The other day my kid (aged three) told me he liked some song that came on while I was flipping stations in the car, and I was so proud. I don't even know what song it was (sounded vaguely '70s countrified rock to my ears; the DJ didn't say what it was and all we heard was about 30 seconds of instrumental at the end so I couldn't Google a lyric), but I know that it WASN'T "The Alphabet Song" or the theme to whatever cartoon he's obsessed with this week, so good enough for me! Even though I have no idea what song it was, what's important is that he's starting to develop a basic "taste" in music - and at around the same age I was when I fell in love with the particular sounds of Jim Steinman (via "Making Love Out of Nothing At All"), so he's "on track". But while I liked that song and a few others I heard in my parents' cars, I wouldn't say I had any affinity for music as a whole the way I did for movies and video games until I was about eight or nine years old, buying tapes with my meager allowance whenever I felt like foregoing the usual comic books or whatever.
But I realized later, all those tapes were soundtracks. The Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack is, if my memory is accurate, the first album I ever bought with my own money, and it was joined by others over the next couple years, all of which were also just a collection of songs from a movie I liked. In some cases I'd get the tape even though I wasn't a fan of most of its songs - outside of "Mr. Bonestripper" and "Same Song", why in god's name would I want the Nothing But Trouble soundtrack? I don't know, but I still have the damn thing, along with a couple other ones from Chevy Chase movies, Wayne's World (everyone had that), and a cassingle of MC Hammer's "Addams Groove". Then I started getting into scores, picking up the likes of Jurassic Park and (Chevy again!) Memoirs of an Invisible Man, mixed in with what was now a more rounded taste in music (meaning: I had Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind just like every other twelve-year-old in the early '90s). But I still loved song-driven soundtracks, and naturally got very excited when such albums catered to my rock-leaning tastes. I particularly loved when one month in June of 1994 I purchased two tapes: STP's Purple and the soundtrack to The Crow - both of which featured "Big Empty" from the former. These soundtracks would often introduce me to bands I'd end up enjoying quite a bit; The Crow is how I first became aware of Nine Inch Nails, and also reshaped my (now higher) opinion of The Cure, from whom I only knew the more poppy "Friday I'm In Love".
Of course, the alpha and omega for such things, for me anyway, was the Shocker soundtrack. In addition to introducing me to Iggy Pop, Megadeth, and Dangerous Toys, it was also the first (and last) time I got the "What is this shit you're listening to?" kind of disapproval from my dad, who even confiscated the tape for a bit after hearing the "sacrilegious" part of "Shockdance" ("In the name of the father, in the name of the son, this unholy ghost has only just begun!") and assuming these songs would lead me down a dark path to Satanism (or whatever the hell he was afraid of when he should have been more worried about the cigarettes that killed him - thirteen years ago today, in fact. Don't smoke, kids! Just listen to hair metal!). Like The Crow and a few other genre films (The Lost Boys and Return of the Living Dead certainly come to mind) of that era, it's impossible to think about Shocker without its accompanying soundtrack; even if some of the songs were covers or weren't written specifically for the film, they're forever burned into the memories of any fan. Hell, "No More Mister Nice Guy" became the film's de facto subtitle, even though it referred to a song that was originally recorded sixteen years earlier by Alice Cooper (covered by Megadeth for the soundtrack).
Unfortunately, this practice has largely fallen out of favor over the years. Comedies and Nicholas Sparks-y kinda dramas still have soundtracks, of course, but rarely do you see major horror films do this sort of thing anymore, as they tend to opt for score-only soundtracks with maybe one song during the credits. Dimension kept the tradition alive for a while, particularly for Wes Craven's films, but they were hardly as memorable as their predecessors - where was the "Red Right Hand" or "She Says" equivalent for Scream 4? Or hell, even the "What If?" equivalent (and don't even pretend you don't remember that song if you're a Scream series fan)? One could argue the quality of the films themselves downgraded the ability for its soundtrack to resonate with a fan, but come on - I'm not going to pretend Shocker is a great movie either. I love it dearly but I can fill this article up with a rundown of its flaws - doesn't mean that I wouldn't watch it if I turned on my TV right now and caught it on cable.
So I'm wondering if these soundtracks elevate our opinion of the film as a whole, and if their absence in modern horror is going to keep these newer films from resonating with their casual fans ten or twenty years down the road. The Paranormal Activity movies made a ton of money (over $100m in some cases), but they rarely come up in conversation the way other horror movies do, even though the evidence proves more people actually saw them than the likes of Return of the Living Dead or Killer Klowns From Outer Space (which had that killer Dickies theme), which I end up discussing and referencing all the time. Does Alice Cooper's "He's Back (Man Behind the Mask)" (and, to a SLIGHTLY lesser extent, Felony's "I'm No Animal") assist in what is now the common sentiment that Jason Lives is one of the best of the Jason movies when at the time it was considered something of a disappointment? Dream Warriors is undeniably great with or without the Dokken theme, but does the use of Dramarama's "Anything Anything" play a subconscious part when some maniac tries to say that Dream Master is the best of the Elm Street series? These songs permeate just as well as any particular kill scene or iconic monster creation, and are forever linked in the overall experience.
