Berberian Sound Studio is one of the strangest films you’ll see this year. And for much of its running time, it’s also one of the most beautiful. But it’s hard to say what, exactly, it is. On a simple level, it’s an homage to the great, artfully schlocky Italian giallo horror flicks of the seventies (films with evocatively ridiculous names like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Iguana With the Tongue of Fire, and my all-time favorite title, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), but it’s a bloodless, corpseless one. There are no bad guys, and no real violence. Horror fiends looking for cheap thrills may be disappointed. But those with a flair for the offbeat might find themselves unnerved and riveted.
The protagonist is Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mousy, repressed sound engineer/Foley artist from rural England who comes to Italy sometime in the seventies to work in a drab post-production studio. He’s creating sound effects for a goofy little number full of witches and nubile females called The Equestrian Vortex, which we never actually see. We definitely hear the movie, though, and we see how sound is created: Water dabbed on sizzling pans; melons hacked to pieces; eggplants and other nightshades smushed to a gory pulp; even, at one point, a lightbulb dragged across a metal rake. We also see a bit of the behind-the-scenes drama: Gilderoy becomes close with an actress who has had some kind of affair with the director, and he ticks off the irritable producer whenever he complains about malfunctioning equipment or asks to be reimbursed for his expenses.
That doesn’t sound like much of a story, and it isn’t. Director Peter Strickland is more interested in using sound to establish Gilderoy’s general sense of unease and displacement, and then turning that into its own kind of slowly gathering terror. Our hero is a quiet little sort, the kind who spends his free time reading adoring letters from his mum giving him an update on some chicks hatching back home. And he dreams of rural British landscapes and of the nature documentaries he’d rather be making. (At one point, he walks on a small bed of prop twigs, saying it reminds him of home.) But he’s lost now in a prison of sound: Amid all that gnarly horror that he’s helping to create, his tenuous hold on reality begins to slip.
As does ours. Strickland never shows us the violence on the imaginary movie screen. Rather, he shows us the “violence” of the sound being created: He zooms in, for example, on a line in a sound sheet that says “Monica falls” and then we cut to a pile of smashed vegetables shot like an exploded brain. A black-gloved hand fiddling with a projector knob feels like it could just as easily be wringing someone’s neck. A cabbage is stabbed with a ferocity that makes it seem like something alive being savaged. A ravaged head of lettuce is shot in close-up, a hole punched into it looking for all the world like an unspeakable wound. It all sounds ridiculous, but Strickland knows how to use his camera: The imagery is somehow both sensuous and gruesome, which is the precise balancing act that the best giallo films — think Dario Argento’s Deep Red, or Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace — also manage to pull off.
Berberian Sound Studio is a weird movie, but it gets even weirder at the end, and that’s when it falters and loses the viewer. Not because it’s too much, but because the film’s final scenes actually feel like an odd sop to convention — to the idea that everything needs a climax, or a resolution, or some kind of final escalation, even if it’s a strange and somewhat nonsensical one. (I would have been perfectly happy with Gilderoy just finishing his job, packing his bags, and going home.) But that feels like a minor misstep for an otherwise enthralling film — one that does more with a head of lettuce than most films do with the biggest effects budgets in the world. As they say: See it — if you dare.