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The Fabric of Surreality – The Horror of Peter Strickland

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in February 2020)

A warning in advance; this essay will have more spoilers than the Kentucky Georgetown Toyota factory, so read on at your peril if you haven’t seen either Berberian Sound Studio or In Fabric and have any desire to do so.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) was Strickland’s first horror, and is principally a love story to cinema - specifically both a genre and a critical role in movie making. The genre is Giallo, the particular style of horror-thriller exclusive to Italy (itself a noteworthy influence on the American slasher film and worthy of an essay way longer than this one all on its own), and the role is that of Sound Engineer, the oft-forgotten unsung hero of the silver screen.

It’s apparent from his movies that Strickland himself holds the importance of sound – and that of the humble sound engineer - in high regard, the equal of anything put to screen. This love is apparent in the two radio plays he either wrote and/or directed for Radio 4.

The Stone Tape (Radio 4; 2016) was a re-imagining of the 1972 Nigel Kneale (Quatermass) horror classic, co-written by Peter Strickland and Matthew Graham (Life on Mars). If you’re not familiar with the original work, it examines the nature of hauntings and the concept that the stones of a building can act as a recording medium for past events (the “stone tape” in the title).

The Len Continuum (Radio 4; 2015/2017), like Berberian Sound Studio, stars Toby Jones, and shares a similar theme – that of existentialism and the fluidity of reality, the boundaries between consciousness and sub-consciousness.

Toby Jones always has the unique and quite remarkable knack of instantly improving any film he’s in, even when he’s playing uninteresting or poorly fleshed-out roles (Captain Mainwaring in the mediocre yet well-meaning Dad’s Army remake, or the bland Ollie Weeks in The Mist). When he’s given the chance to shine (such as when playing Stoke City Football Club Über-fan Neil Baldwin in Marvellous), he elevates the source material to another level.

Berberian Sound Studio is one such role. Jones plays Gilderoy, a quiet and softly spoken sound engineer. We meet him just as he arrives in Italy for a new job which he believes is to work on a film about horses, but turns out to be something quite different – The Equestrian Vortex turns out to be an Italian Giallo film, and unlike anything that Gilderoy has ever worked on before.

Gilderoy, subjected to working his audio magic to brutal footage of gory torture sequences,

begins to feel more and more disconnected from reality. The film is a catalogue of his eroding sanity, where reality itself seems as pliable as the footage with which he works.

As with all of Strickland’s movies, Berberian is a far from conventional narrative and also a far from typical horror movie. Appropriately for a film whose primary narrative motif is that of the power of sound, much of the imagery is either deliberately hidden from view or shown as flickering blurred images on black and white screens. The horror is portrayed through the dubbed-on screams of increasingly frustrated and tormented session actresses, or through the Foley work of Gilderoy and his unhelpful and bored assistants.

The loud noises of chopped vegetables accompany hinted-at torture sequences, and thrown fruit and rattling chains provide the ambient sound for both the torturers chamber and proclivities.

Like the serene countryside imagery of The Detectorists, Jones’s other standout role, the scene sometimes shifts to the nature documentaries that he’s more familiar with, Gilderoy’s attempts to stay focused and – more importantly – sane.

One of the segments in the final act – as Gilderoy’s grasp on reality is at its most tenuous - is set against a cacophonic soundscape set to imagery as equally overwhelming and baffling as the iconic Stargate sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For a film concerned with the power of sound, the audio design of Berberian plays as powerful a role as anything on screen. Birmingham band Broadcast provided the soundtrack, a psychedelic soundscape clearly – and appropriately – inspired by the seventies soundtracks of Goblin and Bruno Nicolai. The haunting choirs and the pumping modulation of synthesizers of Gilderoy’s nightmares nestle uncomfortably against gentle pastoral themes for the more soothing of his BBC British wildlife documentary visions - Even the title itself refers to Cathy Berberian, a US Soprano who married Luciano Berio, a pioneer of electronic music.

At the end, now doubting not only his own sanity but also his very existence, Gilderoy is alone in the silent sound studio, confronted with the flickering screen of an empty projector. He stares into it, blinded by and absorbed into its brightness, vanishing into the whiteness of the screen that has dominated his recent days, weeks or months.

Was Gilderoy ever real at all? Has he been lost to madness, or has he been there for the entire movie?

Fade to black. End credits roll. If Gilderoy only existed on celluloid, he’s gone now, erased by the end of the film. He only existed if you were there to see and hear him.

To be honest, I did exactly as I did at the end of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Burdened by the weight of an expectation that could never realistically be fulfilled, I convinced myself I’d enjoyed it, although – realistically – it had left me a little cold. It was unique, but I felt much like I did when I’d finished watching Lynch’s Eraserhead – a little bemused and frustrated by the lack of a coherent ending.

But then I lay in bed that evening, thinking about it. Dwelling on it. And in the quieter moments of the next few days at work, thoughts of Berberian would pop back into my head. Like I’d also later experience with Matthew Holness’s Possum in 2018, it had sunk into my consciousness and wouldn’t let go.

Later viewings confirmed its brilliance, with every watch uncovering a new layer. A whispered phrase I hadn’t caught before, a shot, glimpse of something, or an expression from a character – some nuance I’d missed.

