We’re on a music kick. Last week we looked at the best rock star horror movies, so it seemed only natural to move on to the best horror musicals this week. At our house, this particular sub-genre might serves as a kind of bridge between the two of us, since Hope generally hates musicals while George appreciates them. And though it is true that Hope can find some love in her heart for a musical with a side of bloodletting, it turns out that George only likes actually good musicals. Which is to say, they disagree a bit on this list.
5. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Dude, 1974 must have been nuts. Brian De Palma’s first and only musical is a Phantom of the Opera/Faust/The Picture of Dorian Gray mash up (with some Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and more than a little Rocky Horror thrown in for good measure). That’s a heady mix, and while the film was nominated for an Oscar for its music, it isn’t exactly the classic you might expect.
A campy skewering of the soulless music industry, Phantom sees tiny Seventies staple Paul Williams as the Satan-esque Swan, a music executive with a contract for you to sign. Poor Winslow (William Finley) is just as wide-eyed about his music as all those would-be starlets are about their chances for fame and fortune in this evil world of pop super stardom.
Like many horror musicals, the film works best as a comedy, but Finley’s garish visage once he makes his transformation from idealistic musician to mutilated Phantom is pretty horrifically effective. The film as a whole is a hot Seventies mess, but that’s kind of the joy of it, really.
4. House (Hausu) (1977)
If Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris were to marry Pee-wee’s Playhouse, this would be their offspring.
A spoof of sorts, Hausu tells the story of six uniform-clad high school girls named Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, and Mac. The nomenclature alone should clue you in on the film’s lunacy. The giggling sextet spend spring break at an aunt’s spooky house – or, in fact, a cheaply made set of an aunt’s spooky house. Not a single thing that follows makes sense, nor is it really meant to.
Expect puppets, random musical sequences, remarkably bad backdrops, slapstick humor, and an amazingly sunny disposition given the sheer volume of human dismemberment. The trippy nonsense wears a bit thin eventually. Luckily director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film clocks in at under 90 minutes, so the screen goes dark before the novelty wears off.
3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Here’s a bizarre idea for a musical: The barber upstairs kills his clients and the baker downstairs uses the bodies in her meat pies. Odd for a Broadway musical, yes, but for a Tim Burton film? That sounds a little more natural.
Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a full-on musical – Burton’s first – and every inch a stage play reproduction. For many films, this would be a criticism, but Burton’s knack for dark artificiality serves the project beautifully, and he achieves the perfect Dickensian Goth tone. His production is very stagy and theatrical, but never veers from his distinct, ghoulish visual flair.
As in most of Burton’s best efforts, Sweeney Todd stars Johnny Depp in the title role. Depp is unmistakably fantastic – consumed, morose, twisted with vengeance – and he’s in fine voice, to boot.
The supporting cast boasts a liltingly nefarious performance by Alan Rickman. As the judge whose sent an innocent Todd off in shackles, raped his wife, then took custody of his daughter, whom he leeringly admires, Rickman is wonderful as always. His duet with Depp on “Pretty Women” is the film’s real musical gem.
With Burton’s help, Depp found another dark, bizarre anti-hero to showcase his considerable talent. With Depp’s help, Burton gorgeously, grotesquely realized another macabre fantasy.
2. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Takashi Miike is an extremely prolific director. He makes a lot of musical films, a lot of kids’ movies, a lot of horror movies, and then this – a mashup of all of those things. Like Sound of Music with a tremendous body count.
The Katakuris just want to run a rustic mountain inn. They’re not murderers. They’re lovely – well, they’re losers, but they’re not bad people. Buying this piece of property did nothing to correct their luck, either because, my God, their guests do die.
You might call this a dark comedy if it weren’t so very brightly lit. It’s absurd, farcical, gruesome but sweet. There’s a lot of singing, some animation, a volcano, a bit of mystery, more singing, one death by sumo smothering, and love. It sounds weird, truly, but when it comes to weird, Miike is just getting started.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Surely you expected no other atop this list because, honestly, nothing else comes close. The most iconic of all horror musicals, The Rocky Horror Picture Show boasts the best soundtrack, the best performances, the best mad scientist, and quite possibly the most fun there is to be had (legally) at the movies.
I’m afraid you’ve touched on a rather tender subject there.
Tim Curry is utter perfection as Frank-N-Furter (A Scientist). The entire balance of the cast is also amazing, but no matter how many times you watch Curry step out of that elevator, abuse his servants, or seduce his houseguests, it never gets old.
Creator Richard O’Brien’s raucous, once controversial film about a sweet transvestite, a slut, an asshole, and a couple of domestics who sing, time warp, throw rice, animate monsters, swap partners, and finally put on a show is still as much fun as it ever was.
Once a subversive take on the classic musicals and sci-fi films of the 30s and 40s, Rocky Horror is now a high-camp icon of its own.