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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 1, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    The world’s scariest sounds

    Laurence Mackin

    And we’re back. After a few weeks of jetsetting and general lounging, we’re back chained to our usual hot keyboard post, with nothing but coffee and the (metaphorical) whip of the editor’s whip to keep us focused, so normal artistically minded service is here by resumed. We apologise for the interruption in service, but even dancing bears need holidays, you know. Two whole weeks without once hearing the word Nama. It’s bliss I tell you, pure bliss.

    But back to matters at hand. We made it back to terra firma in time for Halloween, and a cracking one it was too. I was lucky enough to be playing in the lovely Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast on Halloween night, performing  a live soundtrack with 3epkano to perhaps the best vampire flick of them all – Nosferatu. They don’t make them like that any more.

    But it was another horror film that got us thinking, after Richie Egan (he of Jape and Redneck Manifesto fame) was raving about its sound design on Twitter t’other day. The Exorcist, as Egan rightly pointed out, must have some of the best sound effects in the history of cinema, in particular that horrible wrenching sound as the possessed girl’s head turns through 360 degrees. The man responsible for that particularly gruesome soundbite is one Gonzalo Gavira. He was a foley artist drafted in by director William Friedkin to give some truly upsetting texture to this terrifying bit of film. He spoke no English, though this didn’t stop him getting the gist of the film. Friedkin described Gavira’s work in this extract from an NPR interview (which you can find in full here):

    “He had a translator there who was his brother-in-law. And after he saw the film, about a half hour afterwards, he said in Spanish, okay, I’m ready. And I said, ready for what? And he said I’m ready to do the effects. And he stood in front of an open mic. And for example, the sound of the little girl’s head turning completely around, he borrowed an old cracked leather wallet from his brother-in-law and it had credit cards in it. And he held this right very close to a microphone and started to bend the wallet. And you heard this cracking and creaking, which became that sound.”

    Gavira has become something of a legend. He came to Friedkin’s attention thanks to his work on cult Mexican film El Topo, and arrived into the studio shoeless and with no equipment. He then used his own body and found objects to create these extraordinary sounds that are such a hallmark of the film. But it’s the leather trick that has become an iconic bit of film lore.

    Has anyone seen my wallet?

    I would have thought that foley artists were a dying breed, thanks to high quality digital sound archives, but happily the business appears to be in good health. There are plenty of foley featurettes as DVD extras, but few of them will ever attain the level of effectiveness of Gavira and his masterful touches on The Exorcist. There’s a much more detailed article on the wider sound design for the film here, including some fascinating information on how Lalo Schifrin’s score for the film ended up being flung across a carpark.  I can just imagine the engineers trying to mix the sound for the rest of the film. “Stick a bit of reverb on that slaughtered pig sample, will ye? Sound.”

    • Matthew says:

      What a movie. I think the best sound effect in The Exorcist comes from the initially uncredited Mercedes McCambridge. Check it out…

    • Yes, the Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made and what better time to see than on Halloween. You know I have never seen the Exorcist and I refuse because I just may never sleep again. Agreed, the sound in a movie is always the scariest part because it tells you something is about to happen and you have to wait for it. My personal favorite scarey movie is one called “Angelheart” starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro from the late ’80′s, The part at the end where Mickey Rourke is in the old ricketty metal fraight elevator going down is just so terrifying.

    • minxiEeek says:

      Performing a live soundtrack to Nosferatu !! How brilliant.
      Wondering if 3epkano had pre-composed a piece or did you guys make it up as you watched the film and did you record the soundtrack……..
      There is only one Max Schreck — cutest vampire ever…such a sweetie.
      @ Matthew — wish you didn’t post that — scary woman that Mercedes

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Matthew – Her role is incredible, that article about the full soundtrack goes on about the torture she put herself through to get the sounds right. Outstanding and slightly disturbing.

      Jennifer – While doing a bit of research for this I scared the bejeesus out of myself the other night at home with the laptop. I was going to post the actual film clip of her neck turning but there is some, eh, choice language in it that is perhaps not fitting for a blog of the paper of record. And you are right on the money with Angel Heart. Still terrifies me.

      minxiEeek – Bit off topic, but no harm at all. Yes, the soundtrack is original but pre-composed (does that make it sound as if it’s rotting?). That wasn’t the first time it was performed. That said, there is a good bit of improvisation involved. We tend to work off a series of musical cues with fairly specific lengths and go from there. And nope, we didn’t record that particular gig.

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