The Films of 2013: Berberian Sound Studio

In Berberian Sound Studio, set at an Italian film studio in the 1970s, the Italian horror aesthetic—gory, excessive, outlandish—is made to clash hilariously with the English sensibility as embodied by the mild-mannered, buttoned-up Toby Jones.  Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound mixer hired to work on a film about Italian schoolgirls who stumble upon a coven of witches (think Suspiria), the production of which is presided over by a mysterious and autocratic director known as Santini.  Gilderoy’s previous experience has been working on cozy travel documentaries of the kind that air on public television.  His arrival on the set of the horror film, peopled by screaming actresses and foley artists hacking away at melons, is as traumatic as that of a giallo heroine who discovers her boarding school is run by Satanists. 

The appeal of the film will be somewhat limited to those able to appreciate the nuances of this clash in filmic sensibilities.  But even those who are not die-hard Dario Argento fans may find it amusing as a behind-the-scenes look at the role of sound editing in creating atmosphere and mood.  When we think of horror films, it’s often the images, not the sounds, that we remember: Mrs. Bates’ skeleton with its hollowed eye sockets, or the blank white mask of Michael Myers emerging out of the darkness in Halloween.  As Santini’s editors, mixers, and engineers layer female screams, whistling wind, tolling church bells, and an eerie lullaby, we’re made aware of the importance of sound effects in creating a horror film.  The effect is heightened further by the fact that we never see any of the footage of the film-within-the-film—we only hear it. 

Berberian Sound Studio is, regrettably, a one-idea film, even if its one idea is a good one.  It's better at observation, and in messing with one's head (we're continually made to wonder whether Gilderoy is the only sane member of the crew, or whether he has himself lost his grip on reality), than in development or resolution.  Perhaps the most compelling thing about it is its attempt to tap into the power of the Italian horror tradition in ways that invite comparison to other recent retro-flavored horror films like Ti West's The House of the Devil (a throwback to the imperiled babysitter movies of the late 70s/early 80s).  While these modern variations on classic horror themes are certainly more clever than the recent glut of remakes and reboots (not even Suspiria is safe: a new version by David Gordon Green is currently in production), they confirm that twenty-first century horror is a genre stuck in reverse gear.

1 comment:

  1. When are you going to make another post? Your viewers are anxiously waiting.