For that, I apologize.
Although we do tend to ramble occasionally on The B-Movies Podcast, here on CraveOnline, our last episode was especially rambling. There were four of us this last week (including previous guest Devon Ashby, and my brilliant wife Angie), and the tangents came fast and furious. My passing reference to Sid Vicious stabbing Nancy Spungen in a room at the infamous Chelsea Hotel led to a rather disturbing new slang term that is usually only seen in the pages of a novel by the Marquis de Sade. The mixture of some particularly horrible alcoholic beverages into the mix only exacerbated matters.
But in that episode, I had the dubious honor of reviewing Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, which I felt to be shrill, artificial, and rife with padding. There was only one real moment from the film that I enjoyed, and it was the villainous song sung by the film’s would-be antagonist, the Once-Ler. In the song, The Once-Ler argues that even though he is clearing an entire forest of tufted trees in order to make a fashionable sweater-like object called a thneed, and subsequently exiling all the local wildlife to a pitiful existence of uncertainty and death (seriously; there’s a sad Trail of Tears out of the decimated forest), he argues that what he is doing couldn’t possibly be wicked. He is, after all, earning huge amounts of money with his actions. He quotes social Darwinists, and, it is revealed, takes glee in destruction.
On the podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani pointed out that the villains tend to get the better songs in movies. He’s right. The heroes, after all, still have to go through their usual transformative journey, wherein they learn to be a better and more heroic person. Hence, the hero’s songs will be about striving, going the distance, and wishing for a better life. There is a resolution to a better life, yes, but hero’s songs are all tinged with an underlying dissatisfaction of their current lot. When a hero sings of the life they want, they are in a place they need to rise from. They are unhappy. They need out. I wanna be where the people are. Wish I could be part of your world. I can beat the odds. I can go the distance. Oh I just can’t wait to be king.
The villains, by contrast, are typically perfectly happy with their lot in life. They may be cackling, wicked ghouls, living in a dank cave with eels and bats and the like, but there is a supreme satisfaction in their life. They aspire only to be more evil. They have already reached their villainous ideal. The villains, at least through song, tend to be the more whole human beings. True, they are driven by sadism, envy, greed, and Schadenfreude, but they seem so content. They are, at the heart of things, kind of happy about their cleverness and wickedness. That internal happiness makes for villain songs that are, rather typically, more interesting (and way more fun) than the hero songs.
In celebration of that idea, we have brainstormed the following villain songs from movies which stand out more than the hero songs, and are just, in their own deliciously evil way, enjoyable songs all around. A lot of such lists are, of course, lurking about the darker corners of the internet (and each one has “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors)
“In the Dark of the Night” from Anastasia (1997)
Anastasia was a well-animated film, and had some great music, but was pretty much just Fox attempting to do with their own animated feature what Disney had already spent a decade doing to theirs, that is; repurposing history and fairy tales into a new, bland, recognizable idiom. If you know anything about Russian history, Anastasia is kind of insulting (it turns out it wasn’t the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Romanovs in a coup, but an evil magical curse cast by Rasputin!), but as an entertainment, it’s pretty good. Much credit lies in the hands of the villain song, however. The villain in the piece is Rasputin who is actually in Hell at the film’s outset, and whose body is in a severe state of decay. Bugs happily crawl in and out of his orifices. Christopher Lloyd plots to find Anastasia and kill her. His song, “In the Dark of the Night” sounds bloody epic. He cackles and talks about how his powers are returning. I did hear this song for the first time on a stereo, so I was upset to learn that the accompanying animation was actually kind of dumb (dancing bugs, you see), but it still sounds great. The song (by Lynn Ahrens and Thomas Newman, and sung by Jim Cummings) is choral and grand in a way songs rarely are anymore.