As an aside, Berberian Sound Studio was adapted for the stage and presented at the Donmar Warehouse in the February and March of 2019. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a performance (as a birthday gift from my wife, also a huge Strickland fan). Gilderoy was ably played by Tom Brooke, who was familiar to me as the angel Fiore from the HBO adaptation of Preacher. Considering the surreal nature of the source material, I was concerned as to how well it would translate to the stage – but I didn’t have worried.

It was as powerful on stage as it was on the big screen – in fact, due to the relatively intimate surroundings of the Donmar, the claustrophobic intensity was, at times, almost too much to bear. On a screen, you can look away. In a theatre, that doesn’t help.

And so, it was with some excitement – and nervousness – that I approached Strickland’s new horror, In Fabric. The trailers suggested a more conventional horror plot; that of a haunted inanimate object, in this case a possessed/cursed red dress – and it would feature another appearance from Strickland’s apparent muse, Fatma Mohamed.

Berberian, due to being set at the height of the era of the Giallo, was clearly grounded in the seventies. Much like Wheatley’s High Rise though, In Fabric is set in some undefined time which could be anywhere between the seventies and the nineties. (It’s interesting to note that Ben Wheatley is one of the executive producers of In Fabric, and that and his movie High Rise – the adaptation of the “un-filmable” J.G. Ballard novel - share a certain aesthetic).

Lonely divorcee Sheila is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who lives with her son Vince (and his odd girlfriend Gwen, played by – to me, at least – a virtually unrecognisable Gwendoline Christie). Against the backdrop of a series of mundane blind dates and an unsatisfying job at the bank with annoyingly condescending – yet well meaning – bosses, Sheila stumbles across the aforementioned red dress (catalogue colour: Artery) in Dentley and Soper’s Department Store, a bizarre environment where even the PA system makes announcements in inappropriately portentous tones (“A dramatic affliction has compromised our trusted department store. Get out graciously.”)

There she meets the store clerk Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), a bizarrely dressed and bewigged Store Clerk, who ultimately convinces her to buy the red dress. Miss Luckmoore is far from normal, riding the store’s Dumb Waiter at night in between bouts of undressing the menstruating store mannequins whilst her masturbating boss looks on. (His resemblance to a certain elderly royal did not go unnoticed by my wife, and her expression of “Prince Philip’s ropes of jizz” from our first viewing will not quickly go forgotten. If anybody wants that for the name of their jazz fusion band, my PayPal address is my normal email address).

In Fabric is, at times, very much played for laughs, with the scenes between Sheila’s bosses Stash and Clive (played by the ever excellent Julian Barratt of Mighty Boosh fame and Steve Oram from Sightseers) being a highlight.

With the dress ultimately claiming the life of its unfortunate host – and a few others en-route – it finds a new owner in the form of Washing Machine repairman Reg Speaks. Reg has, unbeknownst to him, an unusual quality – the ability to put anybody listening into a weird orgasmic trance when he discusses potential washing machine issues at length.

This skill is not, however, appropriate to the plot.

Like Berberian, In Fabric is clearly inspired by Strickland’s love for Giallo. Colours are bold, especially the deep reds of the dress and the Dentley and Soper’s décor. However, it’s not just that that the films share in common – both Berberian and In Fabric heavily feature horror seeping into the mundane; Lucio Fulci meets Ken Loach.

For Gilderoy, it’s the harsh contrast between the – albeit, artificial - horror he’s confronted with in his new job and the mundane letters from his Mother back in England; For Sheila and Reg (and the others in their lives) it’s the horror of the dress and the oddities of the department store, versus their existences of humdrum repetition.

Sheila religiously reads out their phone number when anybody phones, like a mantra. Reg talks about his washing machine repair details as a dull, repetitive chant – with hypnotic, almost magical, effect.

It’s all about the horror in the mundane; the discord in the monotone.

In Fabric is an utter delight, and I’m looking forward to watching it again. It’s a more straightforward narrative than Berberian but is no less bizarre and quirky. The almost anthology nature of the movie came as somewhat of a surprise (with the introduction of the dresses second owner, Reg), but everything comes together neatly in a narratively satisfying conclusion.

Those doomed by the dress are forced to repair the dress; to make the dress. Are they in Hell? Is Dentley and Soper’s department store just Hell with a perfume counter?

The wonderfully named Cavern of Anti-Matter provide the soundtrack, and it’s very reminiscent of the best work of John Barry – in particular his work on The Persuaders and The Ipcress File; all strings and harps, echoing and haunting.

Strickland, like Lynch, has an apparent and distinctive style. Both Berberian and In Fabric were met with much critical acclaim but appear more divisive to an audience outside of cinema critics. Ultimately, I’m genuinely excited about what Peter does next – even at their most confusing, his films are both approachable and visually and audibly striking.

Strickland’s distinctive DNA is watermarked across every frame and note – like the films of David Lynch, I’d argue you could recognise his work from just a few frames – perhaps even a single shot. He’s one of the most interesting and original people in horror cinema at the moment – along with Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) – and whatever comes next from him will prove that the industry continues to be in rude health.

Recommended reading/viewing

Berberian Sound Studio (2012 Illuminations Films/Warp X/Film 4/UK Film Council)

In Fabric (2018 – Rook Films/BBC Films/BFI Film Fund)

Peter Strickland’s Horror Picks; Reiterating his love of soundtracks, Peter Strickland picks his favourite horror soundtrack recommendations:

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