Melons and blood-curdling screams: "Berberian Sound Studio" an aurally sound but go-nowhere mood piece

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)
92 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

"Berberian Sound Studio" is one of those obscure little films that true connoisseurs of horror cinema, especially '70s Italian giallo, should not miss. Everyone else might admire it but end up scratching their heads. Written and directed with studied verve by Peter Strickland, this moody, fascinatingly and beautifully crafted psychological drama is less of a horror film than it is an insider's look at everything that goes into post-production filmmaking, including the Foley process and vocal recordings. Then, around the halfway point, it becomes so surreal and Kafkaesque instead of going anywhere.

1976, Italy: timid, reputable British sound mixer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) leaves his mum to work on "The Equestrian Vortex" in a sound studio, unaware that it would be a horror film and not about horseback riding. He's like a maestro at his soundboard but speaks very little Italian and is completely out of his element with this crew, particularly rude, condescending producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and pompous director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), who balks Gilderoy for categorizing his film as "horror." Gilderoy also has trouble getting reimbursed for his flight by Francesco and the studio's equally rude secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou). Only vocal actress Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) shows him any kindness, as she, too, is mistreated by Santini. Painstakingly working on the film, he receives letters from his mum about raising chiffchaff chicks back home outside their window. That's when the content of his work really starts to take a toll on Gilderoy, tossing him into a strange vortex of his own.

Mostly set inside the hermetic Berberian Sound Studio, the film has a dark, quiet, controlled slow-burn mood that puts the viewer on edge without showing a drop of blood. Strickland has a skillful command of building dread and using silence, as well as sprinkling in the blood-curdling screams of the ADR actresses; the recurring, Lynchian image of a red, flashing "Silenzio" sign; and take after take of smashing and stabbing watermelons and ripping radishes to depict the recorded sounds of bodies being murdered. We never actually see a single gruesome demise or any footage from the giallo being worked on (except for the nifty, black-and-red title sequence), but suggestion is more effective, as we only hear "flesh" being mutilated and "heads" hitting the pavement. "The Equestrian Vortex" being about a witches' coven terrorizing a girls boarding school is also a nice salute to Dario Argento's "Suspiria." 

Having already played Truman Capote and Alfred Hitchcock, Jones turns in yet another committed performance as a passive but compelling figure. His Gilderoy is the guiding force here, and by proxy, we're just as befuddled as he is. It's an absorbing and suggestive trip for a long time and should be building to something, but it never really gets there since there is no real rising tension. When Gilderoy starts to lose it, the film starts to lose its way and unravel like a reel. As a result, "Berberian Sound Studio" looks and sounds great as an esoteric, lovingly made homage to Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, but it's a half-baked film that wants to challenge the philosophy of life imitating art. Visually and sonically, it's mesmerizing; narratively, it leaves more to be desired. If anything, be sure to keep an ear out for filmmaker Strickland.

Grade: C +