“Witch’s Egg” from Forbidden Zone
There are few films more delirious than the cult 1980 musical Forbidden Zone. Filmed on an obvious shoestring (the sets are very clearly made of single sheets of painted plywood), the film was about a family of criminal weirdos who find a dimensional portal in their basement, and merrily trek into the sixth dimension, where they butt heads with the dwarf King Fausto (Hervé Villechaize), and his supremely evil wife Queen Doris (a sublime Susan Tyrrell). Fausto may have plans to take over our dimension, and take the cutesy French girl Frenchy as his bride, but it’s Doris who seems to gnash at the very idea of decency. She is determined to be mean-spirited and evil, and spends the bulk of the movie eyeballing people suspiciously, gnashing her teeth, and eating every last bit of that plywood scenery. To explain herself, Danny Elfman penned the truly odd and very fun song “Witch’s Egg,” wherein Doris explains herself to the audience, and how she had sex with both God and the Devil and found both to be unsatisfying lovers. Fun, wicked, sexy, nightmarish, a carnival.
“The Man with the Golden Gun” from The Man with the Golden Gun
I recently made my way through all of the James Bond films, and part of the fun was comparing and contrasting the various pop theme songs that emerged over the years. I much preferred the wicked rock style ones (like Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”) over the tender ballads (“All Time High” from Octopussy is a bit too easy-listening for my taste). A few of the James Bond songs, though, are actually about the villains themselves, describing how selfish and evil they are. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” is an undisputed classic, of course, so this should serve as a reminder of how awesome Lulu’s “The Man with the Golden Gun” is. Sexy, bold, brash, the song describes a pretty awesome villain (he charges a million a shot!). And indeed, the villain from that film, Mr. Scaramanga, was played by a three-nippled Christopher Lee who indeed used a golden gun, and indeed charged a million a shot. A wacky-yet-threatening villain who is given a buzz-guitar ‘70s rock croon. Fun.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is one of the classic evil creatures of children’s literature, and made for one of the most memorable cartoon shorts that Chuck Jones directed. The Grinch hates Christmas, for one (gasp!), and has a little shriveled heart in his green, furry chest. He lives in a cave overlooking Whoville, and dreams of nothing but causing misery. He grins and rubs his hands and is eager to see the day when children wake up on Christmas morning to find their houses robbed. As this creature hatches a scheme to commit vandalism and theft on Christmas Eve, we hear the gorgeous stentorian tones of Thurl Ravenscroft on the soundtrack serenading us about how evil this creature is, using some of the most colorful descriptions (“you’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel.”). I remember hearing the lyric “You have termites in your smile” when I was young, and immediately thinking how badly I needed to brush my own teeth. Then when the reference to the seasick crocodile came along, I could only think of the sheer volume of a crocodile’s vomit. The Grinch was evil. The song made him colorful and disgusting. And, yes, the song was repeated in that atrocious live-action version of the story. But the original remains a classic.
“Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Disney has, of course, pretty much cornered the market on memorable villain songs. Each one of their musical films tends to feature a ballad sung by the evil antagonist about their glorious plans to conquer the world, win the hand of the heroine, or simply rob all they can. In the case of the largely unpopular 1996 feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the villain’s ambition was to, shockingly enough, commit rape, which he, in a dark operatic number, makes pretty explicit. Judge Frollo (Tony Jay) becomes obsessed with finding the rogue gypsy Esmeralda, and finds himself, despite his vow of chastity, lusting desperately after her. He swears to the fires of Hell that he will either rape her or burn down Paris. Yipes. Frollo is probably the single most sexual character in all of Disney’s animated fare, and his song “Hellfire” truly captures his sexual torture in a chilling aria reminiscent of Faust. What’s more, the animation matches the hugeness of this man’s inner demons. In a film that is still largely considered a flop, many people take a wicked delight in this intense song.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
We didn’t have any film clubs in my high school, so I wound up gravitating towards the closest thing I could find: theater. As such, I’ve seen and even performed in an awful lot of musicals, and I’m comfortable admitting that I loved a lot of them. It might not make me seem virile, but hey, that’s what my chest hair is for. My back hair? Oh, that's to test how much you love me.
The Villain Song, or whatever you want to call it, is but one of many standbys you can find in just about any musical. Other examples include The Big Opening Number, which establishes the world in a flashy way (see: West Side Story, The Lion King, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut), the I Wish I Had A Better Life Song, which establishes the hero’s motivation before the plot kicks in (see: The Wizard of Oz, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas) and of course The Plot’s Getting Pretty Heavy So We’d Better Whip Out a Big Happy Number So Nobody Thinks This is All Going to End in Tragedy Song, which is pretty self-explanatory (See: Oliver!, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Shock Treatment). Yeah, I made up the trope names myself. If any musical geeks are dying right now because my terminology is off, let me know. You’ll feel better about yourself.
