Collins’ Crypt: Singing In The Pain

Brian bemoans the limited options and lack of widespread support for genre musicals.

Along with all the movies about zombies and mutants and monsters, I also make time for Smash, possibly the least horror-related show on the air. I'm not going to deny that it's mostly due to my crush on Kat McPhee (any woman that sings with Meat Loaf is marriage material), and it can be cripplingly uneven at times, but at its heart is something that I can definitely get behind: a mini-musical. Each episode has two or three songs, and it's only 45 minutes long without commercials, which is perfect for my tolerance level.

See, I'm not a big musical fan. I've seen productions of Rent, Wicked and a few others, and I'm usually bored out of my mind before the first act is through. Even when my hero Jim Steinman is behind the songs (Whistle Down The Wind, a venture with Andrew Lloyd Webber), I can't really get too into it. Most musicals, I tend to like a few tunes, maybe a scene or two will stick out, but the rest just doesn't grab me the way a good horror flick does (such as Cabin in The Woods! Go see it, because my column next week is a big ol' spoiler-fest).

So it's not much of a surprise that all of the musicals I DO like are horror-based, and I wish to hell the bigger studios would provide more of them. My favorite is Little Shop Of Horrors, which I taped off of HBO back in the day and watched constantly, before finally replacing with a DVD back in 1999 or so*. I also still have a cassette tape of the soundtrack, which I love because it has the deleted full version of "Meek Shall Inherit" as well as "Don't Feed The Plants", and a few other minor differences from the film. Based on Roger Corman's (song-less) original film, the musical version was an Off-Broadway sensation which was then translated into a feature version, bringing things full circle. And to date it's the only film that has beloved comedians Steve Martin and Bill Murray sharing a scene together, which is interesting as they've run in the same circles and had mutual co-stars throughout their careers. How it's only the giant killer plant movie that managed to unite them on celluloid, I have no idea.

Anyway, all of the songs are great, as far as I'm concerned. While I have my favorites ("Skid Row" and "Dentist"), there isn't a single song I'd be tempted to skip on DVD, and I'll even catch myself singing along to Audrey's songs ("We snuggle watching Lucy... on a big, enormous, twelve inch screeeeeeeeeeeeeen...") from time to time. Of course, as a 7-year-old, this was not what interested me - it was the giant man-eating plant! This was right around when I started being allowed to watch horror films, and while I am sure I could recognize the difference between it and a Friday the 13th sequel, something like an "MPAA rating" was foreign to me, and thus the bit where Mushnik met his fate, as well as the finale, were just as scary as to me as Jason hacking up some dumb kids. Except he never sang about it after (and the world is the poorer for it), so the film always stood out as unique to me.

Years later I got into Meat Loaf (him again!), which inspired me to check out Rocky Horror Picture Show, on a FOX broadcast (!) around Halloween time. While closer to science-fiction territory, the film is chock full with horror references and spoofs (few lines in cinema are as funny as "Didn't we pass a castle back down the road?"), and even has a couple of scary moments. Frank N' Furter's first appearance (coming down the elevator) is played for scares, and his ax murder (and subsequent cannibalism) of poor Eddie is fairly graphic and terrifying. As with Little Shop, there isn't a bad song in the bunch as far as I'm concerned, and I never grow tired of the film's insane and irreverent humor ("The ZEN Room!"). Oddly, to this day I have never seen the film theatrically. I've had an opportunity or two, but never followed through - my entire experience with the film has been at home; in fact I don't think I've ever even seen it with another person. Oddly enough, I HAVE seen its (entirely horror-free) spinoff sequel Shock Treatment in theaters, at a revival screening at the Nuart here in Los Angeles. While the movie is an incoherent, mostly unfunny chore, I do like quite a number of its tunes, just an FYI.

However, I've seen Darren Bousman's Repo: The Genetic Opera in theaters several times, and that film is the heir apparent to Rocky Horror, as it not only combines a horror/sci-fi plot with lots and lots of songs, but it has also inspired a cult of "Shadowcasters" all over the country (world?). If you're unfamiliar, these folks dress as the characters and act the film out along with the screen, plus employ props and encourage talking back to the screen. While the Rocky "script" is pretty much set in stone by this point, it was interesting to see Repo's evolve when the film first began doing the midnight screening run in LA - it's been almost four years at this point so I assume they have it down pat (haven't been for a while).

Anyway, as the title suggests, it's an opera, which means unlike the others I've mentioned there is next to no spoken dialogue in the film. The music never really stops; the full blown numbers ("Zydrate Anatomy", "Seventeen", "Legal Assassin") are bridged with short songs like "Can't Get It Up If the Girl's Breathing?", performed by Terrance Zdunich (the writer and actor behind Graverobber) and Paris Hilton, who is actually pretty great in the film as, well, the spoiled daughter of a rich father. The plot is too complicated to sum up here, but it finds a place for several gory murders and a cast that includes horror icon Bill Moseley, plus Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head as the repo man/film's most tragic figure. Buffy of course had its much lauded musical episode "Once More With Feeling", and that one is also prone to fan sing-along screenings, making Head something of an icon in this limited genre.

