The sound of vi­o­lence

This hor­ror film shows what you hear mat­ters as much as what you see, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

ONE CAN EAS­ILY imag­ine some silly fel­low emerg­ing from Peter Strick­land’s obliquely mirac­u­lous sec­ond fea­ture and an­nounc­ing that the thing was “uncin­e­matic”. Af­ter all, Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio takes place al­most en­tirely within three rooms. There aren’t any ex­plo­sions. There is much dis­cus­sion of witches, demons and vi­o­lent evis­cer­a­tions, but none of those phe­nom­ena makes an ap­pear­ance on screen. Couldn’t this thing have worked as a ra­dio play?

As it hap­pens, the im­ages are more in­trigu­ingly slip­pery than that pré­cis sug­gests. But this meta-hor­ror film ar­gues that, in

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cinema, sound de­sign mat­ters – or, rather, should mat­ter – ev­ery bit as much as cin­e­matog­ra­phy. With his wild Tran­syl­va­nian re­venge drama Katalin Varga, Strick­land demon­strated that he al­ready knows how to film the wide ex­panses. Now, he turns in­wards with star­tling re­sults.

Set in an im­pres­sively drab, faintly Kafkaesque ver­sion of the 1970s, Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio fol­lows Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a quiet English sound en­gi­neer – close to his mother, fond of tweed – as he trav­els to Italy to work on an out­ra­geous hor­ror movie en­ti­tled The Eques­trian Vor­tex. Ev­ery as­pect of the task causes him stress.

Ges­tur­ing to­wards the great gi­al­los of Dario Ar­gento, Mario Bava and Lu­cio Fulci, the film turns out to be a dis­turb­ing fes­ti­val of mad­ness, dur­ing which red-hot pok­ers are shoved where no poker should go. The pro­tag­o­nist’s at­tempts to se­cure ex­penses are re­buffed with flam­boy­ant Ital­ian in­sou­ciance. The di­rec­tor be­comes in­ap­pro­pri­ately friendly with one of the fe­male ac­tors.

Gilderoy con­tin­ues to ply his strange trade. In a rare trib­ute to the world of the Fo­ley artist, the film ob­serves the hero and his col­leagues as they sim­u­late dis­mem­ber­ments by hack­ing a wide va­ri­ety of veg­eta­bles and fruits. In one gor­geously spooky mo­ment, Gilderoy cre­ates the noise of a de­scend­ing space ship by rub­bing a light bulb along a metal­lic sur­face.

His labours do not, how­ever, dis­tract him from the var­i­ous pres­sures. Grad­u­ally, Gilderoy be­gins to lose grip on re­al­ity as he finds his life melt­ing into the bizarre uni­verse of The Eques­trian Vor­tex.

The only clip we see of the hor­ror film is a flashy ti­tle se­quence fea­tur­ing brash reds, bold geo­met­ric shapes and mu­sic that – de­spite match­ing the pe­riod – still sounds vaguely fu­tur­is­tic. Ju­lian House, founder of the Ghost Box record com­pany, de­signed the ex­cerpt and the en­tire film shares that la­bel’s in­ter­est in the class of post-war ana­logue bof­fin who cre­ated the BBC Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop.

Ghost Box mu­sic and Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio seek out those places where car­pet-slip­per cosi­ness and an­tic un­ease form un­ruly com­bi­na­tions. The slight­est glimpse of any poster-paint gi­allo blood would im­me­di­ately dis­man­tle that care­fully main­tained aes­thetic. Played with hooded vow­els and closed hand move­ments by the im­pec­ca­ble Jones, Gilderoy can lis­ten to – in­deed cre­ate – the noise of tor­tured witches, but he would surely van­ish into noth­ing if shown be­side such a beast. He moves through the world of Michael Pow­ell’s Peep­ing Tom and the ghost sto­ries of MR James (many of which in­volve mid­dle-aged men vis­it­ing un­fa­mil­iar lo­ca­tions). Less ex­otic ter­rors dom­i­nate their land­scapes.

Mind you, the film is a great deal stranger that even those sin­gu­lar en­ter­tain­ments. Strick­land is not sure Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio can ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as a hor­ror movie. It, per­haps, re­quires the same sort of stretch – that’s to say a mod­est one – to place the film in that genre as it would to ma­noeu­vre David Lynch’s Eraser­head into sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory. For all the cre­ative fusti­ness on dis­play, the di­rec­tor proves him­self at home to en­try-level post­mod­ernism as he in­cor­po­rates bu­colic news­reel into the pic­ture’s later, in­creas­ingly trou­bled fi­nal act. As in the best hor­ror films, those clos­ing scenes work hard to tug away the au­di­ence’s few re­main­ing com­fort blan­kets. As in Lynch’s finest work, the de­noue­ment al­lows many ex­pla­na­tions, but gives the firm im­pres­sion that no one so­lu­tion will an­swer the many ques­tions posed.

For all the ghosts sum­moned up, Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio still comes across like noth­ing else you’ve ever seen – or, more to the point, heard.

Cab­bage car­nage: Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio

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