Graham: Movies can totally eclipse a pop song’s meaning

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

A masked killer stalks his victim, ax in hand. It’s a scene that has played out in dozens of horror movies over the years. But this time, rather than tense strings or plinking piano on the soundtrack, we get Bonnie Tyler belting her head off.

It’s a scene from “The Strangers: Prey at Night.” The movie’s not likely to turn up on any critics’ year-end Top 10 lists, and it’s not going to push the conversation about film forward in any significant ways. It’s an effective if rather by-the-numbers slasher flick.

And yet I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.

Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” plays during this scene from “The Strangers: Prey at Night” featuring Damian Maffei, left, and Lewis Pullman.

That’s entirely due to its use of music, in particular a pair of bombastic 1980s power ballads. In the aforementioned scene, a madman in a dumpy suit with a burlap sack over his head attacks a teenager in the swimming pool of a trailer park complex, surrounded by neon-lit palm trees. Blaring on the soundtrack, improbably, is Tyler’s immortal 1983 torch song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” “I really need you tonight!” Tyler screams, as Burlap Sack swings an ax at the young man.

A few scenes later, a young girl is being chased down by a pickup truck (driven by Burlap Sack, alas) as it pumps Air Supply’s 1983 cheese rock anthem, “Making Love Out of Nothing At All.” The girl fights back, blows up the truck, yet it keeps charging at her, and now it’s on fire, and yep, its stereo still works. The image of a flaming truck chasing down the girl while Air Supply’s Russell Hitchcock bellows, “I can make every stadium rock!” (side note: can he?) made me as giddy as I’ve been at the movies in years.

There’s no technical term for the cinematic technique where pop songs are juxtaposed with incongruous visuals. You can call them ironic music cues, and they’ve been around long enough that they can be considered a cliché. But when done well, they can be hugely effective and can wind up recasting a song forever.

Think about Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” which is inseparable from the scene in “Reservoir Dogs” where Michael Madsen cuts off a guy’s ear. Or Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” a hauntingly sad pop song about lost love that was turned straight up haunting when David Lynch used it as psycho killer Frank Booth’s personal get-pumped anthem in “Blue Velvet.”

Music is one of the greatest tools at a filmmaker’s disposal. Scoring a scene to a well-known pop song is a risk: Viewers attach their own set of meanings and memories to pop songs and carry those with them into a movie, and getting them to part with those preconceived notions can be a challenge. Anyone whose wedding song was “Total Eclipse of the Heart” probably wouldn’t appreciate its use in “Strangers: Prey at Night,” but then again those people probably shouldn’t have had a breakup ballad as their wedding song in the first place.

When done well, that risk can be immensely rewarding. In Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” Britney Spears’ intimate piano ballad “Everytime” is set against a slow-mo montage of robberies and rated-R shenanigans. It shouldn’t work but yet it works so well, and its use re-contextualized both the song and the accompanying scenes by flipping them both on their ear.

Several of the most stirring examples of ironic music cues occur in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” when all manner of joyous compositions — “Singin’ in the Rain” among them — are used to score horrific acts of violence. These scenes are a commentary on culture’s desensitization to violence and they’re effective because they toy with our expectations, challenging us to confront the on-screen brutality in a manner that’s uncomfortable. (Kubrick also pulled one over on audiences with his use of “We’ll Meet Again” during the nuclear climax of “Dr. Strangelove.”)

The music cues in “The Strangers: Prey at Night” — both “Total Eclipse” and “Making Love” are composed by Jim Steinman, it should be noted — are not as masterful as Kubrick’s, but they hit a sweet spot. “Turn around bright eyes” now has a whole new meaning.

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