Yes, I know Performance did it first, but honestly, I think The Hunger does it better. Whatever you think about The Hunger, and I happen to like it a great deal, the opening scene is a stunner.
Opening a contemporary horror movie with Bauhaus playing ‘Bela Lugosi’s dead’, could have been a cheap shot. A gag. And, in other hands, it might have been. But in Tony Scott’s, it’s an assault.
The drum beat, the atonal chords, the synthesised pulsating screech, the flash cuts of action that freeze unexpectedly then jump into life. And there’s Pete Murphy, lit from below, emerging from smoke. There’s wire mesh between him and us. Are we in a cage, or is he? He’s staring at us. Sneering at us. At times he looks like he’s in pain, but always he’s breaking the fourth wall. He’s glaring at us; in to us, daring, judging, appealing.
The bass line kicks in, delivering movement and melody. And for all that Scott admits to riffing on the opening scenes and editing of Performance, that bass line reminds me of The Shining, Wendy Carlos’s synthesised version of Dias Irae. It’s funereal, but also the pitch and tone in and of themselves are unsettling, they resonate somewhere in our guts and make us nervous.
All of this before there’s any narrative sense to be had from the images. It’s just the performer, and the filmmaker confronting us. Where are we? When are we? What’s happening? Already we’re on edge, off balance, as the music builds and we begin to get some answers.
We’re in a club. The band is on stage then, we presume. People are dancing, vain people, performing for each other and for us, while others watch from the shadows. And there are David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, beautiful, aloof, so much above and beyond this place. They’re placed high, as if on a balcony, overlooking the dance floor below them. They might as well be at an auction house, selecting cattle from the killing floor.
They whisper to each other… or rather, they can’t be whispering since they’re in a fucking club and the music fills the track, we can’t hear any diagetic sound, just the music, pounding. But still, when Bowie leans in close to Deneuve, I think they’re whispering. It’s close and intimate, and wry. There’s amusement in the way the watch the people around them. And in that amusement, there’s a threat.
And then the sequence starts to fragment, and with it the music too. Scott cuts ahead, but keeps coming back. Ahead to what’s coming, while keeping the club there, pounding and alive. But every time he cuts away from the club, he cuts out the music as well, to something quieter, but striking, the sudden cut of image jolts us. It’s not a stab… yet. But it feels like someone lashing out at us. We tense.
The sound that accompanies the scenes away from the club is quieter, simpler. Not soothing, but precise; singular. The effect is like being slashed with a razor. It’s so sharp you don’t notice the cut. It’s the moment after, the echo, as the wound opens and the blood flows, and panic and dread comes with it. It’s already too late to do anything. You’re going to die. You know it. There’s no going back now. The tears are coming, and the panic as your heart beats harder and the blood comes quicker, and so do the cuts.
Scott comes at us, again, and again. We feel the cuts before ever we see a blade on screen. And for all that we feel the assault of image and sound, there’s sex on screen. Beautiful people are taking off their clothes. Their pleasure is building, as our fear mingles with it, with the arousal on screen, and Jesus fucking Christ what’s that!? A monkey in a cage, screaming.
The music is disappearing but not the image of the performer confronting us, shaking the cage, like the monkey it cuts to, beastial, primal. Terrified? Angry? Both? The melody’s are gone, but a synthesised banging remains, like the sound of a pulse raging in our ears, the way sound distorts when consciousness begins to flutter, when fight or flight kicks in.
Murphy is shaking the cage, beating on the wire mesh, and so is the monkey. It’s screaming, and so is he, but we don’t hear his screams, just the monkey. Are we inside the cage looking out, or outside the cage looking in? Does it matter? They’re both terrified, but the only screaming we can hear is primal, it goes marrow deep.
The pounding sound is getting faster, my pulse is racing with it. The cutting is getting faster too, not quite a frenzy, but it’s surely an attack. Razor sharp, slashing at us, visually, aurally, conceptually. I feel like a victim in a giallo film.
The cinematic assault approaches its peak as the characters on screen approach their own… and what should be a ‘petite morte’ becomes a grand mal seizure instead. Golden ankhs, symbols of life itself, reveal a hidden death within, blades which plunge deep. Our victims scream, the only time we’ll ever hear their voices, and even then, distant, distorted. The blood is raging in our ears, are we victim or prey? Or both?
The monkey screams as it’s torn apart by another in its cage. A welter of blood, and it’s over.
