As a composer, I'm quick to acknowledge the role of music in setting the tone for a horror film, and while theme songs with lyrics and vocals can be just as effective as an instrumental score, there are definitely risks involved: along with clothing and hairstyles, songs tend to anchor a film to the year it was made, and as tastes change, a pop tune can be exposed as a quaint and silly relic of its decade. Then again, some of those tracks were pretty goofy to begin with, and nothing could have saved them.
With that said, I love every one of these oddball themes to death (even the truly painful ones), so I'd like to share with you the best of the weirdest, straight from one of my more... uh, let's say “eccentric” party playlists. Let's rock!
Fat Boys: “Are You Ready for Freddy?” (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988)
You're going to encounter a few dubious hip-hop tracks on this list, and mainly for one reason: in the late '80s, when rap artists were huge on MTV (you know, when the “M” actually stood for “Music”) and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise still ruled the box office, studio execs were obviously convinced that combining the two would be instant bank. So they paired up Freddy Krueger, the child-murdering bastard son of 100 maniacs, with the hip-hop equivalent of the Three Stooges, and even let Freddy himself kick a rhyme or two. What?
Paul Zaza: “The Ballad of Harry Warden” (My Bloody Valentine, 1981)
It might be a bit unfair to slam this nutty tune written by talented composer Zaza, because in a way it ties organically with the folk legend that forms the basis of this classic Canadian slasher. But after the events of the film's finale, this soft-rock tune kinda takes all the wind out of the claustrophobic terror that precedes it. It's a fun song on its own, though, and a sure winner on horror karaoke night.
Michael Jackson: “Ben” (Ben, 1971; Willard, 2003)
Not even the King of Pop is exempt from the curse of cheesy horror themes, and this song bears the added distinction of being the only love ballad ever written for a rat. I suppose Jacko deserves some slack-o, since he was just a kid at the time, but I have to wonder if he actually knew the song would accompany a movie about a young man and his army of killer vermin? Believe it or not, the single was a #1 hit – one of only two songs on this list with that distinction. The tune got a knowing nod in the 2003 remake of Willard, where it accompanies one of the film's most unpleasant scenes (at least for a cat-lover like myself).
Burt Bacharach & Mack David: “The Blob” (1958)
Here's the other #1 hit song on this list: Bacharach, one of the most celebrated songwriters of his day, co-wrote the jiggling mass of musical insanity (performed by “The Five Blobs,” a.k.a. singer Bernie Knee) that accompanies the original Blob's nutty, squiggly animated opening titles. It seems to be setting up the film as an over-the-top parody, despite the fact that the story itself is played pretty straight. Bacharach sure had a way with a hook, though; just try getting this one out of your head...
“Don't Go in the Woods" (Don't Go in the Woods... Alone!, 1981)
An attempted parody of the vintage nursery rhyme “Teddy Bears' Picnic,” the end-title ditty from this hilariously awful backwoods slasher is one of the few titles on this list that was actually meant to be humorous... I think. Considering composer Kingsley Thurber wasn't much better at crafting parody songs than the filmmakers were at writing a horror screenplay (although Thurber did eventually find success in video game music), the end result will probably have you reaching for the STOP button to avoid permanent brain injury.
J. Geils Band: “Fright Night” (Fright Night, 1985)
The '80s were a simpler, more naïve era in popular entertainment, and once again it seemed like a slam-dunk to hire one of the decade's highest-charting rock bands to punch up the humorous and playful aspects of Tom Holland's vampire classic. The fact that practically no one – including serious fans of the film – remembers this song at all is proof enough that the decision didn't exactly click with audiences.
Second Avenue Rhumba Band: “Goin' to a Showdown” (Maniac, 1980)
Some of you might object to my inclusion of this dorky dance ditty, simply because it's so closely tied to Bill Lustig's original splatter classic... and admittedly it does illustrate the doomed decadence of disco's dying days, accompanying the strutting and posing of a model whom psychotic killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) has targeted for death. But as a stand-alone work, this song is, frankly, pretty awful. While the piece is credited to “Aural Exciters” on the soundtrack LP, I'm partial to the band's gloriously cheesy original handle, which refers to a group founded by dance music artist Don Armando.
Syreeta: “Happy Birthday to Me” (Happy Birthday to Me, 1981)
I'm not sure if Columbia Pictures just didn't want to cough up the licensing fees for the traditional “Happy Birthday,” but the song that actually made it into the end credits of this studio slasher is kind of amazing. While the lyrics are pretty wacky, and the delivery is probably too quaint for modern tastes, performer Syreeta Wright is indeed an excellent singer, best known as the co-writer of the Motown classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” If only she'd written this one, it might have been a winner as well.
Reggie Bannister: “Have You Seen It?” (Phantasm IV: Oblivion, 1998)
In the original Phantasm, music was a key element to the characters of Reggie and his band-mate Jody (Reggie's tuning fork even plays a role in the film's climax), and the fourth installment finally gave Bannister a platform for audiences to hear his real-life music, which overall is a lot of fun. But does his '70s cock-rock delivery fit the apocalyptic tone of the series (which, by the way, will finally see a long-delayed fifth installment)? Well, sort of. It does make good use of the classic Phantasm theme by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, which is a definite plus.
Frankie Vinci: “Angela's Theme” (Sleepaway Camp, 1983)
Oh baby, this one hurts on so many levels. While audiences were still staggering from the film's notorious, eyeball-searing final reveal (I won't spoil it for you, but you really need to see that), they were promptly slapped upside the head with this epically bad ode to the film's main character, Angela Baker. I never thought I'd find myself writing this, but I kinda wish auto-tune had been around in the early '80s, because those missed high notes will now haunt me forever.
Josh Barnes & B-Dub Woods: “Maniac Cop Rap” (Maniac Cop 2, 1990)
Yup, another horrendous hip-hop disaster... only this time we can't even give it a pass for being the product of a musical comedy team. Talented composer Jay Chattaway (Maniac) handled the music, which is pretty catchy on its own, but the lyrics clearly represent a writer waaaay out of his element. While there may be a deliberate attempt at parody behind this one, the end result is about as funny as an ingrown toenail.
Michael Sembello: “Monster Squad Rap” (The Monster Squad, 1987)
Oh boy, another failed shot at the “kids love horror and hip-hop, let's mash them together” formula, which as I've already established, almost never works. Composer Michael Sembello, who crafted a fun and exciting score for Fred Dekker's film, kinda dropped the ball when it came to this one... but I'll give it a pass, since it's performed with gusto and features callbacks by the film's young stars, who are having so much crazy fun you can't help but cheer them on.
Paul Zaza: “Prom Night” (Prom Night, 1980)
Oh Paul Zaza, I can't quit you... even when you stab me in the ears. In an effort to capitalize on disco's popularity (which was starting to wane by the time this slasher was in the can), the producers wanted to capitalize on the popular club singles of the period, but couldn't afford tracks by chart-topping artists like Donna Summer, so they made up some of their own. The result always seems to bring forth giggles from audiences, especially when Jamie Lee Curtis is strutting her funky stuff.
You might have noticed there are a few obvious choices I'm giving a pass here – songs from movies that weren't meant to be taken seriously (“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”), or novelty tunes that never appeared in the films themselves (like that horrendous “Chucky Theme” that almost made it into Child's Play). Also, there are a few mind-blowing entries I would have included had I been able to track down embeddable versions, so if you find contenders out there, chime in and I'll include your best/worst picks in a follow-up list.