Stylistically recalling the likes of David Lynch and dependent on at least a passing knowledge of the 70s Italian horror industry that spat out titles like Suspiria or The Beyond, it’s safe to say that Berberian Sound Studio isn’t a movie for everyone. Thankfully, it shouldn’t be. That’s exactly what makes it special. This is certainly one of the strangest movies that you’re see all year and also one of the most perversely fascinating. A surreal, horrific, thriller just as insane as its main character and an act of sensory deprivation that will ensure you’ll never look at watermelons the same way again. This art house horror head trip is not an easy to shake off or forget, which is a good thing since it will probably take a few viewings to sort the whole thing out. Much like the film’s obvious influence The Conversation, the joy is in the mystery. The answers are almost irrelevant and inevitably confounding.
Toby Jones (everyone’s favorite rolly-polly British character actor who also played Truman Capote and Alfred Hitchcock in years when more famous actors did the same) stars as a British sound engineer hired to fly to Italy to lend his skills to the country’s burgeoning film industry. He brings along sounds from his most recent nature documentary and letters from his mother (like any good dapper English gent looking for a good time abroad). Upon entering the studio he asks the secretary if she speaks English and before the question is even out of his mouth she spits out, “No.” His relationship with his new collaborators only gets worse from there. You see, Jones assumed that he’d be working on a film about horses given the title The Equestrian Vortex. Turns out he’s working on the latest horror film from sleazy producer Francesco (Cosmio Fusco) featuring witches, sexy school girls, and “a dangerously aroused goblin” who enjoys sticking red hot pokers in the most peculiar places.
We never actually see The Equestrian Vortex beyond a lovingly crafted faux-opening credit sequence that’s almost a frighteningly perfect reaction of Italians horror flicks from the period. However, we don’t need to. As Jones pulls out a variety of vegetables to makes nauseatingly squishy sound effects and a parade of actresses march through the studio to scream and deliver hilariously stilted dialogue, it’s clear we’re in the delightful realm of vintage Eurotrash horror. Jones is disturbed by the film he’s working on and even more disturbed by his new production partners who keep unreasonable hours, can’t seem to make payments, and spend a little too much time with their lovely lady starlets. The pressure mounts and Jones starts to lose his mind. From there, Berberian Sound Studio slowly abandons rationality and logic along with the protagonist, which can either be read as a subjective dive into insanity and the horror of cinema or a nod to the unpredictably surreal Italian genre movies that the film is referencing.
Which option is the most truthful never clear, if there even is a single answer to be found. As writer/director Peter Strickland proved in his enigmatic debut Katalin Varga, he’s not a filmmaker who offers easy answers and Berberian Sound Studio only becomes more fascinating when it becomes a weirdo nightmare. As the gushy sound effects keep mounting, Jones’ performance shifts from that of a befuddled Englishman abroad to a disturbed man buckling under pressure. He’s the perfect actor for the part, just as comfortable playing an everyman who draws viewers in as he is playing a deranged loony who freaks out the audience. Strickland is so seductive in his carefully conceived visuals and ominous sound design that when the movie itself descends into madness, you’ll be too enveloped to ever cry “bullshit.” Like experiencing an unfolding nightmare, there’s too much to deal with emotionally to let your logic-loving brain get in the way.
Berberian Sound Studio falls into that peculiar category of the art house horror film. Those who like their genre movies to be of the hack n’ slash variety or arthouse lovers who don’t like their films getting nasty will probably dismiss Strickland’s impressive creation. The audience for this movie is undeniably selective and yet that’s what makes it special. This is a film that slithers under your skin and into your brain. It’s something that disturbs and fascinates simultaneously. That balance is hard to achieve and comes along rarely. Even if a final defining flourish to iron out some of the ambiguities would have been nice, the flick has “future cult classic” written all over it. Hopefully the audience destined to obsess over the movie’s many mysteries will get a chance to see it in a theater, where all of the bizarre images and the evocative soundtrack can consume viewers until they are sent out to debate what they’ve experienced until the wee hours. It’s a perfect movie for that unique experience and a nice antidote to the mindless, spectacle driven summer blockbuster season.