I first heard about Peter Strickland’s new film back in 2010. At the time I was working on a project that remains (frustratingly) in stasis, which is nobody’s fault but my own. I only mention this as it shares some genre territory with Strickland’s film, yet when I heard about his project I felt excitement and curiosity rather than envy. The reason? I had recently seen his debut Katalin Varga (2009), a film that, along with the story behind its making, provides genuine inspiration to aspiring writers and directors. With his second feature, Strickland is set to make good on his early promise and deliver another work that should fascinate, inspire and polarize, particularly in horror circles – an arena that can be surprisingly conservative and prone to hostility when confronted with works that fall outside of genre expectations. Its reception should be fascinating.
THEN: Katalin Varga (2009)
Katalin Varga has a genesis that is as surprising as it is remarkable. Shot for a measly (in feature terms) £28,000, it’s a debut of great confidence, which belies the difficulties Strickland encountered in bringing it to fruition. It tells a simple but highly unusual rape revenge story, set in the Carpathian Mountains, as a young woman confronts the demons of her past after ostacization from her family and village. The film is stark, minimal and poetic. Filmed over several years, funded through inheritance money by a director working as an English teacher in an unfamiliar country, it exists on the very fringes of genre. Unmistakably a revenge narrative, it is more Virgin Spring than Last House but finds its own voice and – more importantly – its own sound. The only recent film it brought to mind was Hans Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006), a stark possession story which also strips down familiar genre material in unusual and interesting ways. Katalin Varga is not an easy film to like but it has great assurance and composition and hinted a truly special and individual talent.
NOW: Berberian Sound Studio (2011)
It makes perfect sense that Strickland’s second film deals with, for want of a better term, the art of noise. Strickland, a musician himself, is evidently a man for whom sound and vision are equally vital. In Varga, the sparseness of the narrative and dialogue is complemented by panoply of aural motifs – it won a deserved Silver Berlin Bear for sound design. Strickland drew from favourite records and artists to capture the unique isolated quality of the setting. “To help the certain intense atmosphere I wanted to capture, I listened to Pornography by the Cure and Suicide by Suicide on headphones endlessly during the writing process,” he told The Guardian. Popol Vuh’s soundtrack to Herzog’s Nosferatu was another touchstone.
In Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland applies the same sonic methodology to get inside the Italian giallo genre. Toby Jones is Gilderoy, a sound engineer used to a quiet, ordered existence. In Rome to soundtrack a lurid Italian slasher – The Equestrian Vortex – he finds himself increasingly adrift amidst an unfamiliar, exotic world of mad visionaries and unusual methods. With a soundtrack by Broadcast and title design from hauntological heroes Ghost Box, music and sound take precedence. Perhaps frustratingly, for gore hounds at least, the film Jones is working on is seen very little (but heard in great, piercing detail).
There have been inevitable comparisons with Amer, but the ghosts of Coppolla’s The Conversation and De Palma’s Blow Out hang around Jones’ studio too. It’s tempting also to see elements of Strickland in Jones’ character. When he made Katalin Varga he was very much the Englishman in a foreign land, trying to piece together art in a country whose language and customs he didn’t fully understand. But that would undersell a fascinating film that is almost certain to get viewers at FrightFest talking and debating, perhaps more than any other.