Director: Peter Strickland. Artificial Eye/Film 4/UK Film Council/Match Factory et al (15).
1970’s: a timid British sound engineer (Jones) arrives at a mysterious Italian film studio to provide blood curdling aural atmosphere to a strange horror film involving witches, female students and horses. The staff there are curt and undermine him, seemingly oblivious as to how important it is for him to claim back his flight expenses. Slowly, as he gets more into his work and the on-screen horror permeates deeper into his consciousness, reality and fantasy become blurred and a nightmare starts to awake.
Sometimes, cinema can be directly placed in a specific period of film history. Silent cinema, obviously, dominating the early years of the movies, film noir of which the better efforts sprang up all over in the 1940’s and, to a lesser degree, 1950’s. The Italian ‘Giallo’ film is a good and gorily extreme and overt marker of the 1970’s.
This most distinct of horror films is characterised as being a gruesome murder-mystery or thriller, with Hitchcockian suspense and shock elements and extreme blood-letting, stylish camerawork and jarring music (see Wikipedia page here for a deeper definition). The term ‘Giallo’ comes from the Italian for yellow, deriving from a series of pulpy books in Italy that had yellow covers.
With that definition in mind, writer-director Strickland’s second feature film is absolutely one of the most intelligently constructed and unsettling horror films of recent years, not least because the ubiquitous film, The Equestrian Vortex, is never seen, only ever heard through dangling sentences of disembodied dialogue and the creation of the gruesome sound effects.
Hitchcock once said of film that the oral was supplementary, but the exact opposite is true of this film where sound screechingly comes to the fore throughout, proudly dominating proceedings as the usually neglected other half of the filmic coin struts its loud stuff.
Of the visuals though, Strickland teases with leading imagery. Our first shot is of Jones walking down the studio’s corridor, blurring into haziness to signify right from the outset his insignificance in this scenario, as well as his fragile mental state that will become more obvious as we progress.
The shots of the fruit and veg being splattered and shredded in ever more imaginative and violent ways in the name of art come across like a veritable vegetable visceration (Jones comments at one point, seemingly without irony, ‘It sounds a little watery. Is there any fresh marrow?’)
The seventies reconstruction, with cow-lick hairstyles for the girls and crisp, ‘pimpesque’ suits for the guys, adds lashings of atmosphere. Props-wise, the then cutting edge electronic equipment now looks amusingly antique, even to those of us not familiar with inner workings of post-production facilities.
Central to the success of the entire film is Jones, one of this country’s and this art form’s own hitherto hidden gems. Meek and haunted from the outset, he portrays an unnervingly convincing breakdown as the sounds he creates swirl around him in their own vortex and permeate his consciousness.
Not that the film, blessed with awesome, soaring sound design, needs it. Berberian Sound Studio, if nothing else, is a welcome peak into an overlooked aspect of movie production (When Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, 1981 is one of few notable films to feature a movie sound engineer as a lead character, you know your outward cinematic profile isn’t that high).
Throughout the film, there is a pervading cacophony of spectral noise, as if Strickland is attempting to derange our minds as well as Jones’. The banshee-like hissing and screeching of a voice-artiste who plays the witches, the whispering of the lead actresses that chirrup in Jones’ brain like the poor chicks in the birds nest outside his mother’s home that she writes him update letters about, the discordant mixing equipment that perverts their screams into a mad wail stretched to their infinite vocal limits. Strickland’s match-cut from an actresses scream to Jones blending tomatoes underlines this neatly.
Strickland also scores with pint-point accurate dialogue. The director of the film helps one of his actresses get more into a frightened characters by advising her: ‘You hardly sound like you’re seconds away from being penetrated by a red-hot poker’.
Although the film is obviously more concerned with the construction and science of sound and realism and representation on film, the only downside is that the ‘horror’ works a bit too stealthily rather than showing anything grisly and overt like the Giallio that is apes. None the less, Strickland has created an admirably spooky piece that takes a decidedly different route to chilling its viewers.
And the best advice as how to enjoy this film? With the volume RIGHT UP.
(To hear it straight from the horse’s mouth about how accurate they felt the film was, read this snippet from The Guardian with sound engineer Adam Mendez).
Cast & credits
Producers: Keith Griffiths, Mary Burke.
Writer: Peter Strickland.
Camera: Nic Knowland.
Sets: Jennifer Kernke.
Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed Salvatore, Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou.