Movie Review: Berberian Sound Studio
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, and Susanna Cappellaro
Plot: A British sound effects technician flies to Italy to work on a horror movie, The Equestrian Vortex.
Giallo is literally the Italian word for yellow, but it is used to describe a subgenre of pulp crime cinema that mixed in elements of horror and eroticism. It was known to be unflinching when it comes to the graphic nature of the stories and had massive impact on the slasher genre. The goriness worked in tandem with Hitchcock-esque suspense for a truly thrilling and complete horror experience.
This movie literally has none of that, yet somehow it just as easily injects those feelings in the audience. It’s biggest asset in that is actor Toby Jones. He plays Gilderoy, a sound effects technician, not used to working on horror films. He mainly works on children’s movies and TV shows. He is so violence averse we even see him escort an insect from his hotel room out the window. No harm, no foul. He only took the job because he thought The Equestrian Vortex was about horse-riding.
It is actually about a coven of witches who torment the students at an all-girl horse-riding school. The closest we get to the visceral aspects of horror are in the screams, ADR voice overs, and disgusting sound effects that Gilderoy and the rest of the crew conjure up in the studio. We don’t even see clips of the film that they are watching. We just see them looking into the distance as they mess with levels and mundane household items to create the desired effect.
That is why Toby Jones is so important. He gives a subtle performance as the tortured sound guy. He is a fish out of water as the Italian filmmakers mock him behind his back in a language that he cannot understand. It is also a culture he can’t understand. He is a meek, humble man who doesn’t speak up and demand what he wants from a group of people with big voices and even bigger egos constantly fighting for attention. In context, he gets lost in the constant pissing-contests, but are eyes are still drawn to him as he tries to make sense of the proceedings. In maybe the best scene of the whole movie, the sound studio loses power, and everyone working somehow allows the egos to go by the wayside while they challenge Gilderoy to make cool noises with mundane things. They are especially impressed with the UFO hum he is able to get out of a lightbulb. Alas, the loss of power doesn’t last and neither does the professional courtesy and respect Gilderoy feels. Everyday, the disrespect and the lack of attention weigh on him. He becomes sleepless, angry, frustrated, and a million other things, but his polite personality bottles it all up. We just sit back and wait for him to hulk out.
This might seem like a very strange way to do a horror movie (because it is), but on some level it worked fantastically and originally. A good portion of it reminded me of The Coen Brothers Barton Fink, about a screenwriter who slowly (and ambiguously) loses his mind due to writer’s block. It is hard to be a working schmuck in the art industry. Art is usually driven by passion, and their is plenty of passion to go around. It’s just that that passion also tends to completely clash with ego, so when Gilderoy just wants to help, earn his paycheck, and get the hell out of there, he runs into trouble.
What Else to Watch: Besides the aforementioned Barton Fink, you can check out Blow Out, a thriller from Brian De Palma starring John Travolta as a sound technician for the movies who uncovers an assassination plot.