Take a film like The Lost Boys - I've never been a huge fan of it, but I only need to hear about three seconds of "Cry Little Sister" in order to place it, and it's not like it really gets played outside of the film all that much. The song, as well as Lou Gramm's theme song "Lost in the Shadows (The Lost Boys)" leaves a mark that even a casual fan can easily recall, and I'm willing to bet those who wrote off Shocker as nothing more than a lousy Freddy Krueger wannabe can recall the soundtrack much easier than they could any particular plot point if they hadn't rewatched the film in several years. As far as I'm concerned, a well-placed song (preferably an original, or at least, not one that had already found success elsewhere) can be just as memorable as an original score, and in some cases even more so. Even though it was actually released on his Let Love In album, you can't think too much about Scream without your brain triggering Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand", and if you heard the song elsewhere it will probably bring back memories of Wes Craven's classic a lot quicker than a few seconds of Marco Beltrami's score would. And for what it's worth, I couldn't tell you a goddamn thing about Scanners II now that it's been a few years since I saw it, other than the fact that this Alan Jordan song rules:
The loss of focus on non-instrumental soundtracks has also resulted in the all-but-total death of original songs that are actually about the movie you're watching. I don't mean things like "Dream Warriors", which borrows the title and has vague references to dreams - I mean the song actually kind of describes the plot of the film. "The Ballad of Harry Warden" from My Bloody Valentine is probably the finest, though the fact that it didn't have a known band tied to it has curbed its legacy somewhat (the song isn't even listed in the credits; for years I wasn't even sure who the performing artist was - turns out it's a singer named John McDermott). The Ramones' "Pet Sematary" ("Follow Victor to the sacred place...") and J Geils' "Fright Night" ("People say I'm crazy and I make no sense, but they don't understand the man's got influence") are far better examples, and in turn probably turned some horror fans on to those bands the way one never could for The Dudes of Wrath*, who have recorded exactly two songs, which are both in Shocker and concern the plot of Shocker.
It's easy to see why this practice has largely died out, at least for horror movies - no one wants to be fun or potentially "cheesy" anymore. I find it interesting that one of the only recent horror trailers that employed a pop song instead of traditional instrumental music is the one for the new Saw film, a series which not only has the most iconic horror score of the past fifteen years or so, but also has largely avoided using music of any sort within the films (a few of the films had soundtracks comprised of songs that did not appear in the film at all, which is a different topic entirely). Not only was it a good move to try to establish that this won't just be the same old Saw, but also that the film might be more fun than its grim and grimy predecessors. But pretty much all of its competition skipped out on this sort of thing, which didn't help this year's largely lousy crop of mainstream horror films (Rings, Bye Bye Man, Wish Upon) be any more enjoyable and, if I'm right, will make them even harder to recall years down the road. Perhaps there is a fear of dating the films by including songs that are "of the moment", but I find that to be a pretty weak excuse. It's no secret that rock music, particularly the harder rock that you hear in the likes of Shocker and the immortal Black Roses, is not as popular as it once was, as "rock" now means bullshit like Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots instead of anything that remotely sounds like an actual rock song (no need to reply with a Randy Marsh "sounds like shit" clip; I'm aware), so I fail to see how tossing in some power ballad could be "too 2017" for whatever the next Blumhouse movie is.
Unfortunately, I fear any usage nowadays would likely be ironic in nature, which would just annoy me. The total lack of pretension in these songs is part of what makes them so endearing - I don't really expect any band to bust out a lyric like "Demon bell, demon bell, I want to hear you scream like hell!" in a major motion picture in the year 2017 unless they were actively mocking that kind of music. But there are still a number of bands who are out there doing their thing and not really giving a shit about trends (The Darkness comes to mind), and all it will take is some filmmaker who happens to be a fan to ask them to contribute a song for their film. And of course it doesn't have to be rock, necessarily - that's just my preferred kind of music and I'm the one asking (plus, it just seems that the over-the-top theatrics of hair metal bands lend themselves nicely to songs that describe the plots of slasher films). There have also been a number of rap/hip-hop songs that serve the same purpose (LL Cool J's "Deepest Bluest (Shark's Fin)" over the end credits of Deep Blue Sea being one of the greatest examples), and I would have been just as delighted to hear one of those summarizing the plot of 47 Meters Down (come to think of it, Shark Night had one, but it was more of a joke). "The Ballad of Harry Warden" is more a folk ballad (as was the song during Madman's credits), so that sort of thing would be fine as well.
Whatever form the songs take, I just hope there are some filmmakers out there considering them, and not as a joke. There's nothing wrong with a little cheese, and in these days of bullshit spin like "post-horror" and "elevated horror", I think horror fans deserve a few films that seem like they're made by people who aren't embarrassed by the genre - and there's no better way to show your devotion to the horror landscape than by carrying on the traditions of the films that shaped your affinity for it in the first place. I still buy CDs (not as often as I used to), but I am racking my brain trying to remember the last non-score soundtrack I bought and I think it was probably the summer of 1998 (X-Files: Fight the Future, Armageddon, and of course - Disturbing Behavior), which is a long goddamn time. Someone give me a reason to find an actual record store and pick up a modern horror movie's soundtrack on the strength of a four minute power ballad that references the storyline!
*Obviously, the "dudes" themselves have found plenty of fame in their other bands, as its members included Paul Stanley, Tommy Lee, and Desmond Child.