Lately one of my favorite local directors, Josh Vargas, has been getting a lot of buzz for his upcoming heavy metal horror flick, Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre. I’ve gotten a few sneak peaks here and there, and it’s a very badass film, totally devoted to both the concepts of heavy metal and horror in near-perfect measure.
That said, in general metal needs to start staying the heck out of horror films.
The marriage of horror and metal has always baffled me. Sure, both sets tend toward macabre imagery, but that’s ultimately where the similarities end. Skulls are cool and all, but skulls do not in and of themselves horror make.
Even the music-video element of horror usually fails to deliver true scares. I made a pretty comprehensive list of the great horror music videos awhile back; there’s not a single metal band on there, unless you count Tool and Every Time I Die as metal. Even if you do, these are generally not the sort of acts you see at horror conventions or in sound tracks.
I keep thinking back to Freddy vs. Jason, a fun film with good scare elements when it tried and the epic battle we all wanted. Yet every single time the movie attempted any sort of real moment, some ridiculous, over-the-top metal tune would crash in like the freakin’ Shockmaster. From the very beginning, when Spineshank bricks all over the opening credits, to whatever uninspired anger anthem I can’t be bothered to look up made the final battle of horror titans into an over-budget mosh pit, it just takes the piss and power out of the whole experience. It’s posturing, and self-conscious posturing is already a problem in horror.
Or take Dario Argento, who I don’t really care for but whose remarkable contribution to cinema I can certainly acknowledge. Argento films used to have these gorgeous sound tracks by Goblin, but he started switching to horror sound tracks later in his career. Music in something like Suspiria was almost like another character, and the absence of Goblin is definitely one of the things you can point to as a sign of Argento’s decline. Is there anything more pointlessly banal than Pretty Maids’ “Night Danger” in Demons? It utterly sacrifices all subtlety for volume.
In terms of non-orchestral music, horror seems best served outside metal. The amazing use of “Free Bird” in The Devil’s Rejects comes to mind, as does Bauhaus in Night of the Demons during Angela’s famous dancing scene. The best one I can think of off the top of my head was the fictional “Through the Trees” by the equally fictional Low Shoulder in Jennifer’s Body. Its whiny, white-guy lament was irritating from the moment it first appears, and yet you grow to realize that, as a motif in the film, it is the perfect summation of the petty evils the film concerns itself with. Ironic that Jennifer’s murder in the film is set to a drunken a cappella version of “Jenny (867-5309).” Further proof that most really scary scenes need the right notes, not just fast and powerful ones.
There’s a reason the most compelling thing to come out of horror-movie sound tracks since the turn of the century is “Hello Zepp” from the Saw films. The franchise itself had a bad habit of trying to sand off its weaker edges with tracks from bands like Kittie, but as with the theme from Jaws, every person watching was waiting in the film for that piano line by Charlie Clouser that meant everything was about to come to a head. Whatever flaws the films had, they always delivered the ending set to a chillingly brilliant score.
I’ve got high hopes for Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre because from what I can tell, Vargas has captured the rare trick of being able to make a movie out of music videos, something that Night of Demons was good at; it's also a cheesy subgenre I deeply miss. By making metal the focus of his movie rather than a smokescreen for poor emotional development, he might actually bring the two worlds together honestly rather than awkwardly. Too many other directors simply don’t get why that’s important.