Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Review by Annie Riodan
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Year released: 2012
Starring: Toby Jones, and a bunch of Italian people whose names are all indecipherable.
When I think of horror movies (and I think about them a LOT) I tend to sort them into two distinct categories. I envision the first category as an overstuffed basement room with shelves sagging beneath the weight of the movies stacked upon them, a messy, dusty, claustrophobic room lit by one stuttering overhead bulb whose inside are littered with the carcasses of dozens of dead flies. The sign on this door reads: HORROR MOVIES. It contains approximately 97% of the movies I have watched in my lifetime. When I think of the movies in this room, I immediately think of blood, scantily clad teenage girls, big guys in masks wielding phallic weapons…you know, all that shit.
The second category I picture as a single drawer set into a bulky, old fashioned dresser, standing silent and sturdy in an otherwise empty room. The drawer is wide and deep but isn’t even half full. Its contents rattle around loosely when it’s yanked open. The sign on this room’s door read MOVIES THAT HORRIFY. The movies found here all bear arcane, arty titles like Picnic At Hanging Rock, Suddenly Last Summer, Kill List, The Innocents, Lake Mungo and (yep, you guessed it) Berberian Sound Studio.
The difference between HORROR MOVIES and MOVIES THAT HORRIFY is simply this: Horror movies entertain me, amuse me and serve as a therapeutic release for my daily stress intake. The movies that horrify are watched infrequently, taken dead seriously and reserved for those times when I actually want to be made to feel profoundly disturbed by a cinematic experience. Movies that horrify work on a deep psychological level that not many people want to admit exists within them, let alone look at occasionally. They are insidious creations, lurking but never pouncing, whispering incessantly rather than screaming shrilly, sitting inside of your head long after you’ve watched them, rotting like a corpse in your memory and growing more bloated, gaseous and hideous as time goes by. Berberian Sound Studiois such a film.
And I’m just going to go ahead and say this right up front: this movie will bore the shit out of most people. And by “most people” I mean the people who want brainless by-the-numbers horror vehicles, with clockwork jumpscares, bouncing boobies and big bloody handfuls of gore smeared all over the place whilst some Yngwie Malmsteen wannabe underlines the action with a cheesy tension riff. Sorry dudes. There’s nothing wrong with fast food horror fixes, but Berberian Sound Studio is definitely for the connoisseur.
Set in the Italy of the 1970s, when smoking was mandatory and giallo movies still held a palpable smear of hair oil and pepperoni grease on every frame, this is the story of Gilderoy, a proper buttoned-up little British man who has made a tidy living as a Foley artist, creating sound effects for PG rated documentaries. Answering the summons of a slick Italian filmmaker, Gilderoy arrives in Italy to begin work on what he thinks is going to be another safe, harmless documentary. Instead, he finds himself smack in the middle of a sleazy horror movie set where tensions are high, secrets are dark and English is not the preferred language. Ostracized by the younger and much more worldy crew, Gilderoy is forced to abandon his polite veneer and sink to the level of his coworkers – a ruthless, sordid lot with nothing but contempt for the polite British bachelor who still lives with his mother.
This film is a subtle, diabolical masterpiece. It’s so deeply upsetting to watch Gilderoy’s dark slide down into ugliness, knowing he can never pull himself all the way back up out of that pit again for as long as he lives. This movie does not do anything as mediocre as frighten its audience. It prefers to stare back at you for an hour and a half, unnerving you slowly but surely, tightening your stomach and tensing your bowels, gathering in the shadows around your feet, taking pleasure in your dread and absolutely refusing to relent until it has had its say. It avoids being bleak, but it’s profoundly sorrowful. And it lingers, Like cancer. Flaring up every so often when least anticipated, poking at your brain with a frozen finger of fear.
It’s also a fascinating portrayal of Foley sound effects, a vastly under-appreciated art without which films – especially horror films – would be about as riveting as unbuttered toast.
Splatter films are fine and good and perfectly acceptable, but you’ve got to treat yourself once in a while. Put down the cold, leftover pizza and pick up a slab of porterhouse. Berberian Sound Studio is a seven course meal. Chew slowly. Savor it. Don’t question the ingredients. Just appreciate it while it lasts.