The Gory Joy of the Horror Musical
I rarely watch traditional horror films. I’m a poor audience for a lot of what they’re aiming for. Perhaps at its most oversimplified, a horror film is thought to be looking to scare its audience, to really frighten people, and, honestly, sometimes even traumatize them. There can be value in that. The phrase ‘emotional roller coaster’ is a cliche, particularly when applied to films, but it’s still a good way to capture something of what’s going on when someone is watching a scary movie. Rollercoasters and horror films are a safe way to take your brain for a ride, to play with feelings and experiences you wouldn’t ever want as part of your day-to-day life. Horror as a genre can be more than just scares, though, and some rides can still be fun without being extreme.
Recognizing that I am hypersensitive to people in realistic pain or distress, a lot of horror films are just off the table for me altogether. Not all of them though. Unless you’re the hardest-core horror purest, there is still plenty of room to play with the experiences of the horror genre without dialing up that visceral discomfort up to eleven. A pretty good example of this is the horror comedy, which I will discuss briefly in a moment, but an even better example for me would be one of my very favorite horror sub-genres which I’ll be discussing at greater length: the horror musical. Genre can get pretty fuzzy at its boundaries. Looking at a film like Young Frankenstein, it’s pretty clear that it’s a straight comedy and not a horror comedy. It’s playing with horror elements, but it’s an unambiguous spoof of horror films themselves, without playing with any of the feelings that horror movies are trying to evoke. Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, is more straightforwardly a horror comedy because, besides being funny, it’s also genuinely scary in parts, and it is deliberately playing with ideas and images that make people uncomfortable.
Perhaps the most well-known horror musical is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it is also a case, like with Young Frankenstein, where it is not entirely clear whether it should be considered a horror musical or just a musical sendup of classic horror and sci-fi films. While much of the film is silly and camp, there are a few sequences that are disturbing in a way that would otherwise derail a straight comedy. We’re aiming to be light on spoilers here, but, besides the bleak ending, there is a gory ax murder and a somewhat infamous dinner sequence, that are each disturbing enough to signal that the film is pursuing something more than just straight comedy. This seems like a useful benchmark for identifying what distinguishes a horror musical from a more traditional musical: that it’s deliberately playing with ideas and images that would be likely to turn off all but a horror-friendly audience.
There can also be a reductive impulse to think of all horror musicals as being horror comedies, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You might laugh at some moments in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but it’s largely a nasty and brutal piece of work. Adding music is generally antithetical to realism, but in Sweeney Todd, there are moments that hit all the harder because of how much they stand in contrast to the songs. Of particular note is the juxtaposition of Johnny Depp’s Todd singing as he slices a passive customer’s throat and fluidly slides their body from his barber chair down a trapdoor in his floor, set against the extremely realistic sound of that 200 lb body hitting the hard basement floor below. That sickly squelching thump of human meat and bone hitting the ground sticks with me as much as anything I’ve seen in any traditional horror film. Sweeney Todd is a lot of things, but what scenes like this make clear is that it is most certainly not a comedy.
It’s these sorts of ideas I’ll have in the back of my head as I’m examining what I think some of the most effective horror musicals are. I’m looking at musicals with good songs, but that also have some demented bend to the stories they’re trying to tell. The importance of the music being solid throughout can’t be underestimated. Interrupting the narrative is risky, and to do so for a song that falls flat is riskier still. It doesn’t take much to lose an audience altogether. Think of the fairly baffling song, “Cheer Up, Charlie,” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (not a horror musical, but my goodness would it not take much to recut it into one), a slow maudlin song that all but brings the film to a standstill as it’s simply underlining for the audience an idea that the narrative has already made more effectively.
As mentioned above, The Rocky Horror Picture Show may be the most well-known horror musical. In it, a recently engaged couple gets a flat tire on a rainy night and picks the wrong house to go to for help. Adapted from a highly successful stage show, the film is famous for having been a flop upon its release before developing the cultiest of cult followings. Around the country, as Halloween approaches, theaters make plans to show the film, sometimes with shadow cast on hand to act out the film at the same time, with the more adventurous theaters also providing props to the audience for their participation. Lots of other culty films have developed lesser versions of this kind of following, but they’re all following a template first laid out by the Rocky Horror fandom.
I’ve written about The Rocky Horror Picture Show twice before. Once as part of a career retrospective article on the film’s star, Tim Curry, and again in an article noting similarities between it and Sunset Boulevard. It’s a film I have a lot of fondness for, coming back to it every Fall. Few people have been as good at anything as Tim Curry is here as Dr. Frank-n-furter, and few experiences feel more like Halloween to me than seeing this film with a live cast.
