Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

★★★★★

Director: Peter Strickland

Release Date: August 31st, 2012 (UK); June 14th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco

Set in an Italian film studio during the height of Giallo movie-making, it is perfectly fitting that Berberian Sound Studio delivers reels of chills, thrills and spills. Amazingly, it does so without succumbing to the trappings of eye-rolling ‘jump scares’ or masses of gore and guts. Instead, director Peter Strickland patiently allows his piece to breathe before exhaling mesmerising psychological torment. But this isn’t just a brilliantly executed horror film. To say so would be doing the intricately crafted weaves of story telling a disservice. Berberian Sound Studio is an appreciation of the mechanics behind film creation; it is a staunch head shake in the direction of misogynistic bigwigs and overpowering assistants; it is a commentary detailing the struggle and neglect of fame-deprived sound engineers and the like. As the climax dawns, each of these elements come together to create a slow-burning but entirely scintillating mosaic that wishes to glance back fondly, denounce universally and terrify immediately.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a British foley artist recruited by Italian director Santini (surname only) and producer Francesco to provide an audio track for Santini’s next giallo film, The Equestrian Vortex. Drafted to a foreign land and surrounded by equally foreign filmmaking customs, Gilderoy gradually succumbs to the madness of horror. The seeds of mania are planted soon after he arrives and introduces himself to his fellow crew members, as Gilderoy’s request for monetary reimbursement is consistently shunned or diverted, often at self-absorbed mouth of Francesco (Cosimo Fusco). Not only does this signal doubt in Gilderoy’s mind, it is also the first of many gestures towards mistreatment on set. Gilderoy later has a run-in with his cocky director who corrects the sound man’s admission that this is his first experience working on a horror film: “This is not a horror film, this is a Santini film.”

Female actors are subject to overly harsh treatment as they provide voice-overs, to the point of physical damage from relentless takes of screaming and shrieking. Another crew member — frequently present in the sound studio — hardly says a word, indicating a lack of inclusion in the process and perhaps symbolising a lack of dispersed acknowledgement throughout the industry. In fact, the only time any attention is paid towards Gilderoy is during a power cut, when sight is hampered and sound is the only prevailing mode of entertainment. The film’s potency in its upfront portrayal of disingenuous higher-ups (not necessarily directors) commands significant consideration. Is this hierarchical and at times maniacal process of filmmaking warranted if a successful product spawns as a result? It could certainly be argued that Alfred Hitchcock’s very well documented directorial style on set was effective in that it produced genuine emotion from the likes of Tippi Hedren in The Birds, but that most certainly doesn’t mean it is morally justified.

Strickland’s focus on the questionable side of filmmaking is all the more striking when viewed alongside an equal measure of love and affection on display, aimed towards the movie creation process. Intriguing and entirely justified, paralleling the universally positive and occasionally negative side of the industry shines more light on the wonderful mechanics of it all, but also shrouds some events in darkness. Impeccably shot by Nicholas Knowland, the film gives off an air of satisfaction amongst chaos. Gilderoy, whose initial preconception was that the job entailed generating sounds for a film about horses, utilises a whole manner of fruit and veg in his foley work, in turn accurately and grossly mimicking squashed guts, sliced limbs and broken bones. Yet there still remains a sense of achievement as he completes each sound to great effect, and this aura of accomplishment wades its way throughout Berberian Sound Studio as a metaphorical love letter to Giallo movies, and more broadly filmmaking in general.

Vintage film reels and wall charts are eventually incorporated into the madness, as these physical, common instruments of filmmaking begin to entrance Gilderoy. This notion of psychological torment being imitated through reel (rather, real) life provides a bridge enabling proceedings to cross into hair-raising horror, as everyday inanimate objects begin to take on a existence of their own. Instances of creepy imagery, of which there are plenty, would only overstay their welcome had they not been delivered so horrifyingly well (that flashing “Silenzio” and those voice-over artists in action are both incredibly unsettling). Sound becomes ever flowing and each wave of noise is amplified, but not in an attempt to collect cheap frights from the audience. As the film moves into its final act it becomes more and more difficult to process what is genuine and what isn’t, a trap Gilderoy is consumed by also. Toby Jones’ efforts as the out-of-depth Gilderoy should be commended; his underplayed, soft-spoken delivery gives the mania surrounding his character an even greater voice and Jones’ performance is even exceptionally poignant at times.

