BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
The sense of atmosphere in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is so thick, you could chop it with a machete, and that’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating. More a character study (and a study of a specific time and place in film history) than an outright horror movie, Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO nonetheless has a pervading, unsettling mood throughout.
Toby Jones (probably best known for playing Truman Capote in 2006’s INFAMOUS) plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered Englishman who seems to have mostly done sound for children’s shows and nature programs back home, is somehow plucked from his small existence and inserted into an Italian horror movie studio. The vibe is completely 1970s, at the high of the giallo craze. Gilderoy is a fish out of water, and there’s more than a little Kafka in his situation. Many of his co-workers do not speak English. Those who do, specifically the film’s producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the mysterious director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), are tall, intimidating men whose comments to Gilderoy can sometimes seem more like threats.
Gilderoy is not really sure why he was chosen for this project, especially based on his previous work, but, as Francesco tells him at one point, there are people dying to do his job for free, so he should be happy to do it. The implication being that he should be willing to do it for no money, which he isn’t. But trying to get reimbursed for his flight to Italy alone is an ongoing dilemma, as he keeps getting shuttled from Francesco, to his secretary Elena (Tonia Sotriopoulou), to the Accounting Department. It’s quite clear that the studio isn’t very eager to pay for anything unless it really has to. At one point, the guy in accounting tells Gilderoy that there was no record of a flight leaving England the time he said he flew, and that they cannot pay him back. By then, Gilderoy is so frustrated (since he clearly was on this supposedly non-existent flight!) that he begins to lose his cool, and the worm finally begins to turn.
For hardcore film fans, BERBERIAN is a fascinating look at a side of cinema we rarely see. Sure, we’ve seen the making of a film from the actors’ point of view, or the director’s, but this movie finally gives us entrée into the studio where the sound engineers and foley artists do their thing. We get to see which vegetables and fruits, when smashed or otherwise destroyed, make for the best sound effects, and how a scream can be amplified and manipulated to set your hair on end.
I thought the technical aspects in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO were fascinating. But I didn’t find much of a plot here. Not that this is particularly detrimental in BERBERIAN’s case. As his ordeal goes on, Gilderoy feels more and more cut off from the outside world, and the movie does a good job of making us feel as claustrophobic as he does. The only people he sees every day are Francesco and the other sound guys. Occasionally Santini stops by to strut around and tell Gilderoy how wonderful he is for the project (meanwhile laughing behind his back in Italian with Francesco). There are also actors and actresses who come and go, spending time in sound booths to either dub dialogue or make vocal sound effects. Or scream.
It is one of the screaming actresses, Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) who befriends Gilderoy. She’s the only one who really seems interested in him as a person, and who confides in him that Santini has been sexually harassing her (as he seems to be doing with all his actresses, some of whom are more responsive to his advances), when he’s not treating her and her co-stars like garbage when they don’t scream just right for his satisfaction. She decides to get revenge on Santini and the production in a way that is very effective (if bloodless).
There are scenes of menace. One particular scene involves Gilderoy waking up to someone thrashing his door and wildly shaking the knob. When he grabs a knife to investigate, he wanders out into the hall, eventually finding himself in a screening room, where the projector starts running and plays footage on the wall behind him of everything that had just happened (inside his room!).
The film the crew is making, concerning 16th century witches who rise to fulfill a curse, and who are in the tunnels beneath an equestrian school—the Italian title translates as “The Equestrian Vortex—bares more than a passing resemblance to Dario Argento’s classic SUSPIRIA (1977), which involved witches and a girls’ dancing school. Of course, we do not see much footage from the film. Early on, we see the opening credits. But the rest of the time, we only know the story based on the recitation of lines by the actors in the sound booths.
Gilderoy is clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter of the film. Whether he is ripping radishes from their stems to replicate the sound of hair being torn from a witch’s head, or listening to women scream over and over (as they are forced to do retakes), he clearly is not thrilled with what he’s doing, even if he realizes it is a unique opportunity for someone who has only done sound for films for the telly back in England (and, despite his age, who still lives with him mum).
His only contact with his former life is in the form of letters from his mother, which start out mundane enough, and which get stranger as time goes on. When an actress recites the contents of one letter, line for line, in front of him, you know something sinister is afoot.
As he is forced to redo sound for scenes over and over, we start to wonder how long this job is going to last, and then wonder if he will ever be allowed to leave. We never see him go outside. He is either in the studio (which is most of the time), or in his room. If there is horror here, it’s the horror of being trapped in an unpleasant place without knowing if you’ll ever escape. Because the longer Gilderoy stays there, the more it seems he won’t be permitted to leave.
The cast is quite good, led by Jones, who is one of those gifted actors who, because of how he looks and sounds, will never be a traditional leading man, but who you want to see more of. Aside from playing Capote in INFAMOUS, Jones’s Hollywood career has amounted mostly to small roles as a character actor (like playing one of the commentators in THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012), so it’s nice to see him take center stage again in this smaller, British production.
The emphasis on technical details and atmosphere and subtle menace makes this a little different from the usual horror-related film. As I said early on, it’s much more interested in giving us a glimpse into one man’s life than scaring us, but the sense of dread is strong here, and seems quite real.
Director Strickland has created a unique film that reaches in the direction of art. While it won’t appeal to everyone (it does move at a slower pace than most summer blockbusters), the audience that will appreciate it will obviously have a good time with it. I know I did.
I give BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, three and a half knives.
© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares
(Note: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has been having a very brief run in arthouse theaters in some cities. It is also currently available on some cable OnDemand services)
LL Soares gives BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO ~three and a half knives.