Friday, June 14, 2013


One of the best movies I saw last year is being dribbled into L.A. theaters this weekend with absolutely no fanfare, not even so much as a tiny ad in the Friday Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times (a movie section I once rushed to with great anticipation which takes me about five minutes to consume and disregard these days). It's Peter Strickland's giallo-infused Berberian Sound Studio, and if after having read the review below (originally written last October for the 2012 AFI Fest) or the many others available online you have a notion to go out and see it (which I heartily recommend that you do), there will be a list of the two theaters in town that are showing it, with accompanying showtimes.Readers in others parts of the country are advised to keep your ears close to the ground for hints as to if and when and where you might get a chance to see it theatrically. (For those with all-region capability, it's available on blu-ray through

“I just need to scream, that’s all.” So says a beleaguered actress looping her lines in a low-rent Italian studio where the soundtrack of a sexually violent giallo film, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex), is being finalized under the guidance of the film’s abrasive producer and its pretentious, deceptively avuncular director. Also working behind the soundproof glass is Gilderoy (the marvelous Toby Jones), a sound engineer imported from Britain whose résumé is more closely associated with inoffensive nature documentaries than with the sort of ghoulish undertaking on which he now finds himself at work. 

Gilderoy, a naturally recessive man ideally fitted to the anonymity of postproduction, is at first perplexed at having even been chosen to work on a film bearing a title he soon discovers has nothing to do with horses gamboling in pastoral settings. But that puzzlement soon gives way to an escalating tension between Gilderoy’s passionless, professional, purely mechanical need to just get on with the job and his increasingly apparent psychological defenselessness against the exploitative evidence of the horrors depicted in the film.

In its surface form, the strange, hypnotizing Berberian Sound Studio has a hushed formality that insinuates itself underneath your skin in search of a frisson of psychological fear, a method far removed from the violent visual cacophony of the typical giallo. Yet it is absolutely suffused with fetishistic  close-ups— of 1976-vintage sound and film equipment—and hallucinatory aural landscapes, innocent sounds created from mundane Foley sessions which cannot be separated from associations with the grisly imagery they are meant to enhance, that are the hallmark of vintage Italian horror. 

Writer-director Peter Strickland seals Gilderoy (and us) inside the studio, surrounded by sounds we cannot reconcile with sights that are denied us-- the clever faux opening title sequence for Il Vortice Equestre  is the only footage we ever actually see-- and the free-floating dread and disorientation Gilderoy begins to experience eventually becomes our own. Even the letters Gilderoy receives from his mother back in England, filled with benign accounts of bird-watching and the unmistakable longing for her son—Gilderoy’s only lifeline to a world he recognizes— begin to take on awful shadings as the engineer’s grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous. 

Viewers will be reminded of Argento, certainly (those close-ups of tape machines scream Deep Red), but through the constant layering of ghastly shrieks and perverse sound effects  the spirit of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and the search for the perfect scream are imaginatively invoked here as well. Strickland constructs a convincing case for sound as a dominant, almost subliminal force in our experience of the movies, all while entertainingly deconstructing the very process by which that sound is assembled, dissolving the audience’s complicity into magnetic particles of horror which begin tightening around and threatening to absorb Gilderoy. But unlike in Blow Out, that perfect scream which somehow synthesizes frivolous art with inescapable humanity proves elusive. Within the walls of the Berberian Sound Studio there are only fading echoes, the blinding light of the projector bulb washing out everything in its throw, reels of tape spinning out of focus, and the final click of a switch signaling escape into the dark.


Berberian Sound Studio is playing this week (and likely not much longer than that) at the Arena Cinema on North Las Palmas in Hollywood and also at the Downtown Independent on Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles.



Anonymous said...

It's also on iTunes

Gonzalo Jimenez said...

Finally I get the importance of this movie. The poster has intrigued me but this review certainly confirmed it as a must-see. Thanks.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Well, even Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bev, I tried to resist. Thanks for backing me up!