Sound and fury
Kafka meets Italian horror in Peter Strickland dark new film, confirming his place within an elite class that includes such leftfielders as Roeg and Buñuel. He talks to TARA BRADY
THE SUNNIER END of the movieverse is littered with stories of little films that could and outsiders made good. There are talisman tales of Robert Rodriguez, who made his breakthrough feature El Mariachi for $7,000, or Kevin Smith, who maxed out his credit cards to produce global hit Clerks.
At first glance, Peter Strickland fits neatly into this Cinderella template. The story of how the young British writer-director turned a small inheritance into the award-winning Transylvanian thriller Katalin Varga made headlines in 2009 when the film played in the Berlin Film Festival alongside the works of major arthouse pitchers Chen Kiage, Costa-Gavras, Andrej Wajda and the late Theo Angelopoulos. It even took home the Silver Bear. More impressively, Strickland had set and shot the picture in the Hungarianspeaking region of Romania, despite knowing little to none of the language.
“I made a lot of good friends but it was a real pain,” recalls Strickland, who directed his bemused Romanian crew in TEFL English. “It’s a weird one because I wouldn’t be here talking to you without it. It did propel me forward. But it’s not a happy memory. It’s a bit like getting an insurance claim after you’ve injured yourself and you’re basically fucked.”
It’s easy to see why the crew might be puzzled by Strickland’s angular use of shots and framing. Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s sophomore picture, confirms his place within an elite class of eccentric, cineliterate filmmakers: a new Nic Roeg or the English Charlie Kaufman.
When most young guns of his generation cite Star Wars or Jaws, Strickland plumps for the Quay Brothers’ unsettling stop-motion animation, Street of Crocodiles and Performance. “I wouldn’t dare compare myself to the directors I love,” protests the unassuming filmmaker. “Nicolas Roeg blew me away when I was younger. I love those strange shots and close ups of his. I love Buñuel too and how caustic and savage Buñuel is without being at all bombastic.”
Never mind the modesty: there’s more than a hint of these film titans about Strickland’s new film. Berberian Sound Studio concerns Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an English sound engineer lately summoned to Italy to work on a 1970s Giallo picture. The gore of The Equestrian Vortex, the film within the film, remains completely offscreen as Gilderoy records and mixes cabbage stabbings, watermelon dissections, and overwritten subtitles: “Signora Collatina’s sacrificial attack is thwarted and the tables are brutally turned!”
The operatic Italian sub-genre, which did for horror films what Spaghetti Westerns did for cowboys, is noted for its idiosyncratic sound designs and unwieldy titles: its quintessential canon includes Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Deconstructing the Giallo into a series of sound effects and clunky, Italian dialogue offered limitless possibilities, although Berberian’s tricksy, psychological scares are rather more naturalistic than anything found in the films that inspired its setting.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a horror fan really,” admits Strickland. “But the Italian Gialli pictures were cinematic and otherworldly and had such a unique sound. You just didn’t find that level of experimentation and care anywhere else in the world at that time. It was far closer to the stuff coming out of the Cologne School and Stockhausen Studio than anything coming from cinema. So much of it is completely jarring. I played a friend a beautiful piece of music recently and they had no idea it came from Cannibal Holocaust. So its a really exciting genre to play around with. There’s so much fun to be had. All of the sound in our film is real and diegetic even if the sounds represent unrealistic things. We didn’t cheat. It’s all real sound. No blood whatsoever. It was a game. It was like being a kid in a sweet shop.”