Talk to horror filmmakers, and they will agree that there is one element of film which is often vital to the success of the project, but which often goes unnoticed by the public: Sound. In a sense, that’s a good thing, because like editing, good sound design should not distract from the story, but rather, it should transport the audience into whatever new world the film is attempting to create. Every once in a while, though, we get a film which celebrates the power of sound. Deadwax is exactly that…
…Recently released exclusively through the popular horror streaming service, Shudder, Deadwax is an 8-episode series, with each entry running shorter than 15 minutes. Written/directed by Graham Reznick (writer of the hit videogame Until Dawn and sound designer behind films such as The House of the Devil and Stake Land), Deadwax is a neo-noir which follows Etta Pryce (Hannah Gross), a vinyl tracker who is hired by a collector to find a legendary rare record that supposedly drives anyone who listens to it mad…and sometimes, it even kills them.
Before we dig the wax out of our ears and discuss the power of sound displayed in Deadwax, let’s take a real quick trip back through the history of sound in film, in particular, horror.
In the beginning of film, there was no sound. We can all appreciate those early horror flicks like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for their originality and brilliance. Yet, while these films overflow with the spectacular imagery of German expressionism, they are simply not as engaging as modern films, for one key reason: they have no sound. And if they do, it’s usually some random track dug up from some piano bar with no relation to the film whatsoever. Would you be scared of Pennywise in IT if every time he appeared, he was accompanied by Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov? Only because of the musical choice, that’s what would get me. Thanks to the inventive industrial revolution that was the 20s, techniques were created that allowed sound to accompany pictures, which were called “talkies”, the first presented as such being The Jazz Singer (1927). So, what does this have to do with horror?
As we travel through the years, we begin to find some fantastic examples of what proper sound, musical and otherwise, can do for the genre. Without the theme to Jaws, audiences do not wait in suspense for the shark every time the track plays, nor does the film have a cultural impact which lasts generations with fans uttering “dun dun, dun dun” every time they’re trying to scare someone. Without the stinger during the shower scene in Psycho, it’s just some wonky shots of a knife in the air. The original Evil Dead has no atmosphere without the relentless force that is the undulating sounds creeping beneath the frame. Without the music, John Carpenter was told Halloween wasn’t scary. Hell, the original Cat People invented the “jump scare” with the iconic screech of a bus pulling up mixed with the sound of a panther which Jane Randolph thinks is hunting her. Without sound, so much of what scares us in film becomes mere ineffective picture books on screen. We need sound, music, and the inflection of dialogue in order to be fully taken over by a story.
Deadwax is a celebration of this notion. Every aspect of the importance of sound is recognized in the “film” (which is what it really is if you play all 8 episodes together, which is my recommendation). It all starts with the characters. Etta suffers from what I would call a rare quality in culture these days: Artistic appreciation. Obsessed with sound, she doesn’t want to listen to music on CDs or, gulp, a characterless iTunes version, because those renditions are just cheap copies of the original thing. She wants the real source of the sound, the vinyl record, known as the best way to experience music because like film as opposed to digital, it retains all of the imperfections that make it rare and unique since it hasn’t been digitally retuned, touched up, and ripped of its personal qualities. In fact, Etta is so engaged in the world of sound, that she can’t even have an orgasm unless listening to a record, as we see in her opening scene. This is someone who, given a choice between one million in cash or listening to a record that’s only ever been heard by three people, she would choose the record every time. How many of us are that committed to our passions?
“If it can be heard, then I gotta hear it, otherwise what’s the point of having ears,” asks Etta at one point. I strongly agree. In a sense, Etta is every one of us with an appreciation for sound, the beating heart of any genre film. Like Etta, all of us watch horror with the hopes of seeing and experiencing something new, something we’ve never seen before, something that scares us. It’s the same with sound. When Etta is first told that anyone who hears this mystery record goes insane, I was hooked and had to hear what this record could possibly sound like. I won’t say whether or not the final experience lives up to the expectation, but the point with a film like Deadwax is the anticipation. Like a good lover, the film caresses our senses over and over again until releasing us into an explosion of sound and satisfaction that we are finally hearing what we’ve been waiting for.
The film also works through other means of expressing the impact of sound besides the obsessive characters. In nearly every scene, whether it’s a gory death or two people having a cup of coffee and talking, it’s the sound that sets the mood. From the static wash of dead air, to the cacophonous feasting of Japanese beetles on bones, Deadwax presents us with a sort of strange 90-minute lullaby, pulling us along and manipulating our minds into feeling whatever the filmmakers intend. That’s part of the power of sound. It can do anything. The screech of a cat makes us jump, the cry of a baby can drive us mad, and the sound of an ocean can relax us into a deep slumber. With his experience in sound, Reznick understands this well, and his ability and love for sound design is always at the forefront.
He also understands the incredible power of sound, a power that’s frightening if put in the wrong hands, which is an underlying theme of the film. Of all of the technical aspects of filmmaking, whether it be cinematography, lighting, or editing, sound is the only one that can actually be used as a dangerous weapon. In Deadwax, that weapon is a record. Like sound design, it has an innate ability to manipulate its audience into seeing and doing whatever it wishes. The frightening part is, it isn’t a farfetched idea. In real life, we already have an array of sonic weapons which can make you nauseous, cause loss of hearing, and even make your brains leaks out of your ears (okay I made that last one up, but it could happen). The entire concept of Deadwax revolves around this idea of the raw power of sound. It can bring us to the brink of our wildest imaginations, or it can kill us. That’s the sacrifice which some of us make in real life in order to achieve a unique experience such as mountain-climbing, and that’s the same sacrifice which Etta is willing to make so that she can hear a record no one has ever survived listening to.
There are few genre pieces which focus so heavily on the under-appreciated use of sound in horror. Off the top of my head, Berberian Sound Studio is one, but there really aren’t that many that have truly taken the time to show us how alternatively beautiful and dangerous sound can be in the way that Deadwax does. You probably won’t see Deadwax getting nominated for any sound related Academy Awards, because that’s the genre-hating way of the Academy, but in my mind, Deadwax already takes home the prize and it’s not even close.
You can give Deadwax a spin on Shudder, streaming now.
By Matt Konopka