Reverb (2007)

Reverb first published by Film4

Summary: Eitan Arrusi’s feature debut as writer/director is a ghost story that finds the devil in music. 

Review: The devil, they say, always has the best tunes.

According to legend, some time in the 1920s Robert Johnson acquired the guitar-playing skills that would make him king of the Delta blues and ‘grandfather of rock and roll’ after making a crossroads deal with the devil. In 1967, the Beatles featured ‘wickedest man in the world’ Aleister Crowley on the cover of their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and the Rolling Stones reimagined themselves as Their Satanic Majesties. A year later Jimi Hendrix had become the Voodoo Chile, and by 1969 hippie musician Charles Manson would send his ‘family’ to carry out a series of ritual murders inspired by an apocalyptic interpretation of Beatles lyrics. From then on, any self-respecting rock or metal band earned itself countercultural credibility by dabbling in Satanic imagery, and by 1983, the states of California and Arkansas had passed separate bills intended to curb the use of lyrical ‘backmasking’ that “can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.” 

With diabolism forming such an essential part of the mythology of popular twentieth century music, you would think that the music industry, and musicians themselves, would make the perfect subject for horror movies – yet apart from a run of rock-themed horrors from the Eighties (Krishna Shah’s Hard Rock Zombies, Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat, John Fasano’s Black Roses and Luigi Cozzi’s Paganinini Horror), there is surprisingly little horror out there set in the world of music. This makes Eitan Arrusi’s feature debut Reverb a doubly welcome addition to the genre, both as an exploration of music’s power to haunt, and as a chilling ghost story in its own right. 

After being dumped by both his girlfriend Nicky (Margo Stilley) and his band in the same week, Alex (Leo Gregory) seems condemned to a life of soulless drudgery, endlessly repeating somebody else’s scripted lines down a call-centre telephone. Then out of the blue he is offered the chance to have his music included on a compilation album, just so long as he can come up with a new track by Monday – and so he and his best friend Maddy (Eva Birthistle) arrange with old band member Dan (Luke de Woolfson) to be locked in for a double nightshift at Iron House, the professional recording facility where Dan now works. 

Stuck for ideas, Alex takes inspiration, and a sample, from a song that he hears late at night on the studio’s radio – a song that was in fact the final recording of artist Mark Griffin before his suicide in the early Seventies. Soon Alex is working away like a possessed man on his track, but with phantom sounds bleeding their way into the recording, objects mysteriously moving about and internal phone calls coming from empty rooms, Maddy becomes increasingly convinced that there is someone – or something – else trapped inside with them, desperate to get out. Soon everyone will be drawn from the studio’s modern central complex down to the bricked Victorian basement beneath where, in an old tiled ‘live room’, the past threatens to repeat itself in the reverberating stir of echoes.   

  Reverb both owes and openly acknowledges a considerable debt to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), from its its claustrophobic, increasingly labyrinthine setting to its central figure of the blocked artist, and from its haunted room to its messages read in mirrors (including one reversed word ending prominently in the letters ‘RED’). Hell, there is even a deranged character shown smashing his way through a locked door and stopping just short of shouting “Here’s Johnny!” Such derivativeness, however, hardly seems out of place in a film so overtly concerned with artistic tradition, imitation and inspiration – and Arrusi’s unusual focus on music breathes new life into these old tropes. 

What is more, Arrusi expertly builds the tension from initial disquiet to final outright pandemonium, leaving it for the most part to his atmospheric location and to some jarring jump cuts to disorient the viewer, and resorting to blood and special effects only sparingly. The film’s sound design is exquisite, as it must be – but special mention should also be made of the understated and convincingly serious performances of the cast, ensuring that there is not even the faintest whiff of cheese to match Reverb‘s palpably eerie vibe.     

Verdict: Not entirely original, but this slick chiller hits enough right notes to carry the old tune well. 

© Anton Bitel