With the exception of a fart in an elevator, nothing has the power to perturb quite like cinema. Whether it’s the final montage of murder in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom or the unbearable mounting tension of subterranean confrontations with creepy serial killer suspects in David Fincher’s Zodiac, some scenes simply have to be watched with a firmly clenched jaw.
With the thrills and spills of scary movies proving so universally effectual, it is no surprise that musicians have tried to coax some of that artistic immediacy to lend a visceral edge to songs. Sometimes they are an attempt to directly transpose the big screen to the song sheet, whereas other times the spooky scenes simply filter through.
Songwriters have, of course, had a connection to cinema. You usually find that all the best musicians have their finger on the cultural pulse at large; when Bob Dylan is not penning folk masterpieces, he’s usually holding a paintbrush. Nick Cave’s time out of the studio often spent with a book, and Madonna even co-wrote and directed Filth and Wisdom. However, aside from culture and cinema at large, it would seem that the specific realm of horror is one that has proved fruitful for many musicians. In short, this is due to the fact that all artists hate to be beige and horror slashes that blank canvas and covers it in a shocking red hue.
Below, we’re taking a look at ten occasions when some of cinema’s scariest movies and moments resulted in truly brilliant tracks.
10 songs inspired by scary movies:
‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads (Based on – Psycho)
It didn’t take much for a talk, dark, handsome, angular and awkward David Byrne to channel his inner Norman Bates. Beyond the visual similarities, Byrne’s early stage persona lent itself nicely to the portrayal as he said himself, “I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.”
Naturally, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho became quite the muse and soundboard for Byrne as he meddled the art world tangled up in all the world-weary sincerity of blue-collared folk, the simple joy of dance music in all of its global guises and the great smorgasbord of pop-culture.
With ‘Psycho Killer’ Byrne asked bassist fluent French-speaking Tina Weymouth to pen a surging middle eight to be sung in French in order to convey the schizophrenic personality of the unstable narrator. The effect might not be as chilling as the shower slashing scene, but it’s just as enthralling.
‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ by Bob Dylan (Based on – Pscyho)
If there was any doubting the seismic cultural impact of Alfred Hitchcock, then this list should help reaffirm his place as one of the most influential creative forces in recent history. Unlike Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, Bob Dylan did not attempt to capture the jarring tension of the movie, rather in typical ‘voice of a generation’-style, he transposed the plot over an old joke and made it into a satirical statement regarding the freedom of speech act.
‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ on Another Side of Bob Dylan in ‘64 solidified his status as a classy customer as he took on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho and even threw in a reference to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita too.
‘Debaser’ by Pixies (Based on – Un Chein Andalou)
Un Chein Andalou is not so much a straight up horror as it functions more so as an incendiary attack on decency and despite being made back in 1929 the Franco-Spanish surrealist movie remains one of the most disturbing pieces of cinema ever made.
The movie saw director Luis Buñuel team up with frankly mad artist Salvador Dalí for a movie that intended to ‘debase’ the morality of the art world. Perhaps the best flavour of the on-screen action comes from the Pixies themselves with the lyric “slicing up eyeballs.”
The most peculiar thing is that the resultant strange and aggressive Pixies smash hit transposition is so damn listenable. It’s a song that took the razor-sharp edge of the arthouse movie, and without diluting the energy one little bit, somehow made it suitable for a Friday drive home to purge the working week and set up a debasing weekend.
‘Get Out of My House’ by Kate Bush (Based on – The Shining)
On Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming was a track that depicted a nightmare. ‘Get Out of My House’ places the narrator in the same terrifying realm as Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel from The Shining.
The song takes on the disturbing domestic asylum with a pounding drum rhythm that lends it an equally claustrophobic feel. The lyrics are just as spooky too, as she wails “This house is as old as I am / This house knows all I have done.”
Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror movie may well be the most iconic horrors of all time, and his visionary way of looking at art has inspired musicians forevermore. On this occasion the dark world of Kubrick is just as unsettling in song.
‘Nosferatu’ by Blue Oyster Cult (Based on – Nosferatu)
Nosferatu was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that not only brought ground-breaking director F.W. Murnau to global attention but changed the way in which cinema was viewed. The story goes that Stoker’s estate sued and all copies were destroyed, but one sneaky reel survived, and the atmospheric masterpiece found its way to the silver screen.
