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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.30.12] United Kingdom horror

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Toby Jones stars in Peter Stickland's follow up to his impressive feature debut, 'Katalin Varga' as a talented albeit mild mannered English sound engineer, hired by an Italian production team to work post-production on a gruesome horror in the mold of Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' some time in the late 1970s. He arrives at the studio in Italy having flown direct from Heathrow, eager to have his ticket refunded by the accounting department and with little luck. This is only the first of his problems.

The first thirty minutes of Berberian Sound Studio are highly enjoyable and play as a loving homage to the world of '70s Italian horror and to the ever diminishing world of old fashioned film production in general, as Jones's Gilderoy begins to craft the macabre sound effects for the film within a film, using fruits and vegetables and hammers to simulate the gore taking place on screen, while doing his best to avoid the demands and attitudes of the various producers, highly-strung actresses and of course, the director himself, Senior Santini ("This is not a horror film! This is a Santini Film!") At first Gilderoy makes himself useful and diligently provides technical service and advice to the crew, but as things progress his working life is interrupted not only by the eccentric Italians but a fractured sense of mind and a general fear that the film itself (a supernatural yarn set in a haunted all female horse-riding academy with a history of chicken slaughter) is starting to distort the reality of life within the studio and it all gets a bit 'Lynch' (more on that later).

This set-up is just beautiful and Jones plays the part of the bewildered, innocent Gilderoy with the perfect mix of earnestness and typically English mild-frustration. The character is used to working on children's programming and regional documentaries back home, so it's no surprise that the blood, guts and giallo have him on edge, however when power outages and late night creepiness begin to spook the guy he's ready to hop back on board a jet to England and forget he ever started work on the project. It's a great premise and leaves a lot of room for jibes not only at the slap-dash working methods of the production and over the top theatrics of the divas both in front of and behind the microphones, but also Gilderoy's slightly pathetic attempts to assert himself among stronger personalities. Unfortunately (and here it comes) the film soon unravels and becomes a monotonous slog, even treading on the toes of film-makers outside the Giallo circle, until the viewer soon becomes tired of watching the same scene play itself out over and over again.

After we're introduced to Jones and his superiors and colleagues, and once it's established that there is more than meets the eye (and ear) to the situation, we're sent on a trip full of flashy editing, audio hallucinations and blink and you'll miss it references to Italo-Horror, and all of this would make for a very cool short, or even part of an anthology or entry into "Masters of Horror" (perhaps better than the two Argento provided himself) but to stretch it to feature running time without any discernable pay-off is asking far too much of an audience, even one as excited as the EIFF crowd were at the screening I attended, and it was packed full of grinning cinephiles high on expectations. I would blame expectation on my own lukewarm feelings for Berberian Sound Studio, but the truth is I knew nothing about it on entering, and as a huge Argento/Euro Horror fan I was so thrilled at the early visual reconstruction of the master's style and Goblin-esque musical notes that I got pretty high too, then after an hour my eyelids grew heavy and I realized the man sitting next to me had actually fallen asleep. I stayed with it but overall this is a classic case of a fairly solid concept stretched beyond its worth, as cool as the idea might be.

Jones is a strong presence and the entire cast, in on the joke and enjoying every scene, seem to be having much fun with the material, but simply put after a while nobody can deny it becomes repetitive and indulgent. During scenes in which the characters are in the booth and recording dialogue (mostly the screams of young women) a large red bulb flashes the word 'Silencio' and Strickland's camera zooms into it for fades. It's a visual reference to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive during which Laura Harring repeats the same word towards the end during a troubled dream, and here it signifies a dark change in Gilderoy's personality similar to the switch around in that film, but far from appearing as homage it's more a kind of, 'Huh?' moment that doesn't work. I thought it very strange, but worth mentioning. The humour in the film is restricted to the first act, as Gilderoy is pushed around and confused by the situation, but after a while Strickland switches to what the programme describes as 'anti-horror', and it doesn't quite work.

The film had the potential to become either a dissembling of the practices of horror film-makers or just a send-up of stereotypes and either would have been interesting, but as a mixture of both it seems strangely unthought-out and empty. It's worth seeing if you're a big Argento fan or enjoy strange missteps (as I often do) but I have to admit this one simply misses the mark by failing to live up to it's awesome first act and nifty central concept.

Additional: At no point do we see any footage of the film that 'Santini' is actually making, instead we only hear the sounds that Gilderoy hears, and things are actually stronger for it. There are hints at how absurd the plot is, and snippets of inane dialogue spouted by actresses of dubious skill and hefty lungs. This element works well, provides a few laughs and reminded me of the story Jessica Harper told about working on Suspiria - that she used to speak her lines during a take but got distracted by carpenters building the sets next to whichever part of the studio they were filming in, because the actual dialogue could always be added in post-production. I also wondered if the Gilderoy character was based at all on Ronnie Taylor, the British cinematographer who worked on 'Terror at the Opera' and 'Sleepless' and used to think that Argento was deliberately trying to upset him by using so much gore... Needless to say I went home after this one and pondered which of Dario's films to rewatch next. (I went for 'Inferno')

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