But looking at my iPod playlists, I am guilty of having in my possession the full soundtrack to Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Little Shop of Horrors, and Repo! The Genetic Opera. I’m a fan of non-horror musicals (The Producers, West Side Story etc.) and with my love of horror films it seems like a natural enough combination, but it got me thinking what is the appeal of the horror musical?
The musical/horror hybrid is tricky formula that, without the proper balance of elements can backfire. One example can be found with Sweeney Todd (2007), as horror fans flocked to theaters expecting the usual fare of blood, guts and gore. The designation of Todd as a “Demon Barber” and the blood-drenched teaser trailers added to the appeal, but as soon as Johnny Depp opened his mouth to sing it had some horror buffs in the audience asking “WTF?”
Conversely, die hard fans of the Stephen Sondheim musical found Tim Burton’s rendition to be too bloody despite efforts to stylize the gore and violence. Horror musicals usually have limited appeal in the theater and only become cult classics when they hit DVD and VHS. Sweeney Todd grossed only $9,300,805 in its opening weekend with a number 5 ranking while the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) bombed in theaters before hitting it big with midnight showings at small movie houses.
Once a horror musical develops a cult following, there is no stopping it. Repo! the Genetic Opera (2008) only premiered on seven screens in the US and Canada, but made $3,250 per screen it’s opening night. The success of the film in theaters prompted multiple Repo! Road Tours where cast and director Darren Lynn Bousman showed the film and did Q&A afterwards. Fan support has fueled rumors of a second and third film as Repo! Shadow Casts popped up across the United States and Canada, providing a live pantomime to the action taking place on the screen. The phenomenon is similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with some theaters selling participation bags so audiences can play along with the action of the film.
The result of the marriage between horror and the musical is often comedy. This can be seen in RHPS with Tim Curry’s "Sweet Transvestite" or in Repo! where audiences chuckle out loud to the Repo Man's rendition of “Thankless Job” as he guts a client with past due organs. These songs highlight that fear and laughter go hand in hand, a principle obvious to anyone who’s seen camp-fests like Sleepaway Camp (1983) or any of the Friday the 13th (1980) films.