Sometime in April 1996, a group of children were playing on a beach in Staten Island when they discovered a cork-lined box full of human remains. It had been washed up on the shore following a freak tropical storm a few days prior, and they immediately told an adult, who alerted the NYPD. This wasn’t the first time a body had been found on the city’s shores. The Hudson River, which flows from north to south through eastern New York state, has been known to wash up a large number of corpses, many of them rising to the surface during the spring months when the water heats up. So this box wasn’t met with a great level of interest from the police until later that year, in November, when they identified the body as belonging to a man called Angel Melendez, a club kid who had been selling drugs at The Limelight and other nightlife spots around New York City. A month later, after evidence began to pile up against them, two fellow club kids called Michael Alig and Robert Riggs were arrested and charged with manslaughter, citing an argument over a drug debt that had gotten out of hand.
This story has been told countless times since it happened over two decades ago. One of its strangest and most enduring retellings, though, is that of the 2003 movie Party Monster, which was directed by two guys called Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the same duo who would go on to produce RuPaul’s Drag Race). Despite not grossing even a quarter of what was spent on it, and with a current rating of 29 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie—starring Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green—has gradually gained a cult following. It’s easy to see why: it’s camp and distasteful, brilliant and badly acted and contains the kind of cameos you rarely see on the same screen, from Chloe Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne to Marilyn Manson. It also has a soundtrack of back-to-back club tracks that are just as prominent as each meticulously painted face and outfit, making you feel as though you're actually hopping from party to party, teetering on the edge of something sinister that you know is just around the corner.
The first song we properly hear in the movie is the manic, off-kilter falsetto of “New York, New York” by Nina Hagen. So many songs have been written about New York by now that there are almost two New Yorks—the loud, solid one under your feet and the mythical one that exists in your headphones. This song introduces us to that second, sordid version that we see so often in pop culture; that of a city swimming with possibilities and nocturnal secrets. Barely a few seconds later, though, and Nina’s theatrical screams are replaced with the fizzing electroclash thumps of “Frank Sinatra” by Miss Kittin & The Hacker, while Seth Green’s character goes on about what outfits you should be wearing to the club. A few blinks later and we’re suddenly watching Marilyn Manson in a leather hat and fishnet gloves perform his original track “La La Song” as the character of drag queen Christina Superstar.
All of this happens only within the first 15 minutes of the movie. But the way the music in Party Monster does this—constantly shoving us from one scene to the next, barely giving us time to process what’s happening—perfectly captures the manic pace of club and drug culture; that feeling of coming up hard and then spending the next few hours in a boiling hot, dissociated haze where you’re being dragged from club to cab, from party to cold, neon city street. I’m not the only one who has genuinely felt kind of high and panicky after watching this, and I swear the soundtrack has a lot to do with it. It makes you feel as if you’re right there with them in a way that’s almost visceral.
In theory, a movie soundtrack entirely made up of pop songs and club bangers should make for an extremely fun 99 minutes. But at the same time, there’s a tension between this fun, hedonistic spirit and the actual fact of the matter, that a 26-year-old man was brutally killed by two people he was supposed to be mates with. With that in mind, even writing about this movie is difficult to navigate because on the one hand you have this camp, cult celebration of club kid culture, and on the other you have the horror of what actually happened. So this interaction between art and real life makes a difference to the way the movie is absorbed, too: when you know the context, peer a little closer and the euphoric soundtrack comes across as kind of sinister. Take “Seventeen” by Ladytron, for example, which appears during a scene in which Michael Alig throws a ‘king and queen of downtown’ contest at The Limelight. That song is so enduringly catchy that we still hear it pounding out of speakers and across dancefloors more than 15 years later. But the lyrics are bleak as hell: “They only want you when you’re 17 / when you’re 21, you’re no fun.” I know that song is about the cutthroat modelling industry, but it’s also about age and decay and how quickly things can turn sour before you’ve even reached your peak. Forgive me for sounding like an A Level film student right now, but this song feels like a sign of what’s to come in both the film and in terms of the real story upon which it's based. Michael Alig might be king of the club kids at this particular moment in time, but just a few years later and he’ll be in prison serving time for manslaughter.
I don’t know why people are still so fascinated with this particular crime, and by extension, this movie. Maybe it’s because Michael Alig was well-known around New York for throwing parties, not for brutal violence, so the whole thing feels weirdly incongruous, unbelievable even. The way Culkin plays him makes him seem fun, charismatic, harmless; like he could have been one of your mates. Maybe it’s because Angel’s death seemed like such a horrendous, nightmarish way for this otherwise positive and influential era in club history to end. Or maybe it’s because Party Monster has almost romanticized the crime in a way that makes it easy to dislocate yourself from the fact that human lives were involved. But they were, and looking back, I think it’s important to remember that.
Even so, it’s hard to deny that the movie still stands as a bizarre and captivating piece of art in itself. And the soundtrack—a perfectly executed narrative of hedonism and darkness, of pleasure and pain, of club culture liquidised and bottled—is a part of that. Also if you're able to appreciate the music by itself, it's honestly just really fun to play from beginning to end—and that's mainly what makes a soundtrack bang anyway. But zoom out on the bigger picture, and you'll find yourself staring at a terrifying story where a storm can dredge up some really dark secrets.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.