Frightfest 12: Berberian Sound Studio, American Mary, and After

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Toby Jones and Tonia Sotiropoulou in Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Movie Image


“Berberian Sound Studio” was easily one of the most talked about films of the festival, both before and after its packed screening. The film was directed by British helmer Peter Strickland, who rather oddly shot his 2009 debut feature “Katalin Varga” entirely in Hungarian, and is a nightmarish and baffling mix of Lynch and Argento. Set in 1976, the film stars top drawer Brit character actor Toby Jones (“Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”) as Gilderoy, a mild mannered English sound engineer who arrives in the run down Italian studio of the title to work on a gruesome exploitation pic called ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ by Giallo director Santini (Antonio Mancino). The poor sensitive fellow soon finds himself having to work out how to recreate noises of torture and dismemberment using vegetables, and exposed to madness and sexuality both onscreen and off, starts to (possibly) lose his mind.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Movie Poster“Berberian Sound Studio” was not only one of the most talked about films of the fest, but also one of the most divisive, and it’s easy to see why. The film has been described as a Giallo, and in many ways it is, with Argento style luxuriously sinister visuals, lurid colours, prowling camerawork and a marvellously baroque soundtrack. However, this aside, the film is impossible to pigeonhole, or indeed explain, Strickland taking the relatively simple premise very quickly off the rails and into the realms of the abstract, suggesting witchcraft and madness without ever settling on either. Eventually, the film dives into full on oblique weirdness, Strickland leaving the viewer as bewildered as Gilderoy.

It’s this which will determine whether or not the film goes down well or not, as for those willing to simply go with the flow and enjoy the surreal esoteric creepiness of all there’s certainly a huge amount here to admire and enjoy. Jones is magnificent and utterly believable as the comically parochial Gilderoy, and though the film is too obtuse for any real character development as such, he at least provides a focal point for its increasingly fragmented and incomprehensible events. On a technical level Strickland is a fantastic director, creating a phantasmagorical and all-enveloping experience that really should be enjoyed on the big screen, and open minded viewers looking for something bold and different won’t be disappointed.

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary (2012) Movie Image


The Soska Sisters, aka The Twisted Twins, aka Jen and Sylvia, follow up their excellently titled cult favourite “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” (Eli Roth is apparently a huge fan) with “American Mary”, a medical shocker that delves deep into the world of unconventional body modification. Katharine Isabelle (“Ginger Snaps”) stars as poverty threatened trainee surgeon Mary Mason, who inadvertently gets mixed up on the body mod underground after doing a couple of favours for a strip club owner gangster. Quickly becoming known on the scene for her skills and willingness to perform illegal procedures, Mary’s time spent amongst the obsessed and troubled souls see her slowly becoming unhinged.

American Mary (2012) Movie PosterThough “American Mary” is apparently a metaphor of sorts for the Soska Sisters’ own journey through the indie film industry, this is really neither here nor there for the average viewer, as what really matters is the way that the superb film grips right from the opening frame and goes on to deliver one of the most intriguing and entertaining horrors of the last few years. Actually, to simply label the film ‘horror’ is doing it somewhat of a disservice, as it’s a wonderfully weird and rich piece, successfully mixing body horror, revenge thriller, offbeat comedy and psychological drama into a unique and squirmy viewing experience. The Soska Sisters really do a great job not only in exploring the fascinating and disturbing body modification subculture, but more importantly in presenting a well written and surprisingly sympathetic set of characters, Katharine Isabelle excelling in the anti-heroine lead. This keeps the film grounded through its pleasingly eccentric and unpredictable narrative and helps add real punch to its many gruesome scenes and twisted set pieces.

Proudly amoral and non-judgemental, it’s a resolutely perverse film, though one whose real power lies in its ever-present humanity amongst the increasing grotesquery. The film has been picked up by Universal, and the thought of it playing in mainstream multiplexes is exciting indeed.

Steven Strait and Karolina Wydra in After (2012) Movie Image

AFTER (2012)

Ryan Smith’s “After” was described as a ‘dark fantasy’, with a “Silent Hill” sounding premise, starring Steven Strait and Karolina Wydra as a young man and woman whose bus crashes en route to their hometown. Waking up in hospital, they are shocked to find that everyone else seems to have disappeared, with a strange dark fog advancing on the town. As they band together to try and find out what the devil is going on, they become aware of a sinister and threatening presence in the fog, and a monster eventually appears and tries to eat them.

After (2012) Movie PosterThe first line of the above synopsis is probably enough to tell most genre-savvy viewers exactly where “After” is going, and without wishing to give too much of the entirely predictable game away, Smith makes little effort to riff on the established caught between life and death formula. Unfortunately, he fails to compensate for this depressing lack of originality in other areas, the film moving along at a slow pace and featuring only a handful of half-hearted creature attack scenes, none of which carry much threat at all. Worse, neither of the two protagonists are particularly likeable, and the by the numbers way in which their relationship develops hold little emotional weight, or indeed interest, despite Smith desperately throwing in a couple of embarrassing final twists and flashbacks.

All of this is kind of a shame, as “After” certainly looks good and obviously enjoyed a decent budget, Smith working in some effectively menacing visuals and an ominous atmosphere that threatens, though never quite manages to generate any real fear. The creature itself is decently designed, and while the inevitable computer effects aren’t great, it would certainly have helped if the beast were given a bit more to do rather than lurking around like some kind of embarrassed piece of glaring symbolism. None of this is enough to save “After”, or to make it recommended to horror fans, as it’s simply too familiar, too limp, and too dull to elicit anything other than vaguely annoyed yawns.