This might be the most anti-horror movie genre freak-out, perhaps ever. Do not tell the hapless sound engineer in question he is just working on a movie or the violent images he sees are no big deal. The vintage-era Italian giallo will profoundly disturb the nebbish Brit throughout Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Poor Gilderoy assumed he had been hired to engineer the sort of nature documentary that has been his specialty. Unfortunately, The Equestrian Vortex is anything but. This will be the latest gore fest from the notorious giallo auteur, Santini (who does that name remind you of?). The film opens with a girl on a horse, but she will soon find herself in a bacchanal of witchcraft and graphic, sexually charged violence. Gilderoy is not prepared for this material, but nobody refuses Santini.
Right from the start, Santini and the staff of the grimy 1970’s sound studio torment Gilderoy with mind games. The engineer’s mental and emotional health quickly deteriorates as he records the smashing pumpkins and other foley effects that accompany the on-screen tortures. On the plus side, there are elegant Mediterranean bombshells coming in out of the studio to record their screams, but only Silvia, the fading starlet, shows him any kindness. Of course, she is no match for the notorious Santini, or his Mephistophelean producer Francesco.
The fresh produce sacrificed to make Berberian could have made a month of salads for the Italian army, but it all has the desired impact. In a more just world, Berberian should be an Oscar shoe-in for the sound categories. However, the Academy will probably be far too uncomfortable with the film’s premise and implications.
Indeed, Berberian is unusually forthright questioning the cumulative impact of desensitizing imagery, far surpassing Cronenberg’s somewhat thematically related Videodrome. Shrewdly, Strickland never shows the audience the Equestrian horrors slowly boring their way into Gilderoy’s brain. It is far more unsettling to hear them take shape in the studio and to watch the engineer’s pained responses. This is an artfully creepy film that skillfully builds the claustrophobic tension, up until the third act collapses into surreal reality-problematizing bedlam.
Who knew Toby Jones had this in him? As Gilderoy, he quietly but rather spectacularly portrays a shy, reserved man coming apart at the seams, in a marked departure from his supercilious type-casting. As his polar opposite, Cosimo Fusco’s Francesco is malevolent sleazebag worthy of the giallo tradition.
Yet, the real stars of Berberian are the technical crew who so perfectly recreate the look, sound, and general vibe of the genre. Listening to Broadcast’s original score, one could easily believe it came off a rare vinyl soundtrack (that’s a good thing). Similarly, production designer Jennifer Kernke’s team painstaking attention to period detail makes the analog studio feel like a truly real (and really awful) place to work.