Though perhaps a little less well-known, what may actually be the best horror musical is another film I’ve written about before, 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors. Continuing a theme, this was also adapted from a stage production, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Adapted from the ultra-low budget (and unexpectedly great) 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name, where a stock boy, named Seymour Krelborn, working at a Skid Row florist, finds a strange and unusual plant with strange and unusual appetites. Things start to go right for Seymour when he starts giving the plant what it wants but starts to unravel as he has to go to ever greater lengths to satisfy the plant's hunger.
Ashman and Menken are both musical and musical theater royalty due to their collaborations here, as well as on The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, and Aladdin; and it’s the quality of the music that most sets Little Shop of Horrors apart from other horror musicals, working in numerous musical styles and delivering lyrics that can swing widely between, poignant, funny, sweet, and sinister. The standout of the otherwise star-studded cast is Ellen Greene, reprising the role of Audrey that she had originated on stage. Also working in the film’s favor is Frank Oz as the perfect director for the practical effects and puppetry the film required, in his first non-Muppet project, along with supporting appearances from the likes of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and John Candy.
My favorite horror musical, and a significant motivation for writing this article, is the criminally under-seen, Reefer Madness: The Musical. Again, a stage adaptation, this time loosely riffing on the anti-drug propaganda film from 1936, Reefer Madness. Starring Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, and Christian Campbell, part of the film being somewhat lost to time is that it premiered on cable on Showtime, and had an extremely limited theatrical run.
The original Reefer Madness has itself long become a cult film because of how hyperbolic of a morality play it is about the dangers of marijuana use. This musical adaptation raises those extremes to even more absurdist heights. Where the original saw weed turning kids into zonked-out zombies, the opening number of this film sees kids in the grip of marijuana being turned into literal bloodthirsty zombies out to eat their parents. Christian Campbell and Kristen Bell play Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, two all-American high school kids whose budding romance crumbles as Jimmy falls into a depraved marijuana addiction that captures Mary Lane as well when she tries to save him. Tony award-winning Cumming is unbelievable in multiple roles here, and it will never get old hearing Bell’s Princess Anna voice sing about sadomasochism in a reefer den.
An unusual touchstone for musical theater is Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, about a mysterious figure haunting a Parisian opera house, who becomes obsessed with a female performer there. Three films that have tackled versions of the story are: Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera, Brian De Palma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise, and 2014’s Stage Fright. Webber and Schumacher produce a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, yielding something of a gothic horror. De Palma relocates the story to a more modern setting, mashes it up with the story of Faust, and sets it in a rock club. Stage Fright turns the story into more of a summer camp slasher film and sets it at a youth theater camp.
The 2004 Schumacher film earned back double its budget at the box office and enjoys a very strong fan base, but was savaged by critics at the time. What is without question though is that it has some of the most spectacular art direction and set design you’ll ever see. What’s the best way to create the effect of the opera house burning down? To actually build and burn down an opera house. It is the least of a horror movie of these three films, though
Phantom of the Paradise is a wild film. In many ways, it shares a lot of the same DNA as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, wallowing in 70's excess and pretty overtly wearing all of its earlier film influences on its sleeve, but leaning a bit more into the psychedelia of the era. Here, the phantom of the title is a songwriter named Winslow Leach, who was screwed over by a record producer and club owner named Swan, played perfectly by the film’s actual songwriter Paul Williams. The phantom comes to haunt Swan’s rock club, which is preparing to open with a performance of music that Swan has stolen from Leach.
This musical is a little unusual in its structure in that so much of the music from early in the film is more sketchy and underplayed because what we’re seeing is songs being written, and rehearsed by performers still figuring their parts out. This does serve to somewhat mute the impact of the music early on, but the delayed gratification more than pays off when we finally hear everything fully developed in the climactic performance at the end of the film. This stylistic choice may have contributed a bit to the film having trouble finding an audience when it was initially released, but it also serves to make the finale something incredibly explosive.
Stage Fright is a little shaggy compared to most of the other films that I’m discussing here, with an ending that only kind of works, but it gets major bonus points for its infectious theater kid energy. Meat Loaf plays a theater camp owner who used to be a major theater producer, having fallen on hard times when, after the opening night of a production ‘The Haunting of the Opera’ that his wife was staring in, she was murdered, leaving him the widowed father of two. Now, ten years later, he is trying to stage another production of that work, this time possibly starring his daughter, only for further bloodshed to follow.
Another figure who features prominently in this world of horror musicals is Tim Burton, who has made three films in the genre: his two stop-motion animation films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, along with his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Being PG-rated animated films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride are both fairly family-friendly. There might be some temptation not to consider either of them horror films, but I think it’s more helpful to think of them as starter horrors, films pitched to younger audiences that give them a point of entry to the genre, with scares geared toward what they can handle at their age without being overwhelmed.