In only his second feature film, Peter Strickland has unleashed a multi-faceted tale of hysteria and madness, propelled by horror and laced with appreciation. Each of these individual elements mesh together sublimely, indicating an even brighter future for the filmmaker. Horror aficionados will love Berberian Sound Studio, and there’s a good chance everyone else will too.

Evil Dead II (1987)

★★★★

Director: Sam Raimi

Release Date: March 13th, 1987 (US); June 26th, 1987 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Horror

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie DePaiva

The second instalment of Sam Raimi’s highly regarded Evil Dead franchise, Evil Dead II (or Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn to be precise) takes a slightly different route as far as tone goes to that unearthed in Evil Dead. Here, Raimi chooses to essentially recreate the original and utilise the film as a comical nod to horror in general. With a shortage of laughs never in question and Bruce Campbell at the helm once again, Evil Dead II ticks all of the classic horror boxes in a knowing way. Unfortunately, this shift of focus to comedy shreds a great of the scare-factor away that the original provided so well, meaning the film succeeds as an amusing satire, but fails to deliver as a scary horror. Luckily, a scary horror is not what it is meant to be.

Evil Dead II begins in a similar vein to its predecessor, as Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) travels with his girlfriend Linda to an old cabin in the woods. Soon after they arrive (that is, very soon after) Ash and his girlfriend are attacked by an evil spirit resulting in the death of Linda and Ash becoming partially possessed. Meanwhile, the daughter of the cabin owners, Annie Knowby, is also on her way to the forest retreat alongside her boyfriend and father’s associate Professor Ed Getley. The duo come across southern Jake and his partner Bobby Joe, who join them on their journey to impending madness and gore.

Much of what occurs on-screen during Evil Dead II is designed almost as a parody of horror, and is in place simply to make the audience laugh. From the outset Raimi puts his characters through the everyday (or, more suitably, every-night) rigours of horror: we see a spooky cabin in a dense forest; the demise of a loved one; a suspect bridge (the destruction of which would leave those who have crossed-over in isolation); a dark cellar; Gothic books with ancient text; and all of that makes up the opening half hour. When the focus is centred on these self-acknowledging elements the film works, and works effectively.

Not only is the setting clichéd and the set-pieces part of horror lore, so too are the characters, each of whom boast individual qualities. The heroic protagonist, the charming damsel-in-distress, the goofy idiot and his self-centred partner — they are all present. Evil Dead II‘s obvious satirical drive and the fact that it does not take itself seriously are the two proponents which make the comedy aspect of the film a resounding success. Raimi knows he is pandering to an aware audience, thus, when the additional ancient passages which must be recited to disperse the evil spirits are thrown into the unwelcoming cellar, or when a hapless Bobby Joe scampers out into the demon-infested forest without so much as a moment of rationalisation, a simultaneous chuckle can be heard from both the filmmaker and the audience — communally, we all get it.

Without a doubt, Evil Dead II trumps its precursor as far as comedy goes, but it is a far cry from its predecessor in terms of actual horror. As each scenario becomes increasingly humour-filled and events display the usual scary movie elements, the film quickly loses any lingering tension which would typically be present. Unlike The Evil Dead — which survived and made its name by way of its relentless atmosphere that ranged from discreetly eerie to outright frightening — Evil Dead II struggles to strike up any semblance of an underlying chilling tone. The overarching comedy out-muscles any potential horror during scenes, generating laughter where there would normally be scares. With that being said, the film is not trying to be scary. On the odd occasion that it does reach for a proverbial jump-scare, it does so because those scares have become a staple of horror.