He also pops up in a one-line, uncredited cameo in Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's gory film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical. Apparently, Head was supposed to be one of the ghosts (along with Christopher Lee) that sing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" from the stage production, but Burton cut this song (and a few others) from his version, which is still quite long compared to the films mentioned above - just a hair under 2 hours. Nevertheless, Sondheim says this is the only one of his film adaptations that he was happy with, and while I've never seen his original production, I can say that it's a solid film, and pretty much the only Burton film worth a damn since Big Fish. I wasn't inspired to buy the soundtrack since I only really liked a few tunes ("Pretty Women" and "Worst Pies In London" being two, if that's even their names) and some flat out annoyed me (either of the ones sung by that kid were like nails on chalkboard to me). But as a narrative I liked it quite a bit; a big, dark tragedy peppered with insanely gory murders and lots and lots of pie. Sweeney (Johnny Depp, because this is a Tim Burton film) is a big fan of slitting folks' throats, and every single one drenches the actors, set, and even the lens with good ol' fashioned fake blood (well the lens stuff is probably digital). I'm sure someone can explain why a musical starring Johnny Depp had more Karo syrup in the budget than the Fright Night remake did, but I'd rather just thank Burton for doing it right. Easily the darkest of all the films listed (yes, even Repo), it did pretty well at the box office (assuming that grossing three times its production budget worldwide is good; I can never understand that shit), but apart from Repo - which was already in production at the time - there hasn't been another major genre musical since.

Well, not a full length. Currently touring in a "roadshow" format in North America is The Devil's Carnival, a successor (not a sequel) to Repo from the same creative team and many of the stars (Alexa Vega, Paul Sorvino, Moseley... but not Hilton, if that was a red flag for you). It's too short to count as a film (55 minutes), but it's definitely worth heading out to see if you were a fan of their earlier effort. This one's a musical; there are 10 (ish?) full songs in between traditional dialogue scenes, wrapped around a story about three folks who are transported into the titular carnival, where they have to play games to escape. Boasting amazing costumes and sets, and a wonderfully colorful look by (Repo DP) Joe White, it's a damn fun gonzo trip, and there were more songs I liked than ones that didn't leave much of an impression.

The roadshow includes a new behind the scenes piece about Repo, a fan video montage, plus live dances and a costume contest. As Bousman and Zdunich explained at the show, the idea was to create an experience, something that couldn't be downloaded. Sure, some asshole might upload the film to a torrent site and fuck over their hard work, but that's just one part of what your ticket buys you (not to mention the aforementioned look of the film deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find). Bousman's last few films have all met with under-supported releases (not to mention torrent leaks - including one for a film he hadn't even finished!), so I love that he's making an effort to take back control and do something that demands the theatrical experience. That it happens to be up my alley on a creative level is just a bonus.

There have also been a few indie productions; Peter Jackson's insane puppet musical Meet The Feebles fits the bill to a degree, and no life is complete without Cannibal! The Musical, an early effort from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, long before South Park (or The Book Of Mormon). Something called I Kissed A Vampire was also recently released in a handful of theaters, but I hadn't heard about it until just now, when I went to boxofficemojo to find Sweeney Todd's grosses and looked at the musical chart. Granted, the musical film is a tough genre to make money in (of the 75 entries on BOM's chart, only 7 have topped 100 million, including Rocky Horror which was a flop saved by endless re-releases and revival screenings), and a musical horror would thus be even MORE risky, but the few that have been given a shot have endured. Little Shop was one of the top 25 grossing films of 1986 (out of over 200), and even though other 80s musicals like Popeye and Best Little Whorehouse In Texas made more during their respective releases, they haven't had the same sort of shelf life. Let's put it this way: I don't see anyone doing songs from those films at karaoke, but I've heard "Suddenly Seymour" more than once.

And the material for more features is there! Last year I had the privilege of seeing Re-Animator The Musical at the Steve Allen Theater, and it was a blast - in fact I liked it just as much as the original 1985 film. The songs were clever and fit in well with the story, and the production retained the film's over the top bloodletting (the theater had a "splash zone" where you'd be guaranteed to get hit with the stage blood). But the fun isn't limited to LA - it's about to embark on an international tour (check the official site for updates). Then there's Evil Dead The Musical, which has been running for years, as well an opera based on The Fly (!) which David Cronenberg and Howard Shore put together themselves. I'm probably forgetting/missing a few more (do I dare mention the TWICE ill-fated Carrie musical?), but the point is, the genre is bigger than you'd think - it's just that they don't get the same faith from the studios that Hairspray or Mamma Mia are given. You gotta seek this stuff out; in fact I just on a whim typed "Zombie musical" on Google and found three different films, none of which I had ever heard of before. Maybe there's a good reason for that, but I'd like to see for myself, and it's a bummer that even someone as "plugged in" as myself am finding out about these things years after their release.

If you're interested in seeing The Devil's Carnival, check out the official site to see when it's coming to your town. So far the shows have been sold out or close to it, which means that it's a success - I am guessing a 2nd tour (and a sequel) won't be far behind. Repo still runs quite often (once a month) in lots of major cities, and Rocky Horror is probably playing right now, somewhere. If you've never sung along to a song before/after turning away from excessive gore or an act of man-eating, you're simply doing it wrong.

*I've never saved a life or ran into a burning building to rescue a cat, but I AM a hero. Back when Little Shop first hit DVD, it contained the original ending, which pissed off David Geffen. A recall was demanded, and I was tasked with taking the discs off the shelves at the video store I was working at the time. I ignored it and sold them all to folks who had gotten wind of the recall and wanted to snatch them up. While they might have all been eBay jerks selling them for a profit, I'd like to think they eventually ended up in the homes of grateful fans.