Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Sound of Horror (1965)

Professor Andre (Antonio Casas), along with archeological assistant Stravos (Francisco Piquer) and Andre’s niece Maria (Soledad Miranda), are blowing up cave walls in a secluded Grecian valley.  They discover some petrified, prehistoric eggs which just so happen to hatch (as these things do), and unleash an (mostly) invisible horror from out of time.

José Antonio Nieves Conde’s The Sound of Horror (aka El Sonido de la Muerte aka Sound from a Million Years Ago aka The Prehistoric Sound) is a cozy little creature feature.  It has a small cast of victims, an interesting take on an old premise, and some surprising black and white gore effects.  It deals, as just about all monster/science fiction films from the Fifties and well into the Sixties did (and much further back, to be sure, but there was a pointedness to the object lessons during this era), with the consequences of tampering with Nature and/or God’s domain.  Andre and his crew are destroying these caves to find a treasure (they use dynamite, which boggles the mind, especially if they want to find what they’re looking for intact).  Aside from the eggs, they also discover a very well-preserved Greek mummy, indicating that the caves were once an ancient burial ground (was there anything not buried in this cave?).  By uncovering these things, they offend the Powers That Be and incur their wrath.  These things were meant to stay buried, even though the process of discovery insists that they be dragged into the light.  This is the same paradigm at work with atomic-age horrors; For all the value culled from splitting the atom, it brought with it heavy negatives, and there are also the aspects we have not or cannot comprehend about these “breakthroughs” which may come back to bite humanity in its collective ass.  

More than this, the excavators’ motives are not completely pure.  Andre is hellbent on finding this supposed treasure, and at first blush, he appears to be doing this for the sake of historical exploration (“we cannot allow superstition to block the way of progress,” according to Andre; a line uttered by many a mad scientist).  However, it quickly becomes apparent that his true motivation is avarice.  Andre’s two buddies from World War Two, Asilov (James Philbrook) and Dorman (José Bódalo), show up with the second half of the map Andre has been using incorrectly up to this point.  This introduces Andre’s ulterior motives for his dig.  There is booty supposedly hidden in the caves by an ancient gang of international thieves, and the professor and his buddies plan to split it and live the high life (“a beautiful villa, fine clothes, and limousines”).  These three feel entitled to this loot from what they had to endure during the war, spending their youth “dancing to bullets.”  

Contrasting the old men’s cupidity are Stravos and Asilov’s driver/guide Pete (Arturo Fernández).  Stravos is content merely with the archeological discovery of the mummy.  To him, that’s “treasure enough,” and he ignores Andre and company’s further searching for the money in order to study the corpse in detail and sketch it (I suppose, like in many museums, flash photography is not allowed in archeological dig sites).  That the body is left lying disdainfully in the middle of the cave is further evidence of the disrespect that calls down the proverbial thunder on the heads of these people.  While everyone else talks about all the material things they want to buy with the money, Pete only wants to expand his tour guide business.  He is satisfied just polishing his truck (which he has dubbed Diana) and making time with Maria (can’t blame him for that).  Only the three old men have dollar signs in their eyes, but it is their actions that periclitate the group as a whole.

The film’s most unique aspect is right there in its title.  It makes excellent use of sound to convey menace and delivers frights.  The monster emits a high pitched skirl that rises and falls as it closes in on its prey.  This device, of course, has two purposes.  On a practical production level, it covers for budgetary restrictions in the costume department.  The only time we see the monster is at the very end, and then it’s shot from far away, and it is thankfully indistinct enough to not completely ruin everything that’s been built up beforehand (honestly, it does not look like it would impress if seen clearly).  Otherwise, there is a brief glimpse of the monster’s outline in double exposure, and the appearance of its footprints in flour.  That’s it.  Everything else is left to the viewer’s imagination, and while there’s something to be said for giving the audience what it wants, there’s equally something to be said for holding back and making the audience engage their minds in the creation of the fantasy.  On a stylistic level, it maintains the mystery of the creature, and it creates tension, because you never know precisely where the beast is (other than that it’s near you).  Additionally, the fact that the monster shrieks like a banshee is unnerving (and it should be noted, it is a very human shriek, almost as if the creature were mocking its victims).  

The clear pinnacle of the use of sound in horror is Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which was released two years prior to The Sound of Horror.  The major differences between these films and their aural displays are twofold.  One, Conde’s film uses a simple sound with slight variations on it.  Wise’s film used various sounds to exude the notion that the entire house is alive.  Two, whereas Wise combined his audio approach with a visual flair, Conde’s film is fairly static in feel.  His camera does move around some, and it’s usually well-motivated, but his aesthetic is still very staged and more economical than Wise in many ways (never uninterestingly, but certainly not innovatively).

Despite what the film gets right, however, its middle sags a bit more than it should after it becomes something of a siege movie.  At this point, what tensions there are between the characters melt away, and the film simply waits for the next attack.  It fills this time with characters sleeping and chatting idly.  Funnily enough, there are just enough moments of action to pep things up occasionally, so it’s not a total loss.  That being said, this is a damned good low budget horror film.  I’m surprised The Sound of Horror isn’t brought up more often among genre enthusiasts, because it really deserves to be.  Seek it out (it’s on Youtube in full, if you’re interested).

MVT:  I appreciate the conceit of the film, largely because it’s something that wasn’t done often at the time, and even if it were, wasn’t consistently successful enough to be noteworthy.

Make or Break:  The first kill of the film works in spades.  The unsettling cry of the monster along with the rather well done gore effects actually captured my full attention.

Score:  7/10 

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