Last week’s episode of Riverdale was… an intense affair. From Jughead’s brutal initiation into full-fledged Serpentdom, to a horrific date-rape attempt by utterly repulsive newcomer Nick St. Clair, to that same rapist’s righteous beatdown by the Josie, the Pussycats and Veronica, episode five was a shocking instalment. As these events unraveled, Betty Cooper was once again in the crosshairs of the murderous Black Hood, fielding more ominous phone calls from the killer.
But in this episode, something was off. Betty’s ringtone, previously a generic midi ringer, had changed.
Now when the Black Hood dropped her a line, The Chordettes’ ubiquitous single “Lollipop” chimed through her iPhone. It’s a curious addition, compounded by its late-addition to the narrative, but it’s actually part of a time-honoured, trusty technique in canon horror films. As Riverdale barrels closer to turning into a teen horror pastiche, it makes sense to call on some of the genre’s hallmarks. Unfortunately, it’s too poorly executed to deliver its desired effect.
The strategy is rooted in twisting contexts: positioning an objectively ‘happy’ stimulus against an objectively disturbing backdrop. A popular approach is to cue a bright, saccharine piece of music during a frightening scene. The trope became a focus of pop culture dialogue back in 2011 when Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” figured heavily into James Wan’s horror film, Insidious (although many maintain that the song itself is terrifying enough), but it’s a tradition that stretches back through decades.
Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, the central figure in American Psycho, cues up Huey Lewis’ charged bopper, “Hip To Be Square,” as he dances around his living room before hacking his colleague to death with an axe. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge breezily belts “Singing In The Rain” while attacking a writer and his wife.The Dawn Of The Dead remake laid it on heavy, with Johnny Cash’s cheerful rendition of “The Man Comes Around” soundtracking the jarring title cards, and a Rat Pack-esque take on Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness” coming later in the film.
The juxtaposition usually works on a couple different levels. Because we’re accustomed to experiencing major-key melodies in harmless, upbeat circumstances, we associate these songs with comfort and, unconsciously, security; there’s no risk, just bliss. When we hear those sounds in the context of danger and fear, our ideas of security and peace are threatened. This disturbance is compounded by what sound cues one expects in a horror film: loud, minor-key, scary sounds. Replacing those cues with a sunny pop song further subverts expectations, building a deeper sensation of insecurity. If that pairing is employed effectively, it’s creates an eerie cognitive dissonance that puts the viewer firmly on edge.
It’s a shame, then, that Riverdale invoked that same brilliant theatricality so lazily. The first (and most glaring) problem is the inconsistency in Betty’s ringtone. If it had been “Lollipop” all along, it might take on a new, foreboding tone, a familiar sound that now chilled the air. But it’s a new, noticeable feature without explanation, a hackneyed shot to cash in on the atmosphere provided by the song as a source of discomfort. But even the song itself is a vacuous, artless choice to employ; it’s so obviously, unambiguously bright that it feels like an overwrought choice.
Riverdale has never trafficked in subtlety. From Juggy’s constant assertions of independence, to Archie’s painfully unaware insistence on himself, to a rain-slicked street brawl right out of The Outsiders, to a drug called jingle jangle (how did this make it past brainstorm sessions?), the show has been gleefully and unabashedly extra. But it’s quickly risking becoming a brainless patchwork of genres, with at-best mixed results. It flirts with horror frameworks, but never fully commits. Instead, it deploys a few thematic shticks heavy-handedly, like Betty’s inexplicable new ringtone.
It’s an indication of the show’s deteriorating writing. Where it once ensnared viewers with over-the-top drama and guilty-pleasure tension, it now risks alienating them by taking things too far. Riverdale never worked as much more than an addictively self-important teen drama. If it returns to that form, maybe we can forgive this whole ringtone blunder. Until then, we’re putting our phones on silent.