Stylistically recalling the likes of David Lynch and dependent on at least passing knowledge of 70s Italian horror films like Suspiria or The Beyond, it’s safe to say that Berberian Sound Studio isn’t a movie for everyone. Thankfully, that’s also exactly what makes it special. This is certainly one of the strangest damn movies that will screen at TIFF this year and also one of the most fascinating. A surreal horror thriller just as insane as its main character and an act of sensory deprivation that will ensure you’ll never be able to look at watermelons the same way again. This headtrip is not an easy film to shake off or forget, which is a good thing since it will probably take a few viewings to sort the whole thing out. Hit the jump for the rest of my review.
Toby Jones (everyone’s favorite rolly-polly British character actor who also played Capote that one year) stars as a British sound man hired to fly over to Italy and lend his skills to the country’s burgeoning 70s film industry. He brings along sounds from his most recent nature documentary and letters from his mother, a dapper gentlemen looking for a good time abroad. Upon entering the studio where he’ll be working his audio magic he asks the secretary if she speaks English and before the question is even complete she responds, “No.” Things get worse from there. You see, Jones assumed that he’d be working on a film about horses given the title The Equestrian Vortex. Turns out he’s working on the latest horror film from sleazy producer Francesco (Cosmio Fusco) featuring witches, school girls, and “a dangerously aroused goblin” who likes to stick red hot pokers in peculiar places.
We never actually see The Equestrian Vortex beyond a lovingly crafted faux-opening credit sequence that’s almost frighteningly perfect to the period. However, we don’t need to. As Jones pulls out a variety of vegetables to makes nauseatingly squishy sound effects and a parade of actresses march through the studio to scream and deliver hilariously stilted dialogue, it’s clear we’re in the delightful realm of vintage Eurotrash. Jones is disturbed by the film he’s working on and even more disturbed by his new partners who keep unreasonable hours, have trouble making payments, and seem to spend a little too much time with their lovely lady starlets. The pressure mounts and Jones starts to lose his mind. The film slowly beings to abandon rationality and logic along with the star, which can either be read as a subjective dive into insanity or a nod to the unpredictably surreal classic Italian horror movies that the film is referencing.
Which option is true probably won’t be clear until a few more rounds with the film, if there even is a single option to be found. Writer/director Peter Strickland proved in his enigmatic debut Katalin Varga that he’s not a filmmaker who likes to offer easy answers. Berberian Sound Studio becomes ever more fascinating the stranger things get. As the gushy sound effects keep mounting, Jones’ performance shifts from that of a befuddled Englishman abroad to a disturbed man buckling under pressure. He’s the right actor for the job, just as capable of being an everyman to draw viewers in as well as a deranged loon when the time comes for that as well. Strickland is so seductive in the carefully controlled visuals and all encompassing ominous sound effects surrounding Jones that when the movie itself descends into madness, you’ll be too seduced to cry “bullshit.” Like experiencing an unfolding nightmare, there’s too much to deal with emotionally to let your head get in the way.
Berberian Sound Studio falls into that peculiar category of the art horror film. Those who like their genre fair to come purely in the hack n’ slash variety or arthouse lovers who don’t like their films to get nasty will probably dismiss Strickland’s impressive creation. The audience for this film is undeniably selective and yet that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. This is a film that both slithers under your skin and into your brain. It’s something to make you disturbed and yet fascinated at the same time. That balance is hard to achieve and comes along rarely. It’s got a future of cult recognition written all over it. Hopefully the audience destined to obsess over the movie’s many mysteries will get a chance to see it in a theatre, where all of the bizarre images and the evocative soundtrack can consume and confuse viewers until they are sent out to debate what they’ve experienced until the wee hours.