But Witney’s right about The villain song. It tends to be a real showstopper, because the villains are usually pretty proud of themselves. They’re declaring their greatness, setting up the inevitable conflict with the hero and their own inevitable downfall at the same time. I didn’t see The Lorax, but I did bear witness to another great villain song recently in The Muppets, when Chris Cooper rapped (!) about his greediness and, in the soundtrack version, also about his motivation for being a bad guy: he literally doesn’t know how to laugh. I honestly don’t know how they cut that out of the film. It’s one of the most important plot points and it’s relegated to the damned soundtrack. Still a great movie though. Cooper didn't make my list of great villain songs, but that's mostly because I'm waiting to see if the novelty wears off.
Disney seems to have a bit of a monopoly on great villain songs, ranging from the alluring “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book to “Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which may in fact be the best villain song ever, even though the movie surrounding it has serious problems, as Witney pointed out. I’m going to shy away from Disney on purpose, although omitting “Be Prepared” from The Lion King was a real heartbreaker. As usual, I’m going to favor some of my more esoteric favorites. It’s just a list people, and let’s be honest: ten isn’t enough. We could easily do a Top 25 Villain Songs and still bicker about what didn’t make the cut. I know all about Fern Gully and Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop of Horrors (which has three great villain songs all by itself). They’re all great, but I’m going from the heart instead. Feel free to jot your own faves down in the comments.
“Say We’re Sweethearts Again” from “Batman: The Animated Series”
(I can't find an embeddable version of this song. Apologies.)
I was originally going to put this in an “honorable mention” category since it’s from a TV series and, well, this is the Film Channel, but Witney already popped that particular cherry with his perfectly justified inclusion of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” So I’m going for it.
Harley Quinn was introduced in “Batman: The Animated Series” as a sidekick character for The Joker, and for a long time that’s all she was. Sure, she was adorable and helped humanize The Clown Prince of Crime (since hey, somebody loves him), but it wasn’t until the Season Two episode “Harlequinade” that we ever to found out what made her tick. The Joker’s stolen an atomic bomb, and Batman and Robin are forced to form an uneasy alliance with Harley to track him down. For the first time we learn that Harleen Quinzel (sigh…) was actually a psychologist who fell in love with her own patient. And for the first time, thanks to her impromptu musical number “Say We’re Sweethearts Again,” we understand why she’s such an interesting character. She’s not just a Joker fan girl; she’s fully committed to a physically and psychologically abusive relationship: a hilarious reveal of a depressing fact. As sung by the wonderful Arleen Sorkin, lyrics like “Life used to be so placid, won’t you please put down that acid, and say that we’re sweethearts again” play equally well as comedy and tragedy. “Mad Love,” one of the last episodes of the series, finally explored their relationship in detail, but for a long time this song was enough to make Harley Quinn the show’s breakout character, and more than just comic (not to mention sexy) relief.
“Bad Guys” from Bugsy Malone
The first film from famed director Alan Parker is such an oddity it’s amazing it got made at all: a 1930’s gangster musical starring children, playing adults, that swaps bullets for cream pies (that kill you). It co-stars a young Jodie Foster (already a big deal at the time), and it’s never been released on a Region 1 DVD. The cult is growing though, and it’s a bigger part of the pop culture firmament in the UK than in the States.
The villain song in question is “Bad Guys,” performed by the enthusiastic members of a gang run by Fat Sam (John Cassisi, who these days works in construction). The song, by Muppet Movie and Phantom of the Paradise composer Paul Williams, is a dandy celebration of bad behavior, in which the cast declares, “We could have been anything that we wanted to be, but don’t it make your heart glad, that we decided – a fact we take pride in – we became the best at being bad!” The song puts a fine point on the film’s conceit, that bad people were all children who turned out a certain way, and is revisited in the closing number, "You Give A Little Love," after pretty much the entire cast is “killed” in an enormous pie fight. Suddenly, the pianist at Fat Sam’s club starts singing, “We could have been anything that we wanted to be,” reminding everyone that this is the life they all chose. The rest of the cast sings along in a chipper tune how it’s not too late to change their ways, even though… Huh. Maybe it is.