A marvel of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the degree to which it follows the story arc of a more traditional Christmas story. Something happens to disrupt Christmas, but at the last minute, the characters we’ve been following work with Santa Clause to restore everything to how it’s supposed to be, thus saving Christmas in the St. Nick of time. In this case, Jack Skellington, the most important figure in Halloween Town, who has come to be bored by his many frightful annual accomplishments, discovers a portal to a different holiday world that gives him some new ideas.
Burton makes an interesting choice to split up the role of Jack Skellington between Chris Sarandon, taking on all of Jake’s spoken dialogue, and Danny Elfman, who wrote the music for the film, doing all of the singing. The two performances blend together seamlessly, combining to make for one of the better voice performances you’ll hear.
Corpse Bride tells the story of a young man and woman who meet on the eve of their arranged marriage, but, while the man is outside practicing his vows for the ceremony, he accidentally proposes to and weds the corpse of a bride that was murdered and buried by her husband the night of their wedding. Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, and Johnny Depp play the three parts of the love triangle that are trying to navigate the world and underworld as they untangle the mess.
Stephen Sondheim had said once that Burton’s Sweeney Todd is the only adaptation of one of his shows that he’s fond of. What Sondheim appreciated was Burton’s dedication to trying to faithfully transpose to show from stage to screen, without being pointlessly beholden to choices Sondheim only had to make in order for the show to work on a stage in front of a live audience. What Sondheim loved is how Burton found a way to stay faithful to the show, while having the confidence to also excise and change whatever needed to be changed for the show to work as a film and finding a visual language that only ever adds to what Sondheim was going for.
The story is of a once-young married barber, who is falsely imprisoned by a judge who is after his wife. After many years in prison, the barber is finally released and returns to London with eyes on revenge. Johnny Depp plays the barber, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the woman who rents him space above her meat pie shop, a shop that also happens to provide them with a lucrative means of disposal for the bodies that start to accumulate.
This last section is comprised of films that don’t form a tidy group, or that I might not rate quite as highly as all of the ones I’ve listed above, but they are still films that I think are great examples of this sub-genre and well worth your time.
Anna & The Apocalypse is a musical teen drama set in and around a high school at Christmastime, during what turns out to be a zombie apocalypse. Tonally it feels like it owes its biggest debts to TV shows Glee and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the film Shaun of the Dead. The cliche of being a teenager is how much it can feel like the end of the world when things go wrong, and that proves to be no less true when it’s the actual end of the world. The film manages to pack in the high school experiences of how it feels being disconnected from others, how it feels to find that friend group that makes you feel like you can take on anything, and how it feels when that friend group starts to break apart as people move on, all into one heightened bloody two day period.
Suck is an incredibly odd artifact of a film. The elevator pitch for the film is, what is it like being on the road with a struggling rock band when one of your bandmates has a substance abuse problem, and what if that substance is human blood? With unlikely cameos from Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, and Moby, this film does a good job capturing the sense of being in a band that is just successful enough that nobody involved can admit to themselves that they should move on. Dave Foley is a scene stealer as the amoral agent with a surprisingly accepting attitude towards vampires.
Cannibal! The Musical was a student film Trey Parker wrote and directed while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The film purports to tell the story of Alferd Packer, who was accused and convicted of murdering and cannibalizing a party he was leading through the mountains of Colorado during winter. The scenes of murder and cannibalism that bookend the film do get a little gory, but this is otherwise mostly a comedy in the spirit of other musical comedies that Parker would go on to do like South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, and his Broadway show, The Book of Mormon. Being a student film, it’s pretty rough around the edges a lot of the time, but even early on, Parker shows a great ear for musical comedy.
Repo! The Genetic Opera has a strong following, some fascinating casting choices, and an interestingly maximalist visual style. I would highly recommend it if you wish the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More with Feeling,” had a sequel. The film takes place in a future where anyone can buy replacement organs from a company called GeneCo, but if you can’t keep up with your payments, a repo man will find you and take those organs back. The story itself is rather operatic with the incredibly violent family that runs the company squabbling amongst itself over who will take over the company when the patriarch dies, entangled with the story of a man who is being blackmailed to work as a repo man, and the daughter he is trying to keep that a secret from.
At the outset of this, what I said of horror films is that they were a way to play with feelings and experiences that we wouldn’t want as part of our day-to-day lives, playing with the images and ideas that frighten and disconcert us. What horror musicals nail more than anything else is that spirit of play while engaging with the ideas at work in horror. There’s a place for extreme and traumatizing horror, and I won’t argue too hard against someone that wants to insist that’s all horror is, but I love that there is a room somewhere for films that can also play with the things that scare us with a spirit of gory joy.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.