Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Berberian Sound Studio & The Making of a Giallo

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is a little meta: movies about people making horror movies. First up is Berberian Sound Studio. Later today, Joe Dante’s Matinee.

The film industry loves nothing more than to make movies about itself, and the horror genre is not at all immune to this. Scream 3 took Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and the rest to Hollywood where they lurked around on the backlots of a slasher movie based on their lives. Don’t Look Up, the debut feature from The Ring’s Hideo Nakata, asked, “What if a film crew accidentally picked a haunted soundstage as the set for for their latest project?” Fade to Black imagined what would happen if a lonely film editor suffered a psychotic break and started dressing up as his favorite movie characters and killing people.

I could go on.

The point is there are a lot of them, and they’re usually about actors, directors, writers, producers, or somehow prominent members of a film crew. Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s 2012 curiosity, digs much deeper than all of that. This is a story focused on a sound engineer, a job so overlooked most people still don’t understand the difference between sound editing and sound mixing even though the Oscars try to explain it every year.

Set in the 1970s, Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a timid, sad little man who just happens to also be an absolute genius with sound design. Making a kids TV show and need someone to create the sound effect of a UFO using just a lightbulb and washboard? He’s your guy. That’s just about the absolute edge of his comfort zone, though. When he’s called out of his native country of England to work on an Italian film about horses he happily takes the job. Once there, he’s mortified to learn it’s actually an Italian horror film that just happens to be named The Equestrian Vortex (“Oh, a horse-riding girl? She’s just not riding a horse anymore, that’s all,” is the only explanation he’s given for the apparent switcheroo.) The experience of working on the film slowly drives him insane.

This is an exceedingly clever premise since most Italian horror films of the era were filmed without sound and had dialogue and effects added in post.

Strickland, adapting from a one-minute short film he created nearly a full decade earlier, makes the crucial decision to never actually show us any footage of the movie-within-a-movie. Instead, The Equestrian Vortex exists as light reflected on Gilderoy’s face as he watches from a Foley-stage and provides the sounds for all of the death blows, a hatchet to a watermelon substituting for a knife to a skull.

Via recording sessions with actresses Sylvia (Fatma Mohamed) and Claudia (Eugenia Caruso), whose screams never quite please the men in charge, we do at least gather Vortex seems to involve two girls stumbling upon a den of witches as well as a “dangerously aroused goblin” in the tunnel underneath a riding school. One of them apparently ends up dying via a hot poker to the vagina.

So, you know, good family fun.

It’s clearly an incredibly violent, rather supernatural horror film. Think less Blood and Black Lace, more Demons (although the lesser-known 1968 giallo Death Laid an Egg has been cited by the director as more of a direct influence). Gilderoy gradually gets lost in the unending screams, finding solace in only the quaint letters from his mother about their farm animals. Even those turn on him as they begin to describe horrific scenes of chicks having their heads literally torn off by (the mother guesses) magpies.

Is that real, though? Or is Gilderoy’s work warping his view of reality?

The challenge of Berberian Sound Studio is watching all of this play out and waiting for something – anything! – to actually happen. If you are not a gearhead who will happily get lost in the film’s various sonic layers and experiments, you’re stuck with an entire hour of Toby Jones looking increasingly sad and continually coming back to his demand to be reimbursed for his expenses. The production company, we gather, doesn’t intend to pay him back (or even at all). Plus, the faux auteur director of Vortex turns out to be a bit of a Harvey Weinstein, casting couching the woman who turns into the closest thing Gilderoy has to a friend.

Given all of that, it’s only a matter of time before he snaps and some kind of killing spree ensues, but once it does the narrative structure disintegrates like an overexposed piece of film. As Gilderoy appears to imagine himself watching his own murders as if they were a part of Vortex, you’re impressed by the cleverness of it all while not actually being engaged by it. It’s why Berberian Sound Studio was recently described on the Shock Waves horror movie podcast as being the type of film people want to like more than they actually do. It’s good, sure, but it’s never quite great, which is actually more frustrating than if it was an outright failure.

Berberian Sound Studio is currently available to stream on Hulu. If you want a little more insight into the actual making of the movie, I recommend this Quietus interview with the director. Berberian also has a bit of a film cousin in 2014’s The Editor, in which a giallo editor’s creeping psychosis causes his reality to resemble the horrific films he works on. Similar plots, but entirely different approaches. 

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

 

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