‘Soundtrack dissonance’ refers to the directorial trick of pairing a scene and a song whose moods are so opposite that it creates a freaky, jarring effect. It’s most impressive when scary scenes are matched with joyful or even banal songs: see these 10 examples of directors scarring our ears for the long run.
Sam Cooke, Blue Moon in American Werewolf in London
Amongst several tracks which reference the moon featured in 1981’s American Werewolf in London (Van Morrison’s Moondance, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising), there are three versions of the classic standard Blue Moon. The first is Bobby Vinton’s slow, pondering iteration over the opening credits. The last is The Marcels’ barbershop R&B cover over the ending credits. And in the middle, during the big werewolf transformation (special effects and make-up creative Rick Baker won an Oscar for his work), is Sam Cooke’s soul-swing ballad, which sashays sweetly along behind David’s terror-stricken, agonised screams. Delightful.
Roy Orbison, In Dreams in Blue Velvet
A livid, blood-smeared Frank (Dennis Hopper) all up in Jeffrey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) grill while In Dreams wavers into the night is burnt into many a David Lynch fan’s memory. The gal on the car roof does alleviate the tension just a tiny bit.
The Chordettes, Mr. Sandman in Halloween: H20
At the beginning of the 1998 Halloween franchise reboot, kids in costume are scooting playfully around a wholesome-looking American suburb while The Chordettes’ classic patters along. With the final “bom”, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ice hockey stick crushes a jack o’lantern, and suddenly things aren’t looking so rosy for Laurie Strode.
Huey Lewis and the News, Hip to Be Square in American Psycho
“In ’87, Huey released this; Fore!, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is Hip to Be Square – a song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends. It’s also a personal statement about the band itself. Hey, Paul!” See ya, Jared Leto.
Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange
This one is a bit meta, because first Alex sings a joyful rendition of the song while assaulting the old man and his wife. Song ruined for us. Then the old man develops an aversion to the tune… and Alex’s voice. Song ruined in the world of the film! This clip (of the initial attack by Alex ‘n’ droogs) cuts off before the nudity, but the ultra-violence is all in there.
The Carpenters, We’ve Only Just Begun in 1408
This pretty excellent adaptation of Stephen King’s short story stars John Cusack as a cynical author who checks into a reportedly “evil” hotel room to test its scares. The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun becomes a diegetic torture to him, as it continually spurts from the radio alarm clock just as Cusack starts thinking reality might be getting hairier than usual.
Kasey Chambers, Not Pretty Enough in The Loved Ones
Poor wee Lola: nobody loves her, she’s lost her shoes, her prom dress is all ruined, and she’s slowly staggering along some rural Australian road while croaking her favourite Kasey Chambers song. Here’s a fan-made montage so as not to ruin what happens next (unless you can’t wait).
Stealers Wheel, Stuck in the Middle With You in Reservoir Dogs
Perhaps not a horror per se, but Mr Blonde’s maniacal dance to this track in between chopping off bits of a cop’s ear was a stroke of creepy genius by Quentin Tarantino.
Tiny Tim, Tiptoe Through the Tulips in Insidious
You can argue that this song was creepy already (although Tiny Tim’s legacy is much more involved and distinguished than just this one track), but add an eerie little dancing boy and then a demon and you have to admit it’s a bit scarier than an awkward guy with a ukelele.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, American Girl in Silence of the Lambs
Perhaps you consider Q Lazzarus’ Goodbye Horses to be the freakiest ‘happy’ song in Silence of the Lambs; it’s the one playing as Buffalo Bill prances in front of his mirror while Catherine is desperately calling for that little sh-t Precious (you can watch here if sort-of-nudity doesn’t bother you). But for me, it all starts with the very first scene, when Catherine is merrily thumping her steering wheel and singing along to this Tom Petty belter. The poor chick just doesn’t know what’s about to befall her.