A brief history of haunting pop covers in movie trailers

Movie trailers are filled with spooky covers of non-spooky songs.

September 8, 2017

Hollywood in 2017 isn’t exactly known as an enormous hotbed of creativity—just witness how many remakes, soft reboots, sequels, prequels, hard reboots, and re-imaginings we’ve been subject to, and will continue to be as the profit margins for blockbusters keep getting thinner and thinner—but even the slew of retreads seems about as fresh as Citizen Kane did in 1941 when you compare it with the current, done-to-death trend in movie trailers: scoring them with a slowed-down, melancholy cover of a popular song.

Immediately after Inception was released in 2010, trailer after trailer was flooded with that BWAAAH! noise—see: Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, and about 4800 more—but even that trend is nothing compared with the invasion of melancholy covers that’s currently taking place at multiplexes all over the world. How did we get here? Which film is patient zero? Let’s take a look at how this insidious failure of imagination has propagated itself over the past few years.

The Last House on the Left (2009)

Haunting cover: Guns N’ Roses – “Sweet Child O’ Mine” performed by Taken By Trees

Though it’s not typically cited as such, the 2009 Last House on The Left remake is the most likely candidate for the very first example of a sad cover in a trailer. Taken By Trees’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” cover replaces Slash’s iconic riff with a solo piano, and, as will become typical with these things, drenches the whole thing in about 4000 cubic tons of reverb. Overall, all the plaintive elements were there back in 2009, but something about a Gn’R cover over all the brutal horror imagery doesn’t work nearly as well as the more definitive examples of the trend, particularly:

The Social Network (2010)

Haunting cover: Radiohead – “Creep” performed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Generally accepted as the trailer that started the whole sombre-pop-cover trend, the decision to score the trailer for David Fincher’s Facebook movie The Social Network with a choral version of “Creep” gets points for originality and aptness for the broader themes of isolation, image, and power of the movie. It’s just too bad that it really was the cover that launched a thousand imitators, most of which don’t get anywhere close to its artistic and thematic suitability. This also marks the first appearance of Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian women’s choir that specialize in covers who were also responsible for:

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Haunting cover: Metallica – “Nothing Else Matters” performed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Nothing says rah-rah America like a sombre “Nothing Else Matters” cover over footage of deep state actors in aviator sunglasses doing cool, extremely extrajudicial things. Even in 2012, Zero Dark Thirty was still ahead of the the curve of the whole sad-cover trailer movement, but it’s about here where things really started to ramp up to ridiculous levels.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Haunting cover: The Turtles – “Happy Together” performed by Filter

(The music starts at 1:27 in this one)

Cleveland alt-metallers Filter turned in an melodramatic cover of The Turtles’ 60’s classic for the final stretch of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby remake. Nice of the editor to include Richard Patrick’s hilariously-overwrought scream at 1:52 just to keep moviegoers awake during minute 42 of nonstop trailers.

A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

Haunting cover: Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun” performed by SWANN

What’s a better complement to Liam Neeson’s husky Northern Irish Antrim brogue than a reverb-heavy piano Soundgarden cover? Answer: “Zombie” or maybe “Ode To My Family” by The Cranberries, but sure, Soundgarden will do.

Dracula: Untold (2014)

Haunting cover: Tears for Fears – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” performed by Lorde

Lorde’s wasn’t the first mournful Tears for Fears piano cover to make a dent in the popular consciousness, but Gary Jules didn’t get to score a sexy Dracula origin story, so they’re just about even in our book.

Maleficent (2014)

Haunting cover: – “Once Upon A Dream” performed by Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey’s dreamy, drugged vocal performance does work well over images of Angelina Jolie witching it up all over the place. Note to all Hollywood trailer editors: if you absolutely need to include a haunting cover with remake/reboot, remaking a song from the original film is a good tack to take.

The Gallows (2015)

Haunting cover: Nirvana- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” performed by Think Up Anger ft. Malia

I think we can all agree that the perfect tribute to the memory and legacy of Kurt Cobain is to put a cover of Nirvana’s most famous song over a trailer for a thrown-together horror movie which is currently standing at a cool 16% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

San Andreas (2015)

Haunting cover: The Mamas & the Papas – “California Dreamin’” performed by Sia

Some might see a washed-out “California Dreamin’” over footage of California being destroyed as a little too on-the-nose and tritely ironic, but anything involving both Sia and the Rock can’t be all bad.

Snowden (2016)

Haunting cover: “When The Saints Go Marching In” performed by Ursine Vulpine

Not sure why the producers of the Edward Snowden biopic opted for a spooky version of a gospel traditional, but hey, it makes about as much sense as anything else surrounding U.S. domestic policy over the past few years.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Haunting cover: “I’ve Got No Strings” from pinocchio

What’s better than a haunting remake of a classic song for a story about a soulless, corrupt robotic entity slowly spreading its influence through the entire world? But enough about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the year 3000, when the MCU has fully engulfed the known galaxy, there won’t be a classic Disney song that hasn’t gotten the eerie, washed-out treatment. Hopefully in the trailer for Rise of the Avengers XXVII: Age of Luke Skywalker (2032) we get to hear a drone-metal version of “Be Our Guest” or something.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Haunting cover: The Bee Gees –  “I Started A Joke” performed by Becky Hansen

Possibly the greatest example of using an evocative cover to audiences to see a narrative mess of a movie, Suicide Squad’s trailer was rumoured to be judged so effective by Warner Bros., they demanded that the film be recut from its gritty first edit and be crammed full of  montages and songs to bring the film more in line with the tone of the trailer. The result? Well, it’s….not great.

A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Haunting cover: The Ramones – “I Wanna Be Sedated” performed by Mirel Wagner

There’s something especially egregious about sampling possibly the least-sad, least-slow band of all time, The Ramones, and tossing them into the trailer-cover mill, just because the lyrical content is vaguely appropriate for your movie. Especially since “I’d Rather Have a Bottle In Front of Me (Than a Frontal Lobotomy)” by Randy Hazlick M.D. was just sitting there for the taking.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Haunting cover: The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??” performed by Ursine Vulpine

If you want a picture of the future, imagine 400 all-CGI movies re-imagined from children’s media properties set to some late-90s melancholy indie rock covers, forever.

A Wrinkle In Time (2018)

Haunting cover: The Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) performed by Emily Browning

Everyone knows that if you show Gen Z children a 1981 new wave hit about the twisted desires that motivate humanity, those tickets are gonna sell like hotcakes.

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