Bruce Campbell’s Ash is as equally at home in amongst the comical nature of Evil Dead II as he was alongside the spookiness of Evil Dead. In fact, his outlandish antics and hilarious facial expressions are even more welcome this time around as they offer more to the film and, in unison with the satire, provide genuine laughs. The duel Ash is involved in early on with his possessed hand delivers outrageous merriment, the resonance of which holds up throughout the film. The supporting cast, on the other hand, do not offer as much comedy — at least not intentionally. Much of their involvement consists of loud screeching and accentuated vowels. Ash’s antics make up the trunk of the film, while the remaining cast are simply the supporting branches. A few snapped twigs have little effect on the strength of a tree, right?

With low production values and ridiculous-looking gore, Evil Dead II sets a comical tone from the get-go as it knowingly places clichéd horror characters in a classic scary setting and through common frightful situations. The shift in focus from terror to comedy negates any usual scares and turns them into echoes of laughter. Often, when a horror film of any ilk is not at all scary, something is not quite right.

However in the case of Evil Dead II, it could not be more right.

The Reef (2010)

Director: Andrew Traucki

Release Date: March 17th, 2011 (Australia)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Damian Walsh-Howling, Zoe Naylor, Adrienne Pickering, Gyton Grantley

For an Australian horror outing that garnered over $25 million dollars at the box office (from a $1 million budget) and that has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 78%, The Reef grandiosely fails to deliver. Restrained by unconvincing acting and an uninspired narrative, The Reef plods along at a less than satisfactory pace and does not offer anything that the audience has never seen before.

The film is apparently based on a true story although does not play up this aspect when perhaps it should have — doing so may have at least added a smidgen of drama. Essentially, four individuals who are related to each other in a variety of ways (brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends etc.) join a sailor on a journey out into the ocean. However, during their escapade across the sea, their sailboat hits some underlying rocks and capsizes, leaving the five companions in an unhealthy predicament.

The premise in itself should be enough to conjure up a decibel or two of tension, but by the time the boat crash happens the film has already hit rock bottom. The Reef is hampered by poor dialogue, which admittedly improves as the film progresses (although an improvement on excruciating is not exactly an improvement). The opening 20 minutes consists of the five characters exchanging awkward sound bites with one another — what happened to proper sentences? Many of the early exchanges come across as improvised, which generally is not necessarily a negative, but does not work as intended here. This lacklustre beginning to the film does not benefit the characters in any way, introducing them without any meaning or depth. The Reef is billed as a horror film, and one of the key elements assigned to any efficient horror film — or just any film — should be developing characters that the audience care about. The Reef does not do that and this is the driving force behind the film’s lack of tension and emotional involvement early on.

And that is just the first twenty minutes. After the group’s sailboat gets into some hot water (loving these ocean-related puns) and capsizes, the immediate collective reaction of the five characters is… nothing. There is no urgency. In the middle of the sea, with no drinkable water, no edible food and the only method of transport now upside down with a gaping hole on its underbelly, the five characters do not really seem that bothered. There are no hysterics, there is very little emotion, even a distinct lack of tears. Of course, if any one of the characters had a working mobile phone then it would make sense for all of those previous traits not to be applicable, but all mobile phones are floating in the sea by this point. The lack of immediate panic does not make sense — it is far from realistic — and takes the viewer out of the film when a bout of instant emotion would engross the audience further into the piece.

Another problem The Reef meanders into is a fairly confusing one, but one which certainly exists. Before the quintet sail into any danger, they make a short stop at a small island. When the group set foot on the island, they essentially do absolutely nothing apart from lie on a beach for an inconsequential period of time. The confusing element of this plot point (that is, the island stoppage) is just that — it is unclear if the island is a significant plot point, or if it is just there to waste another five minutes. When the group find themselves stranded at sea, they debate whether or not to swim to a place called Turtle Island. It is unclear whether or not Turtle Island is the small island they previously went ashore on, or if it is another island which one of the characters (the one who knows how to find North by using the sun and his watch) is aware of. If it is the former, then the earlier short stint on Turtle Island begins to feel too manufactured — as if the only reason the characters set foot on it was in order to establish a narrative ploy to be referred back to when disaster strikes. This is far too obvious, thus it would have improved the legitimacy of events if something meaningful happened when the group first disembarked on the island. On the flip side, if Turtle Island is not in fact the island that the characters are debating about swimming to, then their presence on the random island near the beginning of the trip is utterly unwarranted.