I love this closing number, since it works on two levels: on one hand, it’s a chipper ending to a fundamentally silly film (everything’s okay, it was just a larf), but, since getting a pie in the face equals death in this universe, it’s also horrifically grim. Bugsy Malone ends with a room full of recently slaughtered ghosts singing about the importance of choosing to be a good person, because doing otherwise led to their untimely deaths (really untimely, since they’re all just kids). It’s actually a seriously twisted film if you think about it hard enough.
“When There’s a Whip There’s a Way” from The Return of the King (1980)
Rankin/Bass’s adaptation of The Return of the King, which they made after it became obvious that Ralph Bakshi was never going to conclude his cliffhanger ending to 1978’s The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t have a very good reputation. It’s considered cheaply produced, even compared to Rankin/Bass’s own well-liked 1977 version of The Hobbit, and like most adaptations of Tolkien’s material it stripped the story down to its barest essentials. But they did make time for some great tunes, including “When There’s a Whip There’s a Way,” sung by a downtrodden goblin army en route to the film’s climactic battle. It’s a punchy marching song that whines “We don’t wanna go to war today, but the lord of the night says ‘Nay, nay, nay!’ We’re going to march all day, all day, all day… ‘cause when there’s a whip, there’s a way.” Dark stuff, but also a moment of relative levity in an otherwise dire production; it’s almost comforting to know that the bad guys aren’t having any fun either. And it’s seriously catchy stuff, with a "Wakka Chikka" and everything. I’ve had it stuck in my head for two decades.
Oh, and this remix by World Without Sundays has only made it worse.
“Reviewing the Situation” from Oliver!
Carol Reed’s wonderful adaptation of the broadway musical Oliver!, based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, is actually missing its biggest villain song, “My Name,” sung by the dastardly Bill Sykes. Depending on who you talk to, either the producers decided that Bill Sykes shouldn’t sing, or famed thespian Oliver Reed, who played Sykes in the film, couldn't sing. That’s okay though, because Oliver! also boasts an uncommon variation on The Villain Song, which I like to call The Villain’s Lament.
Ron Moody plays Fagin, a fascinating character who takes in dozens homeless children, teaches them to pickpocket, and reaps the rewards. He actually loves the little tykes, but is undeniably using them for personal gain. He genuinely struggles with his conscience in the number “Reviewing the Situation,” in which he carefully examines his alternatives to a life of crime. He could settle down and get himself a wife, but she’ll probably nag at him and spend all his money, so he goes back to the drawing board. He considers getting a respectable job, but realizes that he’ll have eventually to associate with folks who might know he’s a wanted felon, so that’s out too. By the end of the number he’s talked himself back into a life of crime, which may do nothing for his immortal soul but certainly seems practical at his age. It’s a complex number for a complex bad guy, and it’s a damned good tune too.
“Kidnap The Sandy Claws” from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
I know I said I wouldn’t include any Disney tunes, but does anyone think that The Nightmare Before Christmas really qualifies? This creepy flick doesn’t quite belong in the same breath as The Little Mermaid or even The Great Mouse Detective, partly for its stop-motion animated style, but mostly because it’s a dark, spooky tale of Halloween monsters hijacking Christmas and turning it, however innocently, into a horrifying nightmare. Danny Elfman composed the score and provided some of the singing voices, and all of the music is pretty classic, but the piece de resistance has to be “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” another variant on The Villain Song since, like “When There’s a Whip There’s a Way” and "Bad Guys," it’s actually sung by the villain's henchmen and not the Big Bad themselves.
What really stands out about “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” to this day, is how truly sadistic it is. The Oogie Boogie Man (who gets his own song later in the film) may be the main villain, but his trick or treating lackeys Lock, Shock and Barrel are probably more frightening. They may be unclear on the true meaning of Christmas, but that’s no excuse for planning to shoot him in the face with a cannon. More disturbing: the only reason they don’t do it is because they might lose some of the pieces, and expect they would be “beaten black and green” as punishment, by the film’s otherwise lovable hero no less. It’s a twisted melody about grotesque characters planning unspeakable things… in a children’s movie. And we love every minute of it.
Those are our picks. What are your favorite villain songs?