There are two things at work in the films of Tony Scott: the Artist and the Ad Man. Sometimes it’s more of one than the other, but he has an artist’s eye. An artist’s sensibility for light and shadow, the potency of colour and texture. In his commercials he brings it all to bear to create an object of desire. I’d argue that the same applies to films like Top Gun, and Days Of Thunder. Where The Hunger, and his short films before it are overtly ‘arty’, concerned with the image and the mood, Top Gun and Days Of Thunder are about making you want to film itself. They sell themselves to the masses. Why? Because Scott is a past master of commercial film making, and his feature film debut tanked. The Hunger did not do well. And for a while, nobody wanted to hire him for another feature. So what did he do? He made feature length commercials designed to do no more than sell themselves. And they sold by the million.
That bought him the leeway to return to art, perhaps with a more savvy balance, an eye on the business end of things, but look at the movies: they move from shoring up his employability by selling desirable action and actors (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Days Of Thunder), to strong stories with seductive commercial style (Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide etc), to the point at which strong stories and increasingly experimental technique become the norm (Beat The Devil, Man On Fire, Domino).
Often his aggressive visual and editorial style was criticised as over the top or ‘ADHD film making’. As someone diagnosed with ADHD I think there’s something to be said for that, but I don’t take it as a criticism.
People tend to use ADHD to mean hyperactive and all over the place, chaotic. But that’s not quite the experience of living with a central nervous system that’s been wired for interest. We think fast. We see everything. We are hyper aware. Some of the jittery feeling of a Tony Scott movie comes close enough to the way I take the world in, that I genuinely wonder if he was ever diagnosed.
It also means I get overwhelmed and overloaded sometimes, so I get why my mentally hyperactive normality might be overwhelming to neurotypical folk. I get that, I do. But this is what it’s like to be hyper aware of details all the time, and the implications and suggestions, the thoughts and feelings and ideas that come with every single one of those details, since nothing exists in a vacuum. Every glint, every flutter, every flash, sparks meaning; an idea, a feeling. So too with Tony Scott.
In the seeming tumult of sound and images, the movie doesn’t only break the 4th wall by having Peter Murphy staring right into the camera, the song itself is breaking the 4th wall because it’s self aware. The title alone would be enough, but the fact that Scott intercuts and keeps coming back to it means that it’s constantly commenting on the action, and the action upon it.
‘Bela Lugosi’s dead’, it ain’t like it used to be, this is what vampires are in 1983. By contrasting the song and the images, it’s also commenting on, even baiting, goth/new romantic culture, since our real vampires prey on it. We watch them slaughter it and drain it dry.
Notice that the only fangs that we will ever see in the whole movie are here in this sequence, and they belong to a monkey. A research animal which is being experimented upon. Fangs then are bestial, primal… the animal is thus both a comparison, an evocation of the primal need for blood, for violence and killing, and a contrast, because our killers have no fangs. They are not screeching and screaming. In that way the victims are more like the monkeys. Our vampires are calm, cool… more in that way like the research scientists we will soon encounter and who here cause the violent death of the monkey.
It’s also important to understand that the wiring of ADHD brains means they process, perceive, and experience time differently. In essence, a neurotypical brain experiences life and time along a horizontal axis, with events laid before and behind the person who moves along that axis.
ADHD brains experience time and life in something closer to a spherical model. It’s all there, all around us, all happening all at once, and though some parts may be in sharper focus at any given moment, the rest are all still there within reaching distance, and sometimes light up out of the blue as a random connector sparks off it, sheds light on related incidents now, then, imagined, or yet to come, and new connections and ideas are born.
It makes sense to me then, when Tony Scott constructs/deconstructs narrative events (depending on your point of view) so that multiple things are happening and being experienced simultaneously, as in this sequence in The Hunger. Three strands, which represent three people and three distinct world’s/social spaces are brought into direct contact and made to exist in a singular present, even though they exist disparately in time and space: the real world (the band, the dancers,us), the vampires (Bowie and Deneuve), and medical/research (the monkeys in cages).
Scott began as a painter. I don’t think that instinct ever left him. His style was influenced by expressionist and post impressionist painters. That same style is, in some ways, harder to capture on screen. What is the equivalent to the texture of a brush stroke? His use of unrealistic light and colour, smoke and diffusion to make certain lights sculptural, almost geometric is one way. The fragmented, sometimes jittery editing and juxtaposition of shots and scenes, is another. Later he began to play with shutter speed and film stock to enhance the film grain, create images that streak and blur, almost literally burning out the colours by over or under exposing and experimenting with the way the negative was developed to create new tones and textures, while digital editing allowed him to let the images flicker and bleed.
The Hunger is pre digital, pre film stock and developing experimentation, but look at the shots themselves, the light and the colour, the textures in the frame, evoked by the props and the people, the way they move and interact on screen. Then look at the way he alternates those images, colours, sensations; butts them against one another in contrast, uses one colour to cut through another:
Light, dark, light, dark, amber; light, dark, light, dark, RED.
We are constantly unsettled, disrupted and disturbed, even as the melody of the music lures us in, urges us onward.