Movies Behind The Madness: The Role of Horror Films In The Weeknd's Artistry

Michael Jackson may have given him his voice, but horror cinema gave The Weeknd his pen.
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Michael Jackson may have given him his voice, but horror cinema gave The Weeknd his pen.

The arrival of Abel Tesfaye happened quietly. He tiptoed into our lives through the internet, appearing as only a voice, only a name, and then retreating back into the darkness that hid his unknown face.

As The Weeknd, he mysteriously released three mixtapes worth of material, music that was later packaged together as Trilogy. On the surface, it seemed a ploy to make money from previously free releases, but in his review of the collected edition, Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen highlighted how, when brought together, the separate pieces created a bigger picture. They completed a narrative. Treat Trilogy as three short films combining into one, large feature film.

In a recent interview feature with GQ, there’s a small portion that digs into the early life of Abel Tesfaye; a time before the desire to make music lead him into a house filled with balloons. He was still a writer, but his focus was writing scripts for short films. An exposure to, “dark, psychologically disturbing films” captivated his mind. His time was spent watching freaky films online and downloading their scripts. Dead Ringer is one film he names, a 1988 horror flick by Canadian-American director David Cronenberg. The film’s premise follows two identical twin gynecologists whose lives are turned upside down by an actress who comes to their clinic. It’s a story of twisted seduction, abuse of prescription drugs, untold secrets, and fatal paranoia—some of the very attributes that have made The Weeknd albums so enjoyable.

The story of his musical birth is also one of the digital age’s creative success stories. He was saved by the Internet. In the beginning, it was movies. Instead of doing his homework, he watched films online and downloaded scripts. Films that he’d had no exposure to out in the world where he lived, that no one he knew had any exposure to. Dark, psychologically disturbing films—Dead Ringers, Videodrome—which probably isn’t that strange to find out if you know the Weeknd oeuvre. He was obsessed with the film The Machinist. He likes the later, more conventional movies of the director David Cronenberg, but they’re not the same as the earlier films—the freaky ones. - Devin Friedman, The Weeknd Is the King of Sex Pop

Before the release of Kiss Land, The Weeknd gave an interview with Complex about the debut album to come. He considered Kiss Land to be a terrifying place, "A lot of it is inspired by filmmakers like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott because they know how to capture fear. That's what Kiss Land is to me, an environment that's just honest fear,” he said. Once again he gives a nod to David Cronenberg, but also two other film directors—John Carpenter, also known as “The Master Of Horror,” and Ridley Scott, well-known for films like Alien, Blade Runner, Hannibal and Prometheus.

Tracing Abel's weird, strange and thrilling influences shines a bright light on the darker tones and storytelling of Weeknd’s early—and some of his modern—offerings. In many ways, the kid who used to write short films mimicking his horror heroes channeled the same skill set into writing albums. As GQ's Devin Friedman so eloquently put, The Weeknd wrote scripts of lush and strange fantasy worlds; even the title of his projects seem to come from a horror-film influence. I’ll never hear him sing of the hills having eyes the same way again. Michael Jackson may have given him his voice, but cinema gave The Weeknd his pen.

I often wonder about the material The Weeknd has written and how much of it is based on reality, and what was drawn from his favorite films? In the GQ interview, he cites Eastern Promises as a great film, another movie directed by David Cronenberg. I’ve yet to see the movie, but a quick look at its plot reveals a gangster film that follows a midwife who is pulled into a storm of gangsters, sex-trafficking and the criminal underworld. Prostitution plays such a large role in the film's storyline, I have to wonder if that’s where he found inspiration for “In The Night,” a song about the life of a prostitute.

There’s always been a big question mark if The Weeknd truly lived a life of drugs and debauchery, bountiful sex and shattered hearts, but it’s hard to imagine him balancing the extremes of his lifestyle without complete self-destruction. What is funny is how the singer who used to write screenplays was given his big break through a movie soundtrack.

Narratives are a big part of The Weeknd’s career. Trilogy, Kiss Land, Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy can be seen as films made within The Weeknd's universe. I’m uncertain if each album is meant to connect as part of an ongoing story, or if each album follows a completely different storyline. The Weeknd’s music videos really give you a sense of his narrative approach; there have been countless theories and attempts to decipher the stories unfolding. We've been keeping up with his videos since Beauty Behind the Madness and following each one hoping to discover some kind of clue. The movie makers he cites as influences have mostly made films I’m unfamiliar with, but I wonder if his unorthodox narrative is a trick from their playbook. Presentation has been an important part of every move of The Weeknd’s career, there’s a reason why he releases his videos for fans to decipher.

It’s not just the storyline of his videos, the way they are shot are also cinematically influenced. BRTHR, the outstanding duo that directed the incredible music video for “In The Night,” is well-known for bringing cinematic flair to music visuals. The Weeknd sought them out for a reason, they were the ones who could bring to life a video that is both excellent by music video standards and a piece of cinematic greatness. In an interview with Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman of BRTHR, they recalled how Abel wished to incorporate blood and violence into his tale of the prostitute, a play straight from the book of Tarantino. Wong Kar-wai, Spring Breakers and Enter The Void are films that inspired the colors and tones they created for the visual.

The Sam Pilling-directed “Pretty” is visually one of the most gorgeous videos in all of Weeknd’s videography. In an interview with Dummy Mag, Sam recalls how The Weeknd presented him with stills from different movies to help articulate the tone and mood that he desired. A Bittersweet Life, Leon, Only God Forgives, Collateral, Enter The Void, A Prophet, Killing Them Softly, Fight Club—just a few visual references that Sam used to make his masterpiece.

False Alarm” received raved reviews for it’s fast-paced, explosive, video game-esque first-person shooter approach. The creative approach has made it one of the most talked-about Weeknd music visuals. It should come as no surprise that it is also cut from the cloth of cinematic influence. In April of last year, Hardcore Henry hit movie theaters across the United States, a science fiction action thriller that is shot completely in the first person. Directed by Illy Naishuller, the film is the older brother of “False Alarm,” cinematic twins that dominated two separate visual mediums. Sci-fi thrillers aren’t new to The Weeknd if you remember the video for “Belong To The World." As Bradley Stern put it, “The video itself is stunning, bringing Casshern, Blade Runner, Ju-on and The Fifth Element to mind. It’s a Sci-Fi-meets-film noir-meets-J-horror mini-flick.” The Weeknd has strived to be the modern successor of Michael Jackson, it can be heard vocally, but I believe he also strives to bring the same excitement that Michael brought when he released videos.

It’s easier to imagine the shy, quiet Toronto singer being a film nerd than a drug-fueled, sex-crazed playboy. When you start to connect the dots it just makes sense that Abel has followed in the footsteps of film directors and pop stars, creating a persona that bridges the two worlds. The Weeknd is what you get when you put Michael Jackson and David Cronenberg in a blender with a few ecstasy pills, a line of coke, vampire-esque charm and a bit of reality, before sprinkling his stories with the imagination of a scriptwriter. Storytelling is at the heart of great cinema, and The Weeknd has told few coming-of-age stories full of sex, drugs, love, angst and heartache.

Music may have gotten a genre-altering artist, but Abel Testify could have easily taken his talents and story to Hollywood.  

By Yoh, aka Yohmetheus aka @Yoh31