Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Berberian Ripper

One of the very best films that I saw at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival was Peter Strickland's ode of italo-horror of the 1970s and '80s, Berberian Sound Studio. It was a film that I, nor anybody else it turned out, had really heard all that much about and had chosen purely based on the central premise (which, admittedly, doesn't sound all that exciting). I admit I only chose it for a late evening mid-week slot because I love the art of sound editing - you'll find me at Oscar parties explaining what the difference between "sound effects editing" and "sound mixing" are like a total dweeb - and figured any film that put that process front and centre should be worth a look in. Even if I'm not a fan of Toby Jones.

Berberian Sound Studio is a very peculiar picture, and I sat there for a good chunk of its run time not really knowing what on Earth the whole point was. It was interesting, definitely, but I was waiting for something to happen. I mean, film generally dictates that stuff kinda has to happen. Even if at a film festival the potential is much lower. Still, waited patiently I did and while I was certainly getting a kick out of all the creepy, atmospheric ways that the director was able to utilise the art of sound editing I was eager for something, you know? By the time Strickland's film played out its magic dance around the maypole of looniness in its final act, I was in quiet awe. Not only was the film's final act something that the film needed in order to make its lasting impression, but it was something I personally needed.

I'd longed for a film all festival long that would give me the unnerving sense of the unknown. None of the "Night Shift" titles (essentially those devoted to genre elements, of which Berberian feels like a natural fit, alas...) really did that for me this year. At least none of the ones I saw. My friends and I basically all exited the cinema with a state of perplexed wonder. The rabbit hole of madness that the characters appear to collapse into throughout the second half are so fascinating to watch play out that I ended up having a hoot of a time. You'll never look at British nature documentaries the same! Also, it must be said, it was so great to experience a film and help turn it into one of the must see films of the festival. It's my understanding that people were promptly trying to make subsequent screenings after hearing about the success of the film from us early birds. Berberian Sound Studio is sure to be one of David Lynch's favourite films of the year!

The movie does have a local distributor and I hope for audiences' sake that it gets a theatrical release (those in Sydney will apparently get the chance to see it at the Sydney Underground Film Festival) because - for rather obvious reasons - it is a film that utilises sound design in such a manner that demands a cinema viewing setting. From the crunching of a watermelon with an axe, to the bloody-curling scream of an Italian dubbing actress, Berberian Sound Studio is a film to be enveloped by. It lives and dies on its sound design, and it passes with flying colours. The film itself will prove a confounding wonder for many and a boring mess for others, but its evocation of a very specific time and place had me enraptured. Loved it.

It was completely without coincidence then that some days after the festival I chose to sit down and watch a Blu-ray of Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper. The very sort of Italian horror flick that the aforementioned Berberian demonstrates the making-of process of, this is a nasty little flick albeit one whose power has surely been greatly reduced as a result of the very dated style. The heavy style and dubbed sound of films from this era will never not be confronting - at least initially - but I actually think Sound Studio made me appreciate Fulci's film a little bit more than I otherwise may have. Strickland's film is, I suppose, never not be perfect double feature fodder for a movie of this kind where the lips aren't in sync and the squishy, squashy sound effects are so noticeably over-the-top that you can all but see the chunks of leafy vegetables flying out of the screen.

Initially banned in Australia, New York Ripper follows a city entangled in the vice-like grip of a depraved killer. It certainly takes a more tourist-like look at the city than, say, William Lustig's Maniac - rarely does an establishing shot go by that doesn't feature an NYC landmark or sunny postcard shot, although the majority of the film was clearly not filmed on location ("grindhouse tourism" nails Slant - but that lends it a disconcerting atmosphere that works a treat. Where it doesn't succeed is in Fulci's troubling representation of sex and fetishes, which are treated as more or less demonic, deserving of punishment. There's certainly a filthy leery-eyed old man aesthetic to the whole thing that is rarely comfortable to watch. And then there are scenes where nipples are cut in half by razor blades. Yeah, make up whatever meaning you like for that. Various strands strain for relevance and others have genuine tension. It's a strange movie like that.

I guess it makes sense that I should follow up something like Berberian Sound Studio, itself little more than an expertly crafted technical display, with New York Ripper. Fulci's film is hardly scary, but there's still skill to be found to make it an involving experience. If somewhat limited, obviously.


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