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'Berberian Sound Studio' picks up the sounds of violence

In Peter Strickland's film, a Foley artist working on a horror movie enters a horror of his own.

June 08, 2013|By Graham Fuller

No blood is spilled or flesh ripped on screen in "Berberian Sound Studio," Peter Strickland's disturbing satirical thriller about the dubbing of a ferocious horror movie made in the style of giallo directors such as Mario Bava, Pupi Avati and Dario Argento. Instead, all the violence is aural.

The film combines the sounds of atrocities of the kind imagined by Edgar Allan Poe (achieved by the mutilation of vegetables in Foley work), plus eldritch wailings and warblings, unearthly screams and the eeriest of music — mostly provided by James Cargill of the indie electronic band Broadcast. Possibly not since Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" in 1981 has a movie been driven by sound as radically as "Berberian Sound Studio," named for Cathy Berberian, the late avant-garde soprano and composer.

The infernal noises torment the protagonist, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a timid English sound designer and Foley artist of the 1970s, who has been hired by the surly Italian producer Coraggio (Cosimi Fusco) and his womanizing director, Santini (Antonio Manini), to create the dub for "The Equestrian Vortex," a shocker about witches menacing the girl pupils of a riding academy.

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Opening in theaters and available on VOD on June 14, Strickland's second feature is a parable about violence's capacity to inflict psychological damage. Thematically, it follows in the footsteps of his 2009 debut, the quiet, gothic rape revenge drama "Katalin Varga," which the Hungary-based filmmaker shot in Transylvania.

All but a few seconds of "The Equestrian Vortex" are unseen by the viewer. "I felt I would have been defeated if I'd shown all that horror," Strickland said. "I have a genuine fondness for giallos. They were fun — there's no other word for it — and very poetic. But there was an ethical, hopefully not didactic, reason for doing 'Berberian.' When directors try to outdo each other to see who can do the heaviest, most outlandish violence, and when they hide behind moral high ground by saying they're trying to show how terrible violence is, it winds me up.

"When I talk to people about that I get two reactions. One is that 'violence has no influence,' the other is 'violence is terrible and corrupts you.' What about something in the middle? I don't think violent films should be banned, but it should be acknowledged that the violent image is incredibly powerful and can desensitize some people."

Gilderoy, who usually dubs children's TV programs and nature films in the garden shed of the home he shares with his mother in bucolic Surrey, is appalled not only by the sounds he creates but the images he sees.

Said Jones: "The script gave me a feeling for innocence being thrown into decadence, corruption and something rotten deep in the heart of the film that seems to be percolating throughout Gilderoy's whole life suddenly and destroying everything he believes. Even the letters he receives from his mother are about everything falling apart."

His paranoia stoked by the recording crew's contempt, Gilderoy starts to hallucinate and unravel. That's supposing he makes the trip to Italy in the first place — Strickland and Jones both allow that Gilderoy's nightmarish experience could be imaginary.

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Strickland, 40, is a music concrète aficionado who in 1996 launched his own group, the Sonic Catering Band, to record the sound of food cooking. He became entranced by the sonically sophisticated soundtracks composed for giallos by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Bruno Maderna, Bruno Nicolai and the band Goblin.

"I started to realize how integral avant-garde music is to exploitation cinema, how horror lends itself to dissonance, atonal music and music concrète," he said. "I think the best example of that would be Morricone's soundtrack for [Dario] Argento's 'The Bird With the Crystal Plumage' [1970] and Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper's for Hooper's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' [1974]. You could play the 'Texas Chainsaw' soundtrack in a concert hall and people would prick up their ears."

The Anglo-Greek director said the soundtracks for both his films "took their cue" from the French composer Luc Ferrari's concrète masterpiece "Presque rien No. 1" (1970). "It's mostly a field recording," he notes, "but it taught me so much about perspective and editing and foregrounding and distance, and how to achieve a sense of space in a sound mix — for example, hearing dogs bark at night and trying to capture that certain echo."

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