Film Review: Berberian Sound Studio

A sly variation on Brian De Palma's <i>Blow Out </i>by way of<i> Peeping Tom</i>, this barbed call out to Italian exploitation thrillers of the &#8217;70s will be best appreciated by moviegoers familiar with the term "<i>giallo</i>&#8221;; others will

1976: Meek English sound mixer Gilderoy (Toby Jones), who lives with his mother and specializes in documentaries, takes a job in Italy working on the English-language dub of a baroque thriller called Il Vortice Equestre, and is made to feel like an outsider from the moment he sets foot in Berberian Sound Studios and asks the stunning receptionist, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), whether she speaks English. "No," she replies, then calls studio four and tells producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco)—in English—that Gilderoy has arrived.

Francesco is all smiles and hugs, which the reserved Gilderoy likes even less than rudeness—too much body contact. He doesn't much care for the movie either; though what he thought "The Equestrian Vortex" was about is never explored, it's instantly clear that he never imagined it would be a cross between Dario Argento's baroque Suspiria, in which ballet students endure supernatural torments at a haunted boarding school, and the German witch-hunt shocker Mark of the Devil, grandfather of all torture-porn. Nor did he anticipate that much of what female voice artists Silvia and Claudia (Fatma Mohamed and Eugenia Caruso)—who don't hesitate to label the film crap—would be doing is screaming as though being sexually assaulted with red-hot pokers. Gilderoy isn't on the same wavelength as director Santini (Antonio Mancino), whose geniality vanishes when Gilderoy refers to the film as horror: Santini doesn't make horror movies—he makes Santini movies…art. Santini films are about real life, and sometimes life is horrible.

And to top it all off, the Foley artists—both named Massimo—suddenly stop coming to work and Gilderoy is forced to take over their responsibilities. He proves a surprisingly quick study when it comes to butchering watermelons—the wet thunk of a knife slicing through skin and juicy flesh is fantastic—and finding other inventive ways to simulate the sound of human bodies being burned, chopped, crushed and otherwise violated, but as the film unspools it becomes increasingly apparent that the hack and slash troubles him. The Italians shrug it all off: It's fake, just movie tricks. But Gilderoy's nerves are too close to the surface—he doesn't have the heart to squash a spider skittering around his hotel room, let alone listen to day after day of incessant shrieking and wailing without turning a hair.

U.K. filmmaker Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is the flipside of Roman Coppola's bubbly 2001 CQ, a nostalgic reimagining of the goofy, sexy Italian genre filmmaking of the late ’60s/early ’70s; it pays homage to the darker strain of exploitation movies that channeled post-1968 anxiety into grim explorations of cruelty, helplessness and operatic violence. It's hard to imagine moviegoers unfamiliar with the political and philosophical preoccupations of European exploitation filmmakers of the ’70s seeing Francesco and Santini as anything other than self-serving frauds—guys who make ultraviolent movies because they sell to can-you-top-this thrill-seekers—but Strickland balances Gilderoy's baffled horror with a genuine appreciation of the way real-life writers and directors like Argento, Fernando Di Leo, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador and Tinto Brass channeled their discontents into movies that dared audiences not to look away. As IFC clearly realizes, Berberian Sound Studio is a niche item, but a niche item whose target audience should embrace it with a hearty Ciao, bella!