It should be noted that there are sharks, but by the time they arrive The Reef has already set sail to a point of no return. To the film’s credit however, the sharks are real and are not CGI, which does add a little apprehension to proceedings. As the sharks arrive, so too does a sense of panic (finally) amongst the characters, but unfortunately the timid dialogue remains for the most part. Admittedly there is a slight improvement as aforementioned, but the improvement is not enough and in earnest the damage has already been done. The final scenes of The Reef are also extremely anticlimactic, in accordance with everything else which has gone before.

Much like a sinking ship, The Reef sees the danger early on and does nothing to avoid it, as a result becoming a flailing, hapless vessel devoid of life, energy or the ability to rise from the depths and redeem itself.

Jaws can rest easy.

Credit: Trespass Magazine
Credit: Trespass Magazine

The Conjuring (2013)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

After months of heightened anticipation built up through posters and trailers, The Conjuring hit cinema screens accompanied by scares more in tune with a series of pithy jabs rather than any fully blown knockouts. Even though it does hit the mark on a number of elements, the film is deceivingly weak on the horror side of things.

Set in the early 1970s, The Conjuring is based on a case undertaken by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. It relays the events the husband and wife pair experience as they attempt to assist the Perron family in ridding their new Rhode Island home of an evil presence.

Directed by the imaginative and twisted mind behind horror hits Saw and Insidious, James Wan, The Conjuring surprisingly relies heavily on drawn out sequences of tension-mounting silence. So much so that by the fifth time the spike in music arrives to signal a scare, the impact is lost on the viewer. In fact, any potential hair-raising moments brought upon through tension have already been screened in the trailer. The objective of any horror film is to frighten its audience, but there are other ways to do so as opposed to relentless attempts at jump-scaring (that is, solely depending on giving the audience a momentary and sudden fright). In fact the few times The Conjuring does deviate from this and instead opts for creepy imagery, it works very well and evokes that sense of fear and dread every horror film should strive for.

Another problem The Conjuring faces is the moments of incomprehensible decision-making by some of its characters. There is something about walking into a dark room which seconds before boasted a demented-looking ghost spewing eerie dialogue that does not exactly scream out as the most sensible option for somebody to take. This is not an obstacle exclusive to The Conjuring though, and is often an unfortunate nuance found in other horror films every year.

However, even when taking the aforementioned concerns into consideration, The Conjuring is still a very well-crafted, aesthetically on point film. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as the Warren family and strike up a well-oiled dynamic as the piece progresses. Both are enjoyable to watch and Farmiga in particular stands out as an anxious-yet-determined mother and investigator who has suffered some sort of psychological attack, and who also holds the safety of her daughter close to her heart. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play the heads of the Perron family and both do a more-than-adequate job as a slightly sceptical father and an utterly confused and worried mother, respectively.

James Wan has a tremendous eye for developing encapsulating visuals, as proven in his previous work. This time, everything from the Amityville-like house which looks and sounds like it could collapse into a pile of wood within seconds, to the wonderfully hideous make-up splattered across the ghoulish faces of the demons, adds to the somewhat diminished fear-factor the film possesses. The very short and ominous title sequence also deserves a mention, as the blend of screeching instrumentals and a menacing yellow text font provide an introductory chill worthy of a scarier film. Wan does capture the essence of most of the essentials needed to create a fully-fledged horror spectacle, but disappointingly misses out on consistent spooks.

It is probably true that The Conjuring has fallen victim to too much hype (an account “too disturbing to be told”) and it also places too many of its eggs in one basket as far as focusing on the true story element of the film goes. Otherwise, it ticks all of the boxes required to be an entertaining film and it succeeds on the few occasions James Wan does get the horror aspect correct.

Credit: The Times
Credit: The Times