[Author: Krzysztof Ryszard Wojciechowski]
Barbara Steele, one of the first scream queens in the history of cinema, when asked about the making of the Italian horror film “The Mask of Satan”, confessed to journalists that Mario Bava, the director, had forced her to learn several kinds of screaming. Barbara was actually fantasizing a little, simply because her screams didn’t really interest Bava. The sound effects of both the English and Italian version of the film were recorded entirely in the studio, and the voice of her character was dubbed over by other actresses. Mario Bava – like so many other Italian filmmakers – had by default given up on recording sound live on the set. This solution had spared him plenty of trouble, and allowed directors in general to fully concentrate on the visual aspect of a film, relieved from having to worry about tangled cables or distracting microphones looking like “rats on poles”. This interesting phenomenon also had an impact on the final reception of the film, as the indirect setting of dialogues and sound effects intensified even more the oneirism so characteristic of Italian genre cinema. This concept has been used in Peter Strickland’s second film; a very promising director, not yet widely known.
His films have something in common with Nicolas Winding Refn’s works. Just like the Danish director, Strickland takes by the handful from genre cinema, which he is deconstructing but at the same time paying a certain tribute to. His intentions are distant from Tarantino’s pastiche; he’s rather inclined towards independent cinema in John Cassavetes’ style (especially “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”, probably the most ‘genre’ film of all his works). With his debut – a thriller disguised as intimate arthouse cinema – Strickland had craftily sneaked into festival societies. In his latest work he reverses the role of form and content, unveiling the other side of his creativity – “Berberian Sound Studio” is a an arthouse film stylized on Italian horror.
The film tells the story of a British sound engineer (Toby Jones, known mostly from “Infamous” where he played Truman Capote) hired by an Italian studio to work on an extremely brutal and perverse horror film directed by someone named Giancarlo Santini. Our character is an excellent craftsman, but never had the opportunity to work on a horror film. As we learn from the context, his normal work environment are nature films and programs for children. The title of the aforementioned film is “Equestrian Vortex”, so he is convinced that it is somehow going to be connected to horses. From the snippets of information given to us we learn that in addition to the horses other elements can also be found here: witches, the Inquisition, an elite school for young girls and the torture and murders of women. A lot of torture and murders of women.
From the very first scenes, the director of “Berberian Sound Studio” suggests that we are dealing with a disturbing, scary film – a thriller, perhaps even a bloody slasher film. Meanwhile, we don’t experience a single dead body, although inside the imagination of the protagonist hundreds will fall. During the scenes of post synchro recording, we don’t see any scenes from Santini’s film either. These images are replaced by complicated timeline graphics where painted areas mark different sounds. In one of the opening scenes these areas take the shape of something resembling a Gothic castle. Although we aren’t aware of that just then, Strickland’s hero will have to wander within this labyrinth.
The sounds that accompany the scenes of mutilation are recorded using stabbed, chopped and crushed fruit and vegetables. The most disturbing and evocative scenes are those peculiar and ambiguous close–ups on nature morte, an allegory for dead bodies and gore scenes. Under Strickland’s lens the rotting fruits and vegetables look like silent, majestic zombies from the films of the Italian master of the macabre, Lucio Fulci. To imitate the sounds in the studio all sorts of objects are used – from strings and hammers to specially designed devices – that in the hands of the crew become instruments of torture. The sound engineers forcing the dubbing actresses to everlasting screams resemble the inquisitors. The main character gradually changes as well, to eventually become one of them. As a matter of fact in “Berberian Sound Studio” we don’t see the accused of witchcraft and tortured characters in Santini’s film, but they’re symbolized by voice actresses, women which fall into relationships with studio workers, in the hope that succumbing to their whims will smooth the path of their career. Eventually, they are but used and humiliated by the Italian machos, and in the end really tortured – by the sound of it, as Strickland consistently refuses to show physical violence on the screen.
Information about the fictional film revealed by Strickland suggests that “Equestrian Vortex” is a resultant of two famous Italian Gothic horrors – “Mask of Satan” (1961) by Mario Bava and “Suspiria” (1977) by Dario Argento. The first, sometimes called “the Citizen Kane of horror films” is one of the titles that took the horror genre into a new direction – its pungent effects heralded an upcoming era of gore and abominations, while the sophisticated visual narration set new standards of the language in which amazing celluloid stories could be told. And “Suspiria” is a film so iconic and influential that even though it’s been thirty-five years since its premiere, it’s still a standard of the modern gothic film. Today its echoes strongly resonate in Asian horror. Both directors, apart from creating horror films, were also key representatives of giallo – a variety of hitchock-esque thriller, that during the early sixties has been redefined in Italian style by Bava. In “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) he rejected the B&W aesthetic and psychological aspect of contemporary thrillers, and built the whole story around a series of brutal murders. He turned the film into a violent and bloody rhyme, thereby providing a foundation for the American slasher. The story of “Berberian Sound Studio” is to a large extent based on the deconstruction of the genre. Because Strickland’s film is in fact a direct descendant of “Blowup” where Antonioni also toyed with the conventions of Italian thriller, borrowing the atmosphere and aesthetics, but ignoring its main feature – the act of the crime itself.
