Unusual Song Choices in Murder Scenes in Movies

Some music seems tailor made to be used for a murder scene in a movie. Other music requires a little imagination. One terrific example of filmmakers thinking outside the bun, as it were, is the use of the original 1940’s version of “The Hokey Pokey” as the recurring musical motif during each murderous rampage of the devil doll in the classic X-Files episode penned by Stephen King. Admittedly, that song can drive one to murder, but it took Stephen King and the X-Files geeks to turn that children’s playground favorite into a malevolent melody.

Somebody over there at 1013 Productions (I made this!) was really on the ball regarding the unexpected juxtaposition of music and mayhem because perhaps only the murder of Laura Palmer’s lookalike cousin on Twin Peaks equals the intensity of the murder of Sheriff Andy Taylor by the inbred brothers Peacock on the X-Files episode “Home.” Whereas it is the absence of mood music that gives the Twin Peaks scene much of its power, what makes the brutality in “Home” reach operatic heights is the unnerving use of Johnny Mathis’ famously smooth vocal tones as the mongoloid offspring of generations of consensual incest systematically beat to death the black sheriff with the amusingly out of place name while the lawman’s terrified wife listens from beneath the temporary safety beneath the bed. Of course, as Johnny sings that upbeat song about how life is wonderful-wonderful-poor Mrs. Taylor discovers for herself what Laura Palmer’s cousin Maddie also finds out: the most dreadful darkness is never really far away, but resides in your own backyard.

There are two songs in particular that I think are superior candidates for exactly this type of twisting of expectations. One is considered among the most romantic standards of all time, as well as the very model of slow-dance doo-wop song. The Flamingos recorded the ultimate version of “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It is next to impossible to convey the true feeling of a song through simple literary description; we writers are destined to fail in that particular translation. All’s I can do is tell you to listen to this song and ask whether you agree or not that “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos doesn’t have a distinct sense of foreboding to it. I don’t know if it’s the bass line, those shoo-bop-shoo-bop or the incessantly repetitive tinkling of the same piano keys, but something about this song gives it an unsettling, almost macabre edge to it. There is a feeling to this song of something dark and dangerous beneath its lyrics of undying love.

Or is that last statement entirely true? Is this really a love song? Although not nearly as obvious as “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, like that iconic 80’s hit “I Only Have Eyes For You” has a sinister stalker-like undertone to it. Seriously, check out these lyrics displaced from the music:

“You are here

and so am I.

Maybe millions of people go by

but they all disappear from view.

And I only have eyes for you.”

Not quite as disquieting as the constant Police refrain of “I’ll be watching you” but close. The singing is itself a bit troubling as well; it often seems as if the singer is just a half beat behind the music. He is out of kilter, slightly off-center. “I Only Have Eyes for You” has Martin Scorsese written all over it. Not the quick-cut of Raging Bull, but the long takes of Goodfellas when he uses “Layla” and “Then He Kissed Me.” Believe me, if you are a young filmmaker looking to make a name for yourself with the kind of scene that Tarantino did in Reservoir Dogs with “Stuck in the Middle with You” this is your song to do it with.

 Not to flog a dead horse, but The X-Files used another piece of music effectively that is similar to my second suggestion. In one of my favorite X-Files episodes ever, titled “Triangle”, there is an extended musical section that features split-screen visuals underneath a brassy big band number. Benny Goodman’s version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is, along with “In the Mood” the definitive up-tempo song from the big band era and has been used in everything from Gangs of New York to the submarine horror movie Below. It was probably best utilized by Woody Allen-of course-for a car chase scene in, appropriately enough for this article, Manhattan Murder Mystery. But the true potential of “Sing Sing Sing” to underscore the visuals of a crime being committed has still yet to be tapped. It’s a long song, even if you don’t use the authoritative version recorded live at Carnegie Hall. In fact, I would argue against using that particular version and settle for the slightly shorter recorded version.

Even if you think you don’t know “Sing Sing Sing” you do. You’ve heard it on The Simpsons, The Sopranos, even a Chips Ahoy commercial. It is unmistakable and a genuine masterpiece. Even if you absolutely detest swing music or big band music or what you may term “oldies”, you can’t help but get caught up in the infectious spirit of “Sing Sing Sing” from its opening tribal drums to its seismic blasts of brass to its devilishly pitch-perfect use of the clarinet. Over the course of its nine minutes, this version of “Sing Sing Sing” takes so many left turns that at times you may wonder if you are listening to a completely different song. And that is where the genius of using this to make nine minutes of utterly dialogue-less cinema magic comes in.

There are moments in “Sing Sing Sing” that are quiet, and there are moments that threaten to leap off the listening medium of your choice, whether vinyl record, compact disk or MP3 player. Using this classic bit of swing music for an orchestrated murder-a conspiracy to commit murder, if you will-is a natural. Each member of the murder team could literally have their own motif; likewise, each step along the way to the murder could have its own motif. And, as my wife pointed out, the song is long enough and contains enough shifts in tone that there is not only the potential for using it for the planning and carrying out of the crime, but even for the aftermath, whether that be the cleaning up, the discovery by the crooks that an incriminating piece of evidence was left behind, or even the arrival of the CSI team. In fact, with the length of the song what it is, a really talented filmmaker could use “Sing Sing Sing” as not just a soundtrack for the crime itself, but for the investigation and even solving of the crime. It’s that good.

If nothing else, I hope this article may just inspire a person more visually oriented than I to set about using either or both of these classic songs to tweak their organic essence and recreate them to dial up musical motifs of murderousness.