Blue Oyster Cult captured some of the dark aura for this track, but it is more of a homage to the picture than an outright transposition. The song is complete with the classic Blue Oyster Cult tropes of a catchy chorus and upbeat glam rock guitar solo.
‘Pinhead’ by Ramones (Based on – Freaks)
Freaks and Ramones form a matrimony bond forged in the realm of the misunderstood. The 1932 film – which follows a band of circus performers from a trapeze artist Prince Randian who has no arms or legs yet manages to roll and light a cigarette simply using his mouth – has been banned many times over, but away from the callous title the story is actually full of heart and for the time the treatment of the ‘side-show’ characters is actually quite judicious.
Likewise, away from the histrionics that has always surrounded the Ramones is a great degree of astuteness that often goes uncredited. Back in the day, this song would close Ramones concerts as Joey Ramone hoisted a banner aloft sporting the message “Gabba Gabba Hey,” a nod to the nightmarish scene in Freaks from which the mantra is taken.
‘Walcott’ by Vampire Weekend (Based on – The Lost Boys)
The Lost Boys not only inspired the song ‘Walcott’, the movie also proved to be a central influence and impetus behind the band in general. The group’s frontman, Ezra Koenig, made a summer film following his freshman year at college based heavily on the vampirical romp of Joel Schumacher’s original.
The lead character in Koenig’s movie was Walcott and he leapt from the forgotten realm of Koenig’s old home-VHS onto the band’s debut album. The track is a runaway melodic piano piece that singled the group out as the new top art school band on the scene back in 2008. It’s far from a song of fearful foreboding but the lyric “evil feasts on human lives”, hints at the song’s sinister inspiration.
‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Based on – The Devil and Daniel Webster)
The irony is that ‘Bad Moon Rising’ is probably best known for being used in films rather than being about one, but the truth is that the song was spawned after frontman John Fogerty watched The Devil and Daniel Webster, a little-known horror flick from 1941.
The movie reimagines the tale Faust and the devil as a 19th Century forms a pact with the devil for seven years of prosperity, but as Robert Johnson will tell you, such a deal never goes well. There is a dark and stormy ending to the movie that is very much the mood that Creedence capture in the composition. As Fogerty told Rolling Stone regarding the link between the film and the song, “[it’s about] the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us.”
The song triumphantly captures the feeling of foreboding, but it paints it in a charactered light that lends itself to a foot-stomping good time.
‘Eyes Without a Face’ by Billy Idol (Based on – Les yeux sans visage)
For those who ne peut parler français the title of the film Billy Idol’s atmospheric classic is based on translates as ‘Eyes Without a Face’. And unlike a lot of French arthouse movies, the title is pretty much on the nose (or lack thereof).
In Georges Franju’s legendry counterculture horror flick, a surgeon causes a car crash which leaves his daughter’s face horribly disfigured. The demented father then sets about reclaiming his daughter’s beauty in a twisted rampage of face-peeling abductions.
Within the song Idol’s ex-girlfriend Perri Lister sings the original title as the build-up to the chorus as a nod to the cinematic inspiration, in a track that resides as a timeless new wave classic.
‘Why Didn’t Rosemary’ by Deep Purple (Based on – Rosemary’s Baby)
Few songs have been as directly inspired by a movie as this one. In a fan Q&A the producer of Deep Purple’s self-titled third album, Derek Lawrence, recalled the inception of this track: “I do remember that the boys went to see Rosemary’s Baby at the cinema and came back and wrote ‘Why Didn’t Rosemary’.”
Roman Polanski’s iconic horror movie proved to be one of the most important pictures in the whole of the late sixties counterculture movement for its liberated views and artistic vision. The film is based on the 1967 Ira Levin novel of the same name in which the unfortunate Rosemary, played by the actress Mia Farrow in the adaptation, is impregnated by the Devil. Thus, Deep Purple, ask rather glibly, why Rosemary didn’t take the pill?
The song is a classic 14-bar blues piece, complete with the late sixties trope of organ overtones and some searing guitar work by Richie Blackmore. It’s far from spooky, but it’s one hell of a toe-tapper.