“Berberian Sound Studio” begins with one of miserably dreadful moments that can really happen in our mundane life. Its meek hero dislikes his new job, but he finds himself stuck in that purgatory, and he feels more alienated and isolated in his stark work environment. In such a circumstance like that, it is not surprising that his mental state becomes slowly deteriorated when it seems there is no end in his sight.
Toby Jones plays a British sound engineer named Gilderoy, who comes to Italy for working in the post-production of a fictional Italian horror film named “The Equestrian Vortex”. It is around the 1970s, and that was the era during which many infamous Italian horror films were made. As a matter of fact, “The Equestrian Vortex” is basically a rip-off of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”(1977), one of famous ‘giallo films’ from that period.
While we are thrown along with Gilderoy to its red devilish main title sequence around the beginning, we do not see the rest of “The Equestrian Vortex”, which seems to be filled with lots of terrible moments throughout its running time. It is mainly Gilderoy’s job to record and mix the sound effects for these horrible scenes while assisted by a handful of crew members and ordered by his boss Francesco(Cosimo Fusco), and, though the sound studio looks pretty lousy even in the standard of the 1970s, Gilderoy works hard for getting his job done every day despite this poor condition. We frequently watch him working at the control booth, and we sometimes look at his long work chart full of the sound effect editing design over the film.
While showing him and others at work in languid pace, the movie intrigues us with the filmmaking techniques behind movie. Like Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out”(1981), which also features a sound effect technician hero working on a horror film, the movie induces us to be more conscious of the aural aspect of movie while looking around the daily work process of Gilderoy and others, and it is rather fun to watch how they create sound effects for their movie. They use various kinds of vegetables and fruits to generate the sound effects they want, and Gilderoy is served with a slice of watermelon on his first day when they have just finished their business with that poor fruit. I was particularly amused by how they used turnips for providing the plausible sound for a certain act of violence – do the sound effect guys still use that method?
We also see the dubbing process while their work continues. As some of you know, Italian films made at that time were all dubbed entirely during post-production process, so we see several actors and actresses come and go around the studio for recording the dialogues and the wordless human/inhuman sounds from their larynxes. The actresses are hired mainly for their scream – or what they can do for the director, who is an arrogant and careless prick who really seems to think he is making a horror masterpiece. At one point, an angered actress reminds us that the exploitative side of those cheap horror films is not only confined in the screen.
While all these things are happening around him, Gilderoy feels more loneliness and isolation as the time goes by. He misses his home in England, and the affectionate letters from his mother intensify his longing rather than alleviating it. His co-workers do not communicate with him much because of language barrier, and they are mostly unkind to him. He sleeps alone in his temporary residence, and, when the work time is over, he usually spends his solitary time with several sound recordings before going to bed.
And, above all, he feels increasingly disturbed by “The Equestrian Vortex”. It is not that the film has some supernatural evil force; even though he knows it is only a movie, its supposedly shocking violent scenes always tremble his vulnerable psyche whenever he works on them. He does not like horror films at all, but this is a job he is hired and demanded to do, and he is literally bullied by Francesco when he expresses his desire to quit the job. He realizes that he has no choice but to keep moving on in this hostile mood – and his reality starts getting crumbled along the work schedule.
The director/writer Peter Strickland makes a compelling psychological horror film focusing more on atmosphere than plot. It requires some patience around the beginning, but its disturbing undertone attracts our attention through its effective sound designs and a recurring red light sign for silence in the studio. We only encounter the horror movie in the film indirectly, but its horrific sounds are enough to stimulate our imagination, and its brooding force throws an ominous tone even on a plain sight of the corridor outside the studio, which comes to evoke that spooky claustrophobic quality we observed from the films like “The Tenant”(1976), “The Shining”(1980) and “Barton Fink”(1991).
The second half of the movie becomes more bizarre, more fearful, and more confusing as it goes into the territory of David Lynch films, and it helps that the movie is anchored by its lead performance to hold us on emotion level amid its accumulating confusion. Toby Jones, who has been one of the most distinctive British character actors in recent years, did a superb job of playing an unstable mind approaching to the possible collapse under his trapped situation, and you may feel lots of sympathy to his character if you have ever had a soul-crushing job experience.
Although I am not very familiar with those giallo films(as far as I remember, only giallo film I watched was Dario Argento’s “Deep Red”(1975)), I found “Berberian Sound Studio” is a well-made horror film with intriguing sights and some tense/scary moments while working well as a tribute to the genre it plays with. I paid attention to its creepy atmosphere, and I enjoyed some of its details, and I was actually terrified at times. How nice it is to see that familiar black glove again, by the way.
Another topically interesting movie about one aspect of film making
SC: You won’t be disappointed.