Thursday, October 2, 2014

Berberian Sound Studio

It is quite appropriate that 2013's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is one scary sounding movie.  One of the most discomforting, eerie soundtracks I can remember. I listened to it on headphones (so as not to disturb my wife) and the sound mix was amazing; it allowed far more than would've been audible otherwise. The film's plot involves a sound engineer hired to work on an Italian horror flick, or giallo. It is sometime in the 1970s, when effects were sometimes achieved by snapping twigs, stabbing cabbages, and splattering fruit in the studio. The filmmakers, a pair of obnoxiously Alpha male Italianos, are trying unsuccessfully to get that perfect scream from their actresses, astonishingly beautiful women described by one of the lotharios as "being able to give even a dog a hard on."

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a Brit who is selected by the filmmakers for his expertise in the foley arts. Likely also because he seems like a nebbish, weak, and easily intimidated. He flies to Italy under the impression he is to work on an art film about horses called THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX. Within minutes he learns otherwise. That he is to provide his skills to a gory quickie filled with torture scenes. But the director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), gets very offended when Gilderoy refers to his masterpiece as a "horror film", following with a rather defensive lecture to the befuddled man.

Gilderoy is mistreated, questioned for his choices, condescended to. The promised reimbursement for his flight is repeatedly delayed. When he's had enough and finds some courage to stand up to the company, strange things begin to occur. The airline can find no record that he made the flight.  Weird visions abound. He will become as cruel as his producers, torturing an actress in a sound booth with screechingly high frequency noise as she tries to perfect those screams. Gilderoy eventually begins to find or imagine the film he is working on is actually starring himself.  Things get pretty off-the-wall in the last half hour. The final scene will be maddeningly inconclusive to some viewers, but it made perfect sense to me.

Writer/director Peter Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is quite successful as an ode to the giallos of the '70s. Or at least to the process behind the making of one. The sort of pictures Dario Argento and Mario Bava created. Film buffs should eat it up, with its peek behind the curtain of low budget post-production. Multiple shots of reels and cue cards. Those familiar with Italian cinema of this ilk will yield the most enjoyment, but the many nods to David Lynch, existential '70s movies like TWO LANE BLACKTOP and the obvious similarities to Brian DePalma's BLOW OUT will sustain others.

This is a rare contemporary suspense movie that never resorts to gimmicky violence or cheap thrills, the kind you would see in a giallo, in fact. We never see a frame of EQUESTRIAN VORTEX.  But we do hear it. It's enough.

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