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Arlin awakes to find her wrists tethered to the ground. Her nails are painted black, and one set of knuckles spells out “FEAR” in block letters. But tattoos that recall Robert Mitchum’s chilling Night of the Hunter villain won’t save her. Her captor approaches with an enormous saw, and wastes little time working it through her upper arm. She screams, only to be drowned out by the sounds of the 1992 Ace of Base single “All That She Wants.”
A pop hit from a bunch of Swedes isn’t the natural choice for a grisly scene like this, but director Ana Lily Amirpour isn’t covering new territory with this ironic music selection in The Bad Batch. (Nor in a later scene, when Miami Man charges a terrified woman to “Karma Chameleon”.) Gore undercut by an unexpectedly upbeat soundtrack is a well-tread trope. Just ask Quentin Tarantino’s sadistic Mr. Blonde, or the John Denver-obsessed criminals in the more recent Free Fire. But as filmmakers continue to build on a grimly absurd tradition that’s existed, in some form, for decades, it’s worth considering how this tactic is deployed -- and what makes it tick.
As Film Comment notes, these juxtapositions were rare prior to the 1960s. A wicked character might whistle a perversely peppy tune, but “the film’s score will ultimately warn you of their true intentions.” Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese were arguably the most important pioneers of counterintuitive soundtracks. Kubrick came first with scenes that twisted the wholesome songs playing alongside them: “We’ll Meet Again” as a nuclear holocaust begins in Dr. Strangelove, “Singin’ in the Rain” during a rape in A Clockwork Orange, and “The Mickey Mouse March” as traumatized soldiers trample through burning buildings in Full Metal Jacket. But if Kubrick was concerned with marrying innocent classics of a bygone era with unspeakable carnage, Scorsese was interested in a more contemporary spin. His ironic choices came from the 1960s and 1970s, from artists who were removed from the post-World War II, pre-Vietnam (or at least pre-Vietnam outrage) period that birthed poodle skirts and The Mickey Mouse Club. Scorsese barely updated his catalog, even as his films got 1990 and 2006 release dates.
Yet the name most associated with this unconventional choice is Quentin Tarantino. The infamous “Stuck in the Middle with You” torture scene from Reservoir Dogs was a lightning rod right from the start. When the movie first screened at Sundance in 1992, “there was all this talk, the next day about the torture scene,” Tarantino recalled. “Steve [Buscemi], he comes up to me and he goes, ‘Quentin, did you hear what everyone is saying? They’re saying the torture scene ruins the movie! And I go, ‘What are they talking about? It’s the best thing in the f***ing movie! Did you see how many people walked out? That’s the sh**!”
History has mostly agreed with Tarantino, but it’s little wonder why the scene stirred such a reaction. Mr. Blonde isn’t merely torturing a cop in a scene that happens to feature a 1970s soft rock song. He’s actively reveling in it, singing some of the lines as he slides across the floor with his straight razor. There’s a unique horror in seeing a character acknowledge and enjoy the musical dissonance; that’s why Alex DeLarge’s repurposing of a Gene Kelly standard is so disturbing. But in this case, there’s also a slight permission in it. Tarantino wants you to enjoy, even laugh, at Mr. Blonde’s antics. He might be a psycho, but isn’t he an amusing menace before all that mutilation? Come on, he’s even dancing.
American Psycho arrived eight years later with its gleeful bloodbath set to “Hip to Be Square.” Patrick Bateman does Mr. Blonde one better by not only dancing along but describing the track with a reverence not often reserved for Huey Lewis & the News. This exposition underlines the importance of when: when the song was released as well as when the song is actually playing in the film. An ‘80s song praising corporate conformity is especially effective when it’s playing off two identically dressed ‘80s execs who would literally kill the other guy for a promotion. It’s mocking these men with their own idols, idols who could never, by their own admission, pass for cool.
Patrick Bateman could conceivably own the Bad Batch soundtrack, too -- or at least two key tracks from it. The movie's brief flirtations with Ace of Base and Culture Club are seconds long, and seem mainly intended for a quick, peppy shock to the system. The music supervisor on The Bad Batch, Andrea von Foerster, explained the methodology thusly: "Ana Lily Amirpour had specific music in mind throughout the entire process of making The Bad Batch. Working with a director who revels in more obscure foreign tracks as much as Top 40 hits is a music supervisor's dream. She was very passionate about her song selections because she loves music and the film isn't dialogue heavy so music becomes that much more important."
According to von Foerster, Amirpour originally wanted to include the mid-'80s hits "Everything She Wants" by Wham! and "Red Red Wine" by UB40. While those songs may have played differently over the amputation scenes, if they were indeed intended for those sequences, they share one thing in common with "All That She Wants" and "Karma Chameleon": timing. All of these songs arrived close to the end of the Cold War, and that may not be a coincidence. This was a time defined by global panic but also bright, cheesy excess -- and few movies toy with those conflicting themes more than Amirpour’s genre mash-up, where cannibals and fluorescent dance parties can somehow coexist.