Saturday, November 30, 2013

First Impressions: Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

Apologies for the lack of recent updates people... free time and more importantly energy have been in short supply these past few weeks. I haven't forgotten about the yellow stuff and will be getting back to all that in due course, but in the mean time I just wanted to share some of my initial thoughts about a recent British movie I watched for the first time last week, and it just so happens to be heavily concerned with Italian horror cinema...

Sometime during the 1970s, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a soft-spoken, seemingly sheltered English sound engineer travels to Italy to work on a curiously titled film, The Equestrian Vortex. Upon arriving, he is immediately made to feel ill-at-ease thanks to a chilly reception from the eponymous studio's secretary and an overly warm one (to this rather reserved chap) from his producer and, a bit later on, the director. All this social anxiety and travel-induced discomfort is just a prelude though, as Gilderoy soon discovers when he finally lays eyes on some footage of the film he will be working on. We don't see any of this ourselves, but from the scene descriptions delivered to the performers before each session and the sound effects the Foley artists are creating, it's fairly obvious what sort of movie this is. To offer an admittedly reductive and frankly somewhat inaccurate comparison, it seems like it would be something akin to the crazed, bastard offspring of an unholy union between Dario Argento's Suspiria and Ken Russell's The Devils. 

I really don't know where to begin with this one, and to be honest I'll need to re-watch it before I can start to get a proper handle on it... but nevertheless, I'll attempt to give you my current thoughts. To cut to the chase, I think it's probably a stretch to call this a tribute to Italian horror and gialli. Now don't get me wrong, Strickland and company certainly demonstrate an awareness of and perhaps even a slight appreciation for these movies, but there seems to be much more going on here than mere genre riffing, and one wonders if the makers actually like the films they're referencing or not...

A fairly apt label that has come up quite a few times in reference to Berberian Sound Studio (and one that might even have been banded around it its PR material, if memory serves) is "anti-horror film"... and while that doesn't fully sum up the film either, it certainly strikes at the heart of what I found somewhat troubling about it. In short, it seems to suggest that for the right or wrong people (depending which way you look at it), certain types of films can be potentially destabilising and perhaps even poisonous (a proposition that will no doubt strike a particular nerve with horror fans). Writing these words I realise that sounds potentially hyperbolic, but when you look at what happens to Gilderoy throughout the narrative, this is pretty much exactly what occurs... although past the half-way point and into the third act, the movie seems to go somewhere else entirely... 

As a slight side note, the film reminds me of an equally disturbing book I read a few years back, Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which treads some similar territory. Both are highly recommended to cinephiles and horror fans, but be warned... you'll never be able to watch a film (and especially a horror one) in quite the same way ever again.

As I've suggested, I'm still chewing on and digesting the intellectual/philosophical meat of this film, and I'll most definitely be returning to it when I've had chance to dig a bit deeper. But all this aside, I have to say I think it's undeniably well crafted and acted. Hats off especially to Toby Jones (son of Freddie) for a compelling, believable and highly affecting performance. The man is an extremely prolific character actor and more often seen in supporting roles, but he gets a real chance to shine here... and for me, the sheer strength of his performance really made the movie, though credit is certainly due to all the other artists and technicians who worked on it as well... every element, from direction, through sound design and music to cinematography and production design (and so on) is superlatively handled.

I'm looking forward to revisiting Berberian Sound Studio in the none too distant future so I can hopefully gain some further clarity on the issues I raised earlier. At any rate, film buffs, and especially Italian horror and giallo aficionados should definitely give this a shot, but I'm not sure I'd really recommend it to anyone else. If anyone reading this has seen it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. I thought it was more of a spoof of the Italian horror thing than it was an homage, but I admit I haven't thought of or read of the "anti-horror" theory. I also have to admit that when I saw this, it was not available on DVD in the USA (and it still may not be, I haven't checked lately) and so I did what I had to do to see it, and therefore all the parts that were in Italian were not subtitled. I think that if I could see the subtitles, that what was being said in Italian would be something I could better interpret in terms of symbolic meaning overall; I think the dialogue in the "film within the film" that I can't understand in Italian holds the key to the meaning of the end.

    Lastly, for me the most horrific part of the horror element of the film was the way the director and producer were emotionally abusive gaslighters. Like, the film is obviously not a horror film, but the way they treated Toby Jones's character was quite disturbing.

  2. Think you're right about it being closer to a spoof than an homage, and I honestly can't imagine what it'd be like trying to watch this without subtitles for the Italian bits, as I'm sure there were many such parts... but having said that, I'm sure the general trajectory of the plot is probably still fairly clear without them.

    And I know what you mean about it being disturbing despite not being a traditional horror film... poor Toby Jones eh? Don't you just wanna reach through the screen somehow and give the guy a hug by the end of the movie? Sure looks like he could use one by then, despite his character having an apparent aversion to physical contact...

    Thanks for commenting as always :) I've been slacking on the blogging front since Halloween, both reading and writing, but when time permits I'll be sure to hop over and check out what you've been posting recently.