ALISTAIR Harkness reports from the Edinburgh International Film Festival on a movie that offers a reminder that the visual image isn’t everything when it comes to the magic of the big screen.
It’s a heartening sign that directors like Peter Strickland exist. Having circumvented the usual way into the British film industry by relocating to Transylvania in order to make his debut film, Katalin Varga (an artful and thoroughly unsettling take on the traditionally lurid rape-and-revenge movie that made its debut at the EIFF in 2009), he returns to the festival this year with another film unlike anything currently being made by his UK contemporaries.
Rooted once again within the horror field – but once again rigorously subverting most of its tropes – Berberian Sound Studio finds Strickland riffing on the kind of gruesome Italian horror movies popularized by cult auteurs such as Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lucio Fulci (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin). This is no mere tribute or homage to a misbegotten genre, however; rather this tale of a British sound engineer (Toby Jones) confronting his darkest fears while working on a cash-strapped 1970s Italian witchcraft movie is a rigorous examination of disintegrating psyches, strange cultural misunderstandings and an almost fetishistic celebration of the weird alchemy of movie making itself.
From the moment Jones’s unassuming tech-nerd arrives at the titular Italian post-production house, Strickland creates a foreboding atmosphere of dread, one punctuated by a pleasing sense of the absurd as Gilderoy (Jones) frets about being given the runaround over his expenses while his new colleagues mock his repressed English disposition. Bit by bit, this all starts taking its toll on Gilderoy and Strickland teases out the psychological tension by homing in on the sound cues the character has been hired to create without ever letting us see visuals we assume they’re accompanying.
As Jones hacks away at sundry bits of fruit and veg, positions mics over sizzling pans and boiling kettles, and fiddles around with equipment to maximize the screams of the film’s exploited actresses, the film offers a disconcerting reminder of the power of sound over the visual image, one that builds to a fascinating, oddball and thoroughly ambiguous ending that’s likely going to take a few more screenings to properly unravel. It’s certainly an unsettling viewing experience, something that was rammed home to me by the number of people laughing like DeNiro in Cape Fear at stuff that really wasn’t funny. But that speaks well of what Strickland has achieved here, as does the inadequacy of reaching for thematically similar films such as The Conversation, Blow Out or any number of David Lynch films in an effort to get a handle on it. In the end Berberian Sound Studio is its own thing, a filmmaking puzzle in which the magic of movies is revealed as something of a black art.
This kind of menace is, frustratingly, what’s missing from V/H/S, an energetic and largely entertaining anthology of “found footage” films hampered by a failure to deliver on the retro analogue promise of the title. Instead of, say, taking its lead from Harmony Korine’s provocative Trash Humpers (which was shot on old VHS tapes and designed to look and feel like something that might have been found on a skip – bad tracking and all), V/H/S cheats by stringing its individual vignettes together with a home invasion story featuring a group of guys frantically attempting to steal some videotapes we’re told contain blackmail-worthy footage. Deciding to go through the tapes before they leave the house, we end up seeing what they see – except what they see are not the sort of things one would find on a moribund format like videotape. They’re documentary style Twilight Zone riffs, shot – for the most part – on digital cameras, mobiles and with Skype. In short they’re the sorts of things that are uploaded to the internet on a daily basis, not left festering on old equipment in a basement somewhere.
Conceptual pedantry aside, there is a surprising amount to enjoy here. The Jason Voorhees-style mass murderer stalking teenagers in Glen McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th is a clever update of that style of character for the found footage generation – he can only be seen on camera in distorted form. House of the Devil director Ti West’s road movie Second Honeymoon also has a couple of well executed, rug-pulling shocks. Ditto Joe Swanberg’s J-horror influenced The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger. Filmmaking collective Radio Silence, meanwhile, appear to have been the only ones interested in sticking to the titular brief with their contribution 10/31/98, a devil worship saga that makes effective use of their degraded equipment to throw in some nifty effects work. But like most anthology movies, no matter how good the individual segments, or how talented the individual directors, they collectively start to act like each other’s kryptonite and end up weakening the whole.
The game has, of course, long been up when in comes to hoodwinking audiences into believing the reality blurring premise of a “found footage” movie. When it comes to legitimate documentary subjects, however, there’s still room to feel like you’re being taken for a ride. Anyone who has seen Catfish might suspect the makers of The Imposter are doing just that, so incredulous are some of its twists. Nevertheless, this documentary about an American family who welcomed a complete stranger into their lives just because he claimed to be their missing child, is not only true but easy enough to verify online should you be of a sceptical mind.
Beginning in 1994 with the disappearance of troubled 13-year-old Nicholas Barker from his home in San Antonio, Texas, the film picks up the story three years later when a boy roughly matching his description turns up in Spain claiming to be him. Brit director Bart Layton doesn’t waste much time spinning out the mystery of who this kid really is; instead he structures the film in such a way as to draw you into the fascinating story of how he was able to hoodwink the authorities and why the family were willing to believe him. In the process the film raises awkward questions about what might have happened to the real Nicholas. Mixing dramatic reconstructions with talking head interviews, the end result is a brilliant and gripping piece of investigative documentary filmmaking, which, despite being about a congenital liar, does a good job of getting to the truth of what happened with the tenacious narrative drive of a fine piece of detective fiction.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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