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) drive around stalked by Michael Meyers (Nick Castle) works beautifully. It also reinforces the mundane nature of Laurie's life as she listens to typical music on the radio while its insidious lyrics foreshadow death as a masked killer watches her without her knowledge. Carpenter consistently demonstrates his talent as a composer and also has a fantastic taste for licensed music.
4. "Red Right Hand" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Scream
This might feel like a copout, but there is a reason why all of the films except Scream 4 utilize "Red Right Hand." The song has become synonymous with the franchise, much like Ghostface's iconic white mask. First appearing in Scream, when the Woodsboro residents begin to prepare for a newly imposed curfew, Cave's husky vocals properly convey the danger of the masked killer while defining the franchise as a whole. It's hard to separate the two, and hearing it on the radio instantly calls to mind Wes Craven's masterpiece.
5. "Antonio (Berlin Breakdown Version)" - Annie: The Guest
In a movie with a great soundtrack, "Antonio (Berlin Breakdown Version)" by Annie stands out as the highlight in Adam Wingard's The Guest. The usage of electronic and synthpop music creates a wholly original identity to the film as this track plays during the movie's climax. The synths complement the dark neon lighting at the dance as the sleek music expertly works with David (Dan Stevens) hunting his prey as the ultimate apex predator. The sadness and longing of the lyrics and vocals match with Anna's (Maika Monroe)own fleeting feelings for the man once she realizes the monster he is.
6. "Pet Sematary" - The Ramones/Starcrawler: Pet Sematary (1989) / Pet Sematary (2019)
The title track from Mary Lambert's Stephen King adaptation may have been nominated for a Razzie, but I love it (and what do the Razzies know anyway). Sure, it's very on the nose and not "high art," yet it understands and goes with King's love for dad and butt rock. It's not the only Ramones song in the movie, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" plays when the truck driver runs over Gage Creed (Miko Hughes). The Starcrawler cover for the remake updates the punk nature for a new audience. It's the sort of tune that makes you want to open your sunroof and let it blast.
These are only a handful of my favorite songs in horror films, narrowing down which to include here was no easy task. But hopefully, you will add these to your playlists and watch or rewatch these movies. Make sure to turn up the volume for the maximum effectiveness of the screams and the music.