Four Off-Kilter Killer Themes

Killer themes - American Psycho

David Fincher comically chose to heavily rely on The Smiths‘ catalog of maudlin tones and whiny gasps as a window into Michael Fassbender’s unnamed assassin psyche in the dark-humored film The Killer, currently on Netflix, from late last year.

“The Smiths were a post-production addition because I knew I wanted to use ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and I love the idea of that song specifically as a tool for assuaging his anxiety. I liked it as a meditation tape. I thought it was amusing and funny,” Fincher said in a September interview published at Indiewire.

Morrissey for murder, imagine that. Fincher did hang the DJ.

It’s not the first time, nor shall it be the last, that music not intended for a cinematic criminal intent reaches unwavering, just plain bizarre, parameters. How many more film trailers can you endure when a perfect old Nirvana song or CCR classic rock hit gets transformed into a slow death dirge? We’re going to explore the origins of this trend with a couple of scenarios where 20th-century music refuses to fade away because the context keeps being repurposed into a twisted Killer Theme.

Santa Esmeralda – “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

Kill Bill (2003)

Penned for Nina Simone, covered by The Animals but known for the famous sword fight scene by Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill from 2003, it’s a disco-flamenco ripper of a jam that should be escorting those elevated shoes and polyester ensembles to the dancefloor. However, after this bloody-deadly use, it serves as a reminder of the killing floor: When two warriors go into the snow for a sword battle, only one returns.

Stealers Wheel – “Stuck in the Middle With You”

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Speaking of Quentin. “Stuck In The Middle With You,” a ’70s nugget from the one-hit wonder band Stealers Wheel, Scottish musicians Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan introduce filmgoers to the magic needle drop superpowers that Mr. Tarantino possesses. From the taunting dance, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” earworm of a lyric, and the ultimate ear harassment by Michael Madsen, a wannabe Dylan ripoff sounding tune does ultimately go dark in QT’s debut film Reservoir Dogs.

Machine – “There But for the Grace of God Go I”

Summer of Sam (1999)

Sometimes a song doesn’t necessarily indicate that a killing is about to erupt, but rather implies a larger moral decay happening within the core structure of the plot—a slaying of common sense. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam from 1999 does a better job of visually displaying how something as evil as David Berkowitz, the “.44 Caliber Killer” who shoots young women and their male companions, unleashes the gruesome actions of society in the presence of confusion.

This song, a disco staple for the disenfranchised side of nightclubbing, gets a featured segment where Spike purposely repeats the chorus “no blacks, no Jews, and no gays” twice within the entrance to the Brooklyn disco where Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo showcase the disco dancing moves of the day without the architects of that art form being allowed in this social setting. Visually, it’s a bloodless coup in Tony Manero’s playground.

Huey Lewis & The News – “Hip to Be Square”

American Psycho (2000)

“You like Huey Lewis and The News,” goes on New York investment banker and unchecked serial killer Patrick Bateman to his unsuspecting victim in 2000’s satire bloodbath film American Psycho. “Their early work was a little ‘new wave’ for my taste. When Sports came out in ’83, they really came into their own. Commercially and artistically. The whole album has a crisp clear sound, with a new sheen of consummate professionalism. It really gives the songs a big boost.”

Hey, as displayed in the most mayonnaise of fashions, sometimes killers just wanna be artists. Some cite the films, American Hustler, Batman and The Fighter as Christian Bale’s best work. Nah son. It’s American Psycho.

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