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The word “homage” is a battered old mare when it comes to
horror, with many a filmmaker confusing the term—which can most appropriately
be applied to directors like Brian De Palma or Quentin Tarantino, who graft
elements and DNA of pictures they admire onto fresh frameworks—with ripoff.
Look at the “grindhouse” phenomenon, a dubious and meaningless label that has
given birth to an endless parade of pink-tinted, fake-aged visuals and
replicant movements creating works that are by now rather tired, unimaginative
and poor Xeroxes of the accidentally awesome trash classics they ape.
The gialli thrillers—those glorious, slick, fluid, erotic
and bloody movies that seeped out of Italy during the 1970s—have long been
hat-tipped by filmmakers favoring black leather gloves, funky prog-rock scores
and elaborate murder setpieces. But again, you cannot go back, and there is a
dishonesty about these kinds of postmodern throwbacks.
On the surface, Peter Strickland’s new creeper BERBERIAN
SOUND STUDIO (which has its North American premiere next Monday and Tuesday,
September 10 and 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and plays the
New York Film Festival in October) seems to be such a tribute to the giallo,
and while it’s certainly not a ripoff, homage is not an appropriate handle
either. Neither is thriller. Or horror film. Or drama or comedy, though the
movie certainly contains elements of all of these genres. And while there is a
shadowy unseen figure getting his black leather gloves worshipped in prowling
close-ups, those hands don’t kill anyone; rather, they shift mechanisms on
massive 35mm projectors. And that’s what makes the film such a triumph for
lovers of Italian horror movies, of the giallo form: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
takes imagery and moods from those pictures and presents them as fetish objects
in a completely radical and experimental art-house fever dream. It’s a
deconstruction, sure, but also something else, something you’ve never seen before.
The film stars Toby Jones (so good as Truman Capote in
INFAMOUS) as British sound engineer Gilderoy, a meek genius who is hired to
design the complex, squishy, shrieky soundscape for an over-the-top Italian
knockoff of what sounds like THE DEVILS by way of THE EXORCIST, at the greasy
titular studio. The year is 1976, one of the last good years of Italian
exploitation, and as we are well aware, histrionic riffs on popular religious
horror films were legion back then. This one is particularly nasty, directed by
the narcissistic filmmaker Santini (Antonio Mancino)—but in an ingenious twist,
we the audience never see a frame of the flick, save for an absolutely
delirious opening-credits sequence (with intense music by UK rock band
Broadcast) that in turn serves as the quasi-credits of BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
As Gilderoy—a milquetoast who has previously traded only in
children’s shows and farm documentaries—is called on to stab melons, smash
vegetables, antagonize starlets into dubbed screaming fits and burn various
materials in order to emulate the sounds of depravity on screen, he very
quickly starts to lose his marbles. With Santini’s oppressive, sexually abusive
shadow smothering the production, myriad maddening technical glitches
bedeviling the crew and tensions at a general high, Gilderoy pines for his
mother and his quiet country life. Or does he? Concepts of reality and delusion
eventually smash like the glass Gilderoy is called on to break, and by the end
of the picture, nothing makes much sense…
And thank God for that, because pedestrian concepts of
narrative cohesion would rob this movie of its freeform and yet carefully
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is one the most incredible films
about the sound of horror I have ever seen. I can think of only one other
picture remotely like it: Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1978 chiller THE SHOUT, in which
John Hurt portrays an experimental musician antagonized by a monstrous,
screaming Alan Bates. But BERBERIAN differs from that or any other picture in
that is designed to disorient the viewer with rich, erotic—but not
exploititive—visuals while bending the mind and ear with an endless onslaught
of brain-bleeding frequencies, bizarre murmurs, screeches and even dead
silences. It’s like the studio itself is hell, and you the viewer are trapped
in it, paying the price for dancing with the sort of devils who churn out
unsavory pictures like the kind Santini trades in.
Even casual filmgoers will get off on BERBERIAN’s visuals
and kinky aesthetic—which is not to say they’ll enjoy it. It’s not an easy film
to like. And as one astute colleague of mine said, because of the fact that it
drips giallo tropes and ’70s Italian horror motifs, it is rather “inside
baseball,” but that’s what makes it so brilliant. No one has ever inverted the
European horror film with such wit, eloquence and purpose to challenge its
audience. If you love this subgenre, you’ll feel like BERBERIAN was made
exclusively for you.
I certainly know I did.
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