The director of “Equestrian Vortex”, Giancarlo Santini, is a grotesque hybrid of these two giallo masters – a womanizer behaving like a rock star, characteristic for Dario Argento, but who also comes to the studio with a dog, just like Mario Bava was in habit of doing. It should be noted that Strickland’s film is by all means not an attempt to recreate a truthful atmosphere of Italian film studios, or redraw the profile of one of these directors. It’s rather an expressionist transposition of fears related to working in the mainstream film industry, just like David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” was a celluloid emanation of his fatherhood fears.
Strickland produced his excellent debut (“Katalin Varga”, 2009) himself, hence it wasn’t a very expensive production. His second work was supported by British producers, but this didn’t change his approach to the cinema matter. The whole action of the film takes place only in the premises and corridors of the sound studio. So apart from the performance of the quite respected these days Toby Jones, the film doesn’t have any costly elements, and that’s probably why the director has maintained his artistic freedom and was able to create another unconventional film. However “Berberian Sound Studio” isn’t in fact devoid of flashy effects, and perhaps there’s even more of them than in an average contemporary production of such a type. The idea was to move the center of gravity from the visual to the aural level. Trick shots are replaced by sound effects. It’s probably the first successful production of this type since “Conversation” by Francis Ford Coppola (also a tribute to “Blowup”) , also very focused on the acoustic element of the narration. There was also a play with a convention of thriller, where voyeurism (so characteristic for thriller poetics) has to a large extent been replaced by eavesdropping. The protagonist of “Berberian Sound Studio” is very similar to the protagonist in Coppola’s film: shy, secretive and withdrawn; the assignment that has been entrusted to him confounds his system of values. However, his professionalism doesn’t allow him to give up the work; he gradually loses himself in it to such an extent that he becomes possessed and begins to lose his mind. In Strickland’s film this vision is further heightened by a claustrophobic atmosphere; the character played by Toby Jones doesn’t leave the studio, thus increasingly furthering himself from the outside world and reality, represented by the his mother’s correspondence that describes an idyllic, rural and mundane life. At some point the content of one of the letters destroys this image as well, and ceases to differ from the gruesome film he’s working on.
When we think of an ambitious exploiting of Italian horror film we mostly remember “Don’t Look Now” by Nicholas Roeg or “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick. Yet “Berberian Sound Studio” is closer to the psychological horror films of David Lynch, who – as it’s often forgotten today, describing his entire work as purely artistic cinema – was also inspired by Italian genre cinema (Bava in particular). A good association would also be “Le Locataire” by Roman Polanski, although we’d find greater connections in “Barton Fink”, derivative to “Le Locataire” but still an excellent picture, that tells the story of a fledgling Hollywood screenwriter suffering from creative impotence and slowly going insane. In Strickland’s film, like in Coen brothers films, we should look for cabalistic/ esoteric metaphors, as the surreal story may suggest that the protagonist is a soul trapped in the netherworld. There’s a mystical and mysterious atmosphere in the studio and during the seance I was wondering whether the crew was celebrating a pagan ritual, in which our unaware sound technician is obliged to assist. A shot of a mysterious hand in a leather glove appears several times in the film (an inseparable attribute of a murderer in Italian thrillers). The hand ends each workday by turning off a film projector. Following the thread of mysticism, we can interpret this character as God or the Demiurge in the Gnostic sense of the word – Lucifer, on whose glory the whole team is working. The clues are obviously obscured, but if we take into consideration that Strickland admits to transgression cinema under the sign of Kenneth Anger (“Lucifer Rising”), it compels us to deliberate over this aspect and at least consider such a possibility.
A multitude of various more or less probable interpretations is one of the features of “Berberian Sound Studio”. Strickland leaves false trails and, just like giallo directors used to do, directs suspicions at another character and thus distracts the viewer’s attention from the real killer. Personally I’d simply read the film on an existential level. Although it may seem like a difficult and enigmatic work, for a horror fan its overtone is quite obvious: the horror is like dubbing, translating our greatest fears and desires to the language of cinema.
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directed by: Peter Strickland
screenplay: Peter Strickland
cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland
cast: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Lara Parmiani
production: Great Britain 2012