Hypnagogic Horror - Hauntological Cinema

Berberian Sound Studio

published in Realtme No.113, Sydney, 2012

You have arrived here because you used Google to search for “hypnagogic” and “hauntological”. I write this because I am a meme within the film Berberian Sound Studio. I’ve hacked the film to trace how its modish direction and production is born of voguish terms like “hypnagogic” and “hauntological” (herein conflated as hypno-haunto despite their differing originations). What is this film about? If one accepts its hypno-haunto inclination, it’s a dual text. One, a dream-narrative about Peter, a very British sound editor from the mid-70s who ends up producing sound effects for a very Italian mixer, Santini, tracking and mixing the unseen The Equestrian Complex in the eponymous Italian post-production studio. The other, an audiophiliac celebration of the components, procedures and techniques for recording sound effects back then, with an ancillary appreciation of the Italian giallo subgenre of erotic thrillers produced in Italy since the 60s.

Under hypno-haunto logic, the film fetishizes the iconography and sonography of generic Library Music produced across the ‘60s and ‘70s – some of it wacky, some of it decidedly experimental. Its initial recouping came via the late ‘90s post-Lounge trend when European labels like Cinevox, La Douce, Plastic, Dagored and Crippled Dick uncrated rare/dismissed tracks from Italian movies, TV shows and Library Music companies. Groovy lounge music – additionally from British Library Music companies like Bosworth, Chappell and Southern – consequently formed a luridly dank sonic bed in much UK music since. Berberian Sound Studio sleeps there too.

It’s a thoroughly saturated aural realm, created equally by hipsters and exploiters, sampling and processing aurally distinctive fragments and textures to signify a type of Cool Britannia re-plugging into a recent cultural past. If there are defining parameters to the hypno-haunto ethos, they are aligned to such ‘acts of listening’ wherein one identifies that something is being appropriated (though not quoted) – but so that one experiences its origins as vaguely remembered events, even though the listener is likely not to have heard the original sounds, only their redistribution through other acts of sampling and versioning. Its value as evocation supersedes its value as specification, hence the sensation of feeling the past’s incursive lay of the present via a haunting refrain.

And that’s precisely why Berbian Sound Studio is an example of ‘hauntological cinema’. It’s littered with affected allusions towards said iconographies/sonographies from Italian giallo movies, British educational docos, and groovy film scores from both Italy and England (here ‘hypnagogically’ collapsed through the atmospheric renderings by British duo Broadcast). But as much as I like the cultural library the film unracks – as well as the broad sweep of artists abstractly exploring these tendencies, from Boards of Canada to Mogwai to Broadcast to Pole to Actress, and great re-issue labels like Scamp, Trunk and Lo Recordings, – the film does not move past the denotative position of ticking already validated checkboxes.

Most perplexing is how the film declares its love of the era and its artefacts (through well-researched fawning over Shears ¼” tape boxes, a Space Echo Tape machine, etc.) while curiously annulling the power of how those artefacts helped shape both experimental music and film scores. Berbian Sound Studio’s press kit has a telling line: “Santini’s (the movie’s fictional director) The Equestrian Vortex may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Peter’s Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent.” I read this after seeing the film, but found that it illustrates much of what the film illuminates for me: namely, a subtextual clash between stiff, uptight, prissy, picky, train-spotting Anglophilia and bombastic, gaudy, sensual, erotic, rapacious culture Italian-style. Yes, that’s the conflict between the film’s central characters, but the film’s shoehorning of contemporary notions of misogyny, sexploitation and B-grade categorisation ignores the fucked-up sexual terror which defines giallo and qualifies how the likes of Morricone (in Bird With The Crystal Plumage) and Goblin (in Suspiria) approached their wonderfully vicious soundtracking. Make no mistake: this film is more Harold Pinter than Lucio Fulci.

But Berberian Sound Studio should be well-liked by an Anglo ‘hypno-haunto’ audience. Retro technology abounds; it’s kinda got a Lynchian feel about it (signposted by its Mulholland Drive/Lost Highway midway dimensional inversion); it extols an ethical aversion to screen violence; the special effects evoke 60s radical cinema you can flip through on ubuweb; and further exhaustive online research for 30 minutes will lead you to single paragraph blogs with Wikipedia-links to Lucio Berio, Cathy Berberian, Dario Argento and Mario Bava. After that you’ll end up here at this review, because you used Google to search for “hypnagogic” and “hauntological”.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Berberian Sound Studio.