Wednesday 1 February 2017

We Don't Go Back #33: Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

(This post should also be considered On a Thousand Walls #0)
Occasionally in this project I've come across something that is wholly relevant to my interests, but which I can't quite categorise. Before I saw Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, I wasn't entirely sure why it was so popular with folk horror fans. When I read Adam Scovell's Urban Wyrd article, I thought, aha, this story of a chap working in a sound studio must be part of that, and I initially included it in the list I drew up for On a Thousand Walls, and now I've seen it... it sort of it and it sort of isn't. What is it, then?
Strike a light, what's he doing to her?
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a sound engineer, a quiet, kind man who lives with his mum and creates magical sound effects with lightbulbs and everyday objects for bucolic documentaries and children's TV in his shed. He's a portmanteau of a number of figures, part Oliver Postgate and Gordon Murray, part Ernest Berk and Delia Derbyshire. He's far from his shed, though; he's come to Italy to work in the Berberian Sound Studio, to do  the dubbing, mastering and sound effects for a film called Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex). He thinks it's about someone who rides horses. In fact, it's a giallo movie, and an exceptionally gory, stabby one at that, wherein witches rise from the dead, goblins stalk and women get tortured and killed in a thousand gory ways.
Massimo and Massimo will demonstrate.
Gilderoy, aided by a team of grumpy and variably useful technicians, has to duplicate the sounds of heads being smashed, bodies falling to the ground, hair being pulled out, and worse, mostly by stabbing, smashing, tearing and crushing fruit and vegetables. We don't see much of the movie. We see the women who dub the voices of the principal actors, the man who voices the "aroused goblin" and  the bins full of rotting, discarded veg. And we see Gilderoy's face, over and over again as he watches the film closely and makes the sounds of the splatters and thuds of abused women's bodies.

Gilderoy never seems to leave; later, we find, his lodging directly abuts the sound stage. And as the film progresses, we find that Gilderoy can't leave. 
This is not a horror film! This is a Santini film.
The people making the film are as sleazy as the film.The producer, Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco) is a bully. The director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancini) is a pretentious primadonna. They, it is implied, hire actresses who will sleep with them; their stunningly beautiful but heroically rude receptionist (Tonia Sotiropoulou) was certainly not hired for her people skills, nor her administrative competence.

Gilderoy, although continually upbraided for his rudeness by producer and director, nonetheless is kind to everyone in the studio, and perhaps this is why one of the voice actors, Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) begins to return his kindness, and confides in him.   
The dead rise.
But Gilderoy is no less trapped. And as he watches Santini's scenes closely, over and over, the better to match the atrocities he visits on cabbages, radishes and melons with the film's violence, the greater the toll it takes on him. He wants to be home, recording birdsong and tinking waters, creating the sounds of Soup Dragons and Mouse Organs.

He's an innocent. But this world eats innocents up. He tries to leave; both the director and the producer say he is "trying to escape". He tries to refuse to make any more sound effects, as if not doing this anymore will somehow stop the cinematic torment he is forced to watch. It doesn't work.
Forget the mic. I just want to scream.
By the third act of the film, threads coming together suggest that neither Gilderoy nor the sound studio itself are all they seem. A running thread about his expenses claim starts comically and takes a sinister turn.

And yes, the film has a big twist. A film like this always has a twist; telling you that is hardly a spoiler. There's always an ...or is he? or an ...or was it? or an ...or is it really? The pleasure in a film like this is working out what the twist will be. Plot twists in films like this, particularly extreme and weird ones, can break a film's plot in two. I had to think pretty hard about the big plot twist in Berberian Sound Studio. It doesn't spell out what it means, just shows you the consequences, and I think that while it seems like it comes out of nowhere, actually there's enough in the set-up to make it work. It's not foreshadowed, exactly, but it is a fairly sensible development.  

Essentially, Gilderoy's complicity is inescapable. He's here making this movie, and it isn't so much a horror movie as a really horrible one. It is a horrible, rapey movie that treats women like meat (and veg), and whose actresses are disposable, used. 
The alchemist at work.
Why am I even reviewing Berberian Sound Studio?

Well. First, it's a movie about horror, a metahorror or an antihorror if you like. The film Gilderoy is working on, Il Vortice Equestre, is about witches tortured to death who come back and wreak bloody vengeance centuries later, as far as you can tell. It's got all the folk horror signifiers, in short. But it's exploitative and nasty, and Berberian Sound Studio wants you to imagine it as really, really horrid. But on the other hand, Strickland clearly really likes films like that. He wants to explore the problems that they have, the nastiness inherent in giallo movies, but he also wants to celebrate the ingenuity that the classic horror film directors had.
The goblin is here.

Second, and more importantly, Berberian Sound Studio is about the TV and film of the 70s, and there is a powerful argument that the 70s were a golden age for horror and drama alike, an era where a movie like Psychomania or a TV play like Penda's Fen could be made without executive interference, where people like David Gladwell could get funding to make things like Requiem for a Village. Meanwhile, it was the heyday for giallo movies like Suspiria (and while Suspiria is a film I really don't rate, I'd be stupid to ignore the importance of it). What Strickland has done is bring them together. Berberian Sound Studio is a fond but also critical homage to an era where special effects were home-made and directors could be mavericks because no one in management was paying attention to them, or even watching the films. And it was the era that produced Penda's Fen and The Clangers just as much as it did Suspiria and Don't Torture a Duckling. These things are, Strickland argues, two sides of the same coin.

This is also sort of the one big problem with the film. You're supposed to sympathise with Gilderoy not wanting to take part in the horrors of the film and be disturbed when the movie (figuratively) eats him, but this sits uneasily with the fact that Peter Strickland clearly adores this sort of movie, and the loving homage doesn't quite gel with Berberian Sound Studio's thesis.

Berberian Sound Studio provides a commentary on the background from which folk horror as a genre sprang. It's not so much about the wyrd harvest as about the forest, the furrows, the fields.
Box Hill.
Reviewers have showered Berberian Sound Studio with plaudits. Its soundtrack is excellent (it was apparently the last thing done by Trish Keenan of Broadcast before her tragic and untimely death). Toby Jones gives, as he always does, a fabulous performance, and is entirely convincing in the subtle ways he expresses all the twists of Gilderoy's character. The direction is focussed and the script does not flag. The ending holds water, if you think about it. But I still honestly don't know if I like it or not. As fascinating as the film is, as much as it clearly has depths that I have yet to unlock, I am not sure the tension between the reprehensibility of the unseen film-within-the-film and the obvious affection Strickland holds for the genre it represents doesn't make Berberian Sound Studio too difficult to engage with.