One of my fav horror films is Experiment IV (1986) because it’s nice and short and not really a film at all, it’s a Kate Bush song and music video, and my attention span for movies diminishes more with each day of my life, which is honestly whatever. Kate Bush’s meta-apocalypse has the decency to be under five minutes, allowing me to down it quick so I can move on to another long, busy night of literally sitting on my futon and thinking about feelings.
Experiment IV opens on an unnamed scientist slouching through the rain. With his white moustache and pouting demeanor, he evokes a weary Einstein. Unlike everyone else around him, he doesn’t carry an umbrella, but instead he clutches his briefcase like some kind of desperate asshole. He’s immediately portrayed as a defeatist, a man convinced he doesn’t have the power to improve the bad conditions around him. Love that speedy characterization!
Our guy walks into a music store, where he’s directed through a curtained doorway into a massive, bright lab hallway, while Bush sings “we were working secretly for the military.” She will go on to detail a government experiment meant to harness sound into a lethal weapon, but that’s a spoiler alert. At this point in the film, we don’t know this intel.
“Our experiment in sound is nearly ready to begin,” Bush sings next, and I like this description because it’s so neutral. Experiment in sound could describe her own work with pop music. Who knows, maybe Kate Bush is confessing something in this song? Maybe the British military actually tapped her to make a murder sound? And this song is her way of telling us about it? I think this is a real conspiracy now. Did you also know Kate Bush did the soundtrack for the moon landing?
But going back to her mini horror movie, our guy meets a colleague in the secret, guarded hallway. She’s a woman with a Billy Idol haircut and a confidant stride to match it. Her nametag reads 969, which is both an anonymous designation and a kind-of inverted 666.
In a dizzying dolly shot, they fly down the hallway. The background rapidly recedes, while the scientists remain in the foreground. They move like they’re calmly strolling, jarringly out of sync with their speed. I like this effect, the measured stride against a frantically diminishing background, it's what militaristic progress feels like to me. 969 manages to smile at passing cohorts, classic emotional labor, but she regards her weary colleague with concern and anxiety.
At this part Bush sings, “we only know in theory what we are doing.” This succinctly summarizes the actual attitudes of nuclear bomb experiments, which, I believe, inspire this song (Bush has another song called "Breathing" memorably about fears associated with atomic bomb testing).
Some history i happen to know: in 1958, the u.s. president’s chief science advisor oversaw the detonation of two thermonuclear bombs inside the ozone layer, you know just to see what would happen. They could not fully know if this would blow a hole into our planet’s atmosphere, but they theorized that if it did, no worries, the hole would be closed by “bomb-produced turbulence and ambient motions.” So yeah these experiments were fucked. After the first atmospheric detonation test, Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun was so terrified he silently fled the scene before the second test could take place. And i feel like i need to mention they locked monkeys and rabbits in Clockwork-Orange-style gadgets that forced them to stare head-on at the explosion. Their retinas burned away in seconds.
I think this is the sort of history Bush references with her song, and the music video is a character study reflecting its more unwilling perpetrators. We learn that the scientists began their careers innocently enough, with experiments producing “music for pleasure.” They were apparently hippies recruited by the military into the creation of a truly killer sound.
In a flashback scene, a general seems to bully the weary old scientist, who, by the way, is revealed by a document to be named Jerry Coe (bravissima). While the general badgers him, Jerry slumps and hides his face. 969 helps hold him up, facing the sneering general like a protective knight. I look at this scene like it’s that straight girl who is always wasting her protective energies on some old, self-pitying doofus caving into all of society's worst impulses. Instead of fighting to stop this gnarly project, 969 exerts her efforts on soothing Jerry throughout the process.
In the movie’s funniest moment of grim humor, 969 serves tea and biscuits while Jerry records “the painful cries of mothers.” Other terrible noises are collected and somehow compounded into a fantastical machine that resembles a radio but produces, as it turns out, a hot demon thing.
They test their sonic weapon on some rando guy they bondaged to a chair, which is pretty brutal. The lighting is highly stylized and Goth Blue. A ghost lady floats out of their invention, and this is how Kate Bush makes her appearance, as the ghost lady. She wears tacky lipstick, a long blonde wig, and has the perfect glowing skin of a television. It’s way more doll than the usual Bush look. She blows kisses and seems all cutesy flirty, singing “it could feel like falling in love.”
The mood rapidly shifts when she sings, “It could sing you to sleep, but that dream is your enemy,” beginning a super creepy backwards lullaby. The ghost proceeds to take off her lady mask, revealing her head is actually a shriveled demon with protrusive, pointy fish teeth. Amazing! Flexing her horrible bat-like wings, she explodes the observation booth window. This depiction of sexualized death feels satirical and more humorous than frightening. After evoking our lived-in militaristic nightmare, Bush camps it up. It’s cool.
Jerry tries to end the madness, but his resolve to act comes far too late. The demon flies over to face him, so close they’re nose-to-nose, and we see the monstrosity as his reflection (deep!). The guy just dies right there on the spot. Broken heart probably. 969, meanwhile, is buried to death in film, which is potentially a commentary on us, the viewer, overly saturated in visual music and musical movies, just think of Kate Bush stuffing reels of sharp film in your face and shouting, “You want more media? Here’s your media! Eat it!” And if that turns you on e-mail me, i have plenty more Kate Bush dominatrix fic.
The monster annihilates everyone at the testing lab. For her rampage, Bush borrows the hyper-demonic POV dolly from the Evil Dead movies. Don’t you see, by using the POV, it’s like WE, the VIEWER, are the DEMON. So the demon (us) kills everyone in its path as it flies down the hallway (which is lit a lot darker than when we last saw it, which is symbolism for spooky). In their white lab coats, panicked scientists are indistinct from their experimental subjects, who flee in white straightjackets. Oh, and Hugh Laurie dies.
The monster even shows up as Kate Bush again, this time in a military uniform and serving tea to the nasty general that bullied the poor hippie scientists into doing all this destruction. After she serves the tea, the hellish bat demon is superimposed over her face, and for this shot Kate Bush whips out her iconic crazed-eye-bulge (see her “Babooshka” video for another great example of this). Then in the last few shots, we bear somber witness to a decimated bureaucracy, papers floating over a trail of wide-eyed corpses.
Kate Bush deserves more credit as a crafter of terror. Her catalog references more horror movies than the wretched canon of Glen Danzig and she has the spookiest, weirdest stories in her songs. She has songs about snowman sex, a mom who helps her daughter cover up a murder, and a person who wastes away while enraptured with a loving computer program. Very relatable.e copied her.