UK (2012), Dir: Peter Strickland, Scr: Peter Strickland
It has the prosaic sound of a working title. But, it does put you in mind of something – obsessive hobbyists, maybe. We’re beginning to love Peter Strickland and he has pulled off, in this lovingly made period piece, a many-layered, genre-defying and richly imaginative gem. It’s not a horror film – a film with a central character called Gilderoy, from Dorking, can’t really be setting out to terrify us witless – but it is about horror films and what went in to making them. It’s a tribute, a satire, it’s funny, it’s also a dark Heart of Darkness but, most of all it’s a love-poem.
Preceded by his reputation as a magician with sound, Gilderoy arrives in Italy to lead the post-production sound team in the studio of an extreme 1970’s giallo low-budget horror film: The Equestrian Vortex. A film he thinks is about horses is actually an explicit, bloody gore-fest. It’s not at all clear how he got the job as his experience seems to be in capturing the sounds of nature for public information films about the countryside in the South East of England and his awkward, introverted personality couldn’t contrast more with the continental sophistication and cocky machismo of the producer and director. But as a true craftsman, Gilderoy applies himself day and night to his work. And he is a magician: his “UFO”, using a lightbulb and a sheet has the team enraptured; an actress almost loses herself when she hears her voice transformed by his complex and sculptural set up of the tape loop of a Watkins Copycat echo machine, and most importantly; he finds the perfect fruit or vegetable facsimile – when torn, hacked or smashed on the ground – for the sound of flesh being burned or impaled and bone being crushed.
We sometimes see Gilderoy in his room at night: working at his portable tape recorder, or reading letters from his mum updating him on the activities of the wildlife in their garden. Otherwise, the film is set entirely in the claustrophobic studio and adjoining corridors, which feel subterranean. As we see Gilderoy frustrated in his requests for expense reimbursement, we feel he is being trapped, not short-changed. We never see any of the Equestrian Vortex itself, but read outrageous snippets of transcript and see Gilderoy’s shocked, disbelieving and sickened reaction to its images. We feel the pressure on the actresses who, if the scream is just not blood-curdling enough after so many takes, can be replaced. And so, after multiple melon-chopping takes of his own, we witness Gilderoy, the homesick innocent alone in a malevolent place, gradually lose touch with reality.
Strickland has written the perfect role for Toby Jones, who we could watch for hours. He also has attended to the detail of the seventies Italian shocker: the opening credits are authentically recreated by designer Julian House as is the mix of atonal synthesizer, dreamy organ and ethereal voices put together by James Cargill, co-founder of Broadcast, for the soundtrack. The wardrobe and sexism are also made authentically seventies. But the love-poem is not to those horror films, but to a lost creativity; to the nerdy, eccentric, innocent labour involved; to the sheets of carefully hand-written plans; to the guy whose job was to do the aroused-goblin noise into a microphone; to analogue days when sound itself was as physical as the substantial but intricate machines that made it – the Revox, the Copycat, the portable reel-to-reel, the dial showing the sound wave and all the knobs and buttons and reels and tape. We marvel at it, too.
So, we feel reassured that the film did not set out to scare us witless. But, then again, there is something a little dark-arts about all those analogue machines, isn’t there? And, as for Gilderoy, maybe the darkness was hidden in him all the time and not due to those nasty foreign film-makers. I wonder.
Also by Peter Strickland:
Katalin Varga (2009)
PS A Word on Broadcast
Its impossible to say something about this film without a word on Broadcast. Don’t think “experimental”. Start by placing yourself back in the 60’s and imagining what bands then thought the future might sound like. Then layer on a strange, captivating mix of The BBC Radiophonic workshop, Ennio Morricone, early synthesizer sounds, forgotten film soundtracks and psychedelia, with a touch of eeriness, held together beautifully by a voice of innocence and purity. That was Broadcast, formed in 1995 in Birmingham, UK. Their signer, Trish Keenan – cool, Nico-like on-stage; all mischief, curiosity and warmth off-stage – died on 14 January 2011 of pneumonia related to H1N1 bird flu, contracted while on tour. She was 42. A national treasure. So sadly missed.
Julian House of Ghost Box, was a close collaborator with Broadcast. Initially in their “Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night and a science-worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day” phase.