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.”
As Gilderoy’s experiences in Berberian Sound Studio turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare, the film turns its strange library of sounds into an increasingly discombobulating musique concrète opera. A lightbulb becomes a spooky makeshift Theremin; cabbages can sound like bats or beheadings. Suffice it to say, the film’s grocery bill was rather high.
“An embarrassing amount of the budget went on vegetables,” notes the Reading-born director. “The smell on set was hideous, almost amusingly hideous. We just put them in these troughs and vats and left them so we could shoot 10 days of decaying vegetables. Lucky it wasn’t meat. Why didn’t we use more celeriac when we had the chance?”
It’s tempting to see Berberian Sound System as part of a larger, post-Stereolab vogue for angular electronica and hauntology. Since 2005, boutique record imprint Trunk Records has gathered together a spectacular collection of creepy cult sounds of the 1970s, sampling music from Deep Throat, Night of the Living Dead, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Clangers and the humming, seminal frequencies of Irish composer Desmond Leslie. Elsewhere, Julian House and Jim Jupp’s Ghost Box Records have turned BBC stock and public information films into the sci-fi soundscapes of Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle.
“A lot of it is coincidence, but there is something in the air,” says Strickland, who collaborated with Julian House on Berberian Sound Studio. “There is a renewed interest in people like Basil Kirchin and Vernon Elliott and Desmond Leslie, who really conform to that idea of the eccentric working away in their garden shed. I started Berberian as a joke back in 2005, but since then there is more awareness of engineers like Joe Meek and the craft involved in analogue sound production. There was a real alchemy about that work. You can see why people like Joe Meek and Graham Bond eventually became involved in black magic and the occult. What they do is like a spell, something experiential. Because I was aware of Ghost Box, I approached Julian House who had ideas for the film I would never have thought of. He suggested that the credit sequence shouldn’t be for our film but for The Equestrian Vortex. Things like that.”
You don’t have to be a Giallo hound or an analogue geek to appreciate Berberian Sound Studio. Hence, Mr Strickland has just been snapped up by Ben Kill List Wheatley’s producers and by Film 4 to develop two separate love stories: “I think I’ve done enough dark stuff to put it aside for a little while.”
* Berberian Sound Studio opens next Friday