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Women in Horror: Berberian Sound Studio vs V.H.S.

An incidental happenstance of watching so many films in a short period of time, as I am at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is that films with quite disparate aesthetics and subject matter start to echo. The viewing of one film informs another. So it is in the case of Berberian Sound Studio, for which my love is well-documented, and V.H.S. The former is a sleek fugue of a film about Gilderoy, a sound designer losing his grip as he creates the sound-mix for an Italian exploitation horror in the 1970s. The latter is a crass American enterprise, a horror anthology, set in the modern day. But both are about men who film women, and how they hurt them.

“Eternal father, the entire earth worships you.” So intones a female voice at the end of Berberian Sound Studio, and it could be the mantra of the movie. The film is a dark, noirish realm in which women are either mothers, whores, madonnas or witches, but regardless of which role they play, they are always disposable. It is a subtle, sleek indictment on the abuse of women in horror. Why do we rejoice in putting beautiful ladies in positions of peril then watching them perish? What is so twisted in our mentality?

As Gilderoy’s mind dissembles, Lynchian flourishes result in one woman wordlessly turning into another. He warps from a mild-mannered English man to an Italian speaking (albeit dubbed, but there’s the rub) masochist, “a dangerously aroused goblin” in the verbiage of the film. On first viewing, I chortled at the women in sound booths being offered motivations to elicit screams: “How intense do you want this?” “I think the general consensus is a red-hot poker in a woman’s vagina is an intense experience.” Second time round, it struck me how perverse the situation was. The film seduces then elucidates.

In a sense, it is a perfect companion piece for the despicable V.H.S. A horror anthology, each section devised by a different director, V.H.S features a series of vignettes in which boorish men lech and film women with hand-held cameras. It’s all point of view shots and constant lingering over tits. Then something – a demon force, sometimes just a predator – erupts upon the characters and dispatches them in the most gruesome fashion possible. Over and over again. (In some regards it’s like a hardcore two-hour long version of Teen Girl Squad. Except Teen Girl Squad is a witty inventive delight).

Viewed as a whole, it is impossible and perhaps presumptuous to attempt to guess the film-makers’ intentions, but V.H.S seems to think that it is cleverly skewering the misogynistic tendencies of much horror by calling attention to them. In fact, it’s artlessly exhibiting all of the worst aspects of horror. Let’s leer after the girlies then watch them squirm. Hell, its ok, because the men are getting whacked off too, and we know how horrible the men are, har har har. As story after story played out with the same conclusion, I hoped the events would build to a climax which would both unify the disparate grue-fests and suggest some form of point to it all. But none was forthcoming.

It’s well-trodden territory in horror film discourse to question whether or not there is good cause to show human suffering just for kicks.  When is it ok, when is it distasteful? V.H.S. effectively shocks and upsets (it’s been a long while since I spent so long in a screening cowering behind my hands), and has flourishes of inventiveness. A vignette involving a haunted house, and another on video-surveilling one’s girlfriend, had a sort of manic brio.    But there’s an ugliness at heart, a callous disregard for both the characters and the audience. The idea that multiple directors, in isolation, all crafted pieces that espoused the same skewed lack-of-values within exploitation horror is disquieting. I left the film shaken, and feeling a little beaten down.

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