Cannibal Holocaust: The perverse contrast of sonic beauty and visual horror

Cannibal Holocaust

It may simply be coincidence – but then again it may not – that one of the most striking, fascinating pieces of film music I have ever heard provides a soundtrack to one of the most visually repulsive and disturbing film scenes I have ever seen. I am speaking (of course?) of Riz Ortolani’s score for Cannibal Holocaust and in particular the track listed on the soundtrack album as ‘Adulteress’ Punishment’.

It begins with the simple alternation of two notes, a major second apart, deep in the register of a fuzzy Moog synth bass. On the screen, we see a man on a small handmade raft rowing to shore in long shot.

At 0:10, an electronic percussion sound enters – probably the same high tom from a Synare drum synthesizer used in Anita Ward’s hit disco single ‘Ring My Bell’ the previous year. We cut to a mid-shot to reveal that the boat also holds a naked woman, tied by her hands and feet, and struggling to get free as the oarsman drags her to shore and ties her to a post on the muddy beach.

At 0:42 seconds, the violas and low register violins come in, with a very rich, almost pungent sound. At the same time, the oarsman pulls his captive’s legs apart and triumphantly produces some sort of stone with which he proceeds to rape his supine prisoner. The strings stretch and pull, seemingly yearning through more and more dissonant intervals.

At 1:22, the cellos enter, but instead of grounding and resolving the tension of the violins, they only unsettle the ground even further. As Monroe – the film’s putative hero – and his guide look on aghast, the rapist discards his first stone and clumps together a mound of wet mud, placing a series of sharp pegs to protrude from it. We catch a close-up of the victim realising what he is doing and there is an arresting break in the musical tension: the strings suddenly modulate to the major key in a move that is at once strangely sweet and perversely romantic sounding.

But the relief is short lived. Within ten seconds, we have returned to the high-wire astringency of the original key and the assailant is now pummelling the genitals of his victim with this new weapon in horrific close-up. Her belly is awash with blood and high strings enter, playing the opening theme in the manner of a fugue.

As he goes on to bash her brains in with the same tool with which he has just mutilated her sexual organs, the harmonies ripen, grow increasingly tense, recalling Ravel’s famous String Quartet or Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Finally, the strings subside, the woman is dead and pushed out to sea. The Moog bass also fades as Monroe’s guide explains that the awful punishment we have just witnessed is ‘considered a divine commandment’.

Many commentators have noted the ‘violence’ of the synth in Ortolani’s score (e.g. Kay Dickinson), its ‘perverse cruelty’ (Kristopher Spencer) and the contrast with the ‘beauty’ of the strings, which combine to make the film’s brutality ‘all the more unexpected and horrific in contrast’ (Randall D. Larson). As Jennifer Brown notes in her study of cannibalism on film: ‘Riz Ortolani’s orchestral soundtrack is a crucial part of the impact of the film, haunting and affective. It contrasts jarringly with the violence of the images on the screen making them paradoxically beautiful in their goriness.’ In a way, the contrast Brown mentions, this tension between image and music, is already fully present in the music itself, in the very jarring piquancy of the orchestral harmonies.

In an interview (available to watch on YouTube), Ortolani himself has referred to his music for this scene as ‘a religious adagio’. Reflecting the guide’s statement that this punishment is ‘a divine commandment’, Ortolani says of his score, ‘it had to give the tone of a religious piece’, but at the same time sound ‘modern and striking’. Listening to the piece again, we can hear how the combination of aspects of fugue and passacaglia (the repetitive Moog bass ostinato) reinforce this ‘religious’ dimension. Indeed, we can recognise some of the same sense of ‘painful longing’ as in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, which had been used in the baptism sequence of The Godfather just a few years earlier.

Arguably, however, Ortolani’s music neither simplistically upholds nor respects the characterisation of this horrific act as sacred, and therefore worthy of some sort of culturally relativist respect. Nor does it seek to expose, by association, the violence and brutality supposedly inherent in all religions by their very nature. Instead, the piece presents both these interpretations at once, rubbing them up against each other in a kind of perverse sonic parallax.

Robert Barry