Sound SHOCK: The History of BLUE OYSTER CULT’s ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’ in Horror

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SHOCK takes a look at BOC’s hard rock hit ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’ and its use in horror films.

Mention the name of seventies rock juggernaut Blue Oyster Cult, and several notions likely pop instantly to mind: The thudding intro to their hit ‘Godzilla’, stomped out by a shaggy quintet clad in bellbottom jeans while a stadium audience trips out on the psychedelic lasers flaring around them. BOC were originally hyped by their manager as the American answer to Black Sabbath, but the band evolved into something spacier and more progressive, stamped with their trademark mysticism and dense sci-fi lyrics. Less apparent to casual B.O.C. fans is the band’s long association with horror cinema—while B.O.C. dove in to the genre directly by writing the music to Charles Band and Ted Nicolau’s hilariously dated alien D.J. flick BAD CHANNELS (1992), the band is perhaps better remembered by some of horror’s biggest names adopting the band’s biggest chart hit, 1976’s ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’, for their films.

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First appearing on Blue Oyster Cult’s fourth full-length album AGENTS OF FORTUNE and released as a single that peaked at number twelve on the Billboard charts, ‘(Don’t Fear)The Reaper’ was penned by lead singer and guitarist Donald Roeser (a.k.a. Buck Dharma) as a hopeful declaration that love can endure past the natural closure of death—not as a romanticizing of suicide pacts, as how the song is frequently misinterpreted. From the picked riff that drives the song, the lilting Byrds-like quality and the soft layered vocals, ‘Reaper’ doesn’t exactly transmit feelings of terror or dread. That didn’t stop John Carpenter from briefly featuring the tune in his stone classic HALLOWEEN (1978). Most of HALLOWEEN’s standout musical moments are derived from Carpenter’s own lean synth score. However, “Reaper’ is placed in as a source cue when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) cruises in her friend Annie’s car and indulges in a little herbal relaxation. The song’s appearance is brief and played under dialogue (and Laurie’s coughing fits), but the subtext is obvious as Carpenter presages the murderous return of Michael Myers to Haddonfield. It’s a subtle, almost throwaway use of a tune that was still somewhat current in 1978, its presence in the film belying HALLOWEEN’s notoriously skimpy budget—though this was the era before music publishers saw the licensing of songs for films as a one big distended udder filled with cash, just begging to be milked. Lucky for us, Carpenter’s team secured the rights on the cheap and ‘Reaper’ became forever entrenched in horror film lore.

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Apart from HALLOWEEN, Stephen King cites ‘Reaper’ as part of the inspiration behind the writing of his first mammoth novel THE STAND, with an excerpt of the lyrics used as an epigraph to kick off the book. When director Mick Garris assumed the titanic task of adapting King’s swollen tome into a T.V. miniseries in 1994, he honored the source material by having an edited cut of the song play over the first episode’s opening credit sequence, which was an eerie swoop through the underground laboratory from which the ‘Captain Trips’ flu bug escaped—its hallways and chambers now littered with heaps of white-coated corpses.

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SCREAM would see director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson lovingly crib a number of elements from Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN for their 1996 slasher revival, but none are slipped in as slyly as ‘Reaper’. Played while Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) makes his bedroom plea to Sidney (Neve Campbell), SCREAM’s version of the tune is an acoustic cover by singer-songwriter Gus Black (billed in the credits as simply ‘Gus’), and adds cello and female vocals to accentuate a mournful flavor that isn’t much present in the original version. It’s a wink to SCREAM’s forebears and an understated telegraphing of the danger that Billy will eventually present to Sidney, not to mention that Black’s cover sounds fantastic.Black’s cover would be dragged out again during a goofy, shouty sex scene in THE HOWLING:REBORN, 2011’s bid at shining a little teen twilight onto a stalled franchise, but this version should really be remembered as part of the better film in SCREAM.

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The same year would see ‘Reaper’ once again revived in a cover version. Peter Jackson closes out his underloved ghost-caper THE FRIGHTENERS with a version by fellow Kiwis The Mutton Birds, and the song continues to play over the end credit crawl. Unlike the distinctive film that houses it, the Mutton Birds cover is blandly straightforward and sounds much too close to the original to be at all memorable.

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Speaking again of elements taken from HALLOWEEN, those that Rob Zombie transposed from the original to his 2007 remake are still a matter of heavy fan debate. ‘Reaper’ was thankfully carried over to the update, but bumped back and also forward in the proceedings—Zombie now uses the song to underscore the post-coital doom faced by both Judith Myers (Hanna Hall) in the film’s prologue, and Lynda (Kristina Klebe) in the moments before Myers redecorates the walls with her unfortunate paramour Bob. In this more obvious context, the appearance of the song is clumsy (as is the use of The Misfits’ HALLOWEEN II moments prior), but credit to Zombie for acknowledging ‘Reaper’ as integral to the legacy of the HALLOWEEN films.

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‘Reaper’ would surface again in 2009 when a quick snippet is played in the comedy hit ZOMBIELAND, as the traveling zombie killers puff away on a hookah (shades of Laurie Strode?) alongside their host Bill Murray. And, while not in the genre realm, any discussion of ‘Reaper’ would be remiss to omit the song’s retrofitting as comedy fodder—mocked for its copious clicking cowbell in a famous SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch with Will Farrell and Christopher Walken. No matter, as the laughs can’t dull ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’s’ status as a classic track, and be sure to inform any young comedy fans that that horror got to it first.

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Weekend: Jun. 20, 2019, Jun. 23, 2019

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