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'Berberian Sound Studio' is even fun to watch with eyes shut

The British thriller "Berberian Sound Studio" stars Toby Jones as a sound designer becoming undone as he works on an Italian giallo film in the '70s.

Toby Jones plays a decaying sound designer in "Berberian Sound Studios." Credit: IFC LLC Toby Jones plays a decaying sound designer in "Berberian Sound Studios."
Credit: IFC LLC

‘Berberian Sound Studio’
Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Berberian Sound Studio” is being sold as a midnight movie — a thriller about a mousy British sound artist (a rare lead performance by the estimable, diminutive character actor Toby Jones) psychologically undone while working on an Italian thriller. Those coming for shocks will be disappointed: As a mindbender, Peter Strickland’s sophomore debut is slender and only semi-sensical. Andit’s a tease. The apparently absurdly gory film on which he toils — a “giallo,” the name for the sleazy, atmospheric thrillers and horrors that thrived in Italy in the ‘60s and ‘70s — is never seen beyond its spot-on credit sequence. (The score, also to the letter, is by the English retro band Broadcast, composed and partly recorded before member Trish Keenan’s sudden death.) We keep hearing — or rather, reading subtitles describing — about witches and red-hot pokers inserted into certain body parts. But all we see on-screen is Jones messing with old-timey reels and dirty equipment.

To a certain subsect of viewers, that will be the draw anyway. This is a fetishist’s delight, a warp into an analogue past. The Italians famously rejected synchronous sound; a film’s audio track was constructed entirely in studios like the dingy, hellish one in “Berberian Sound Studios.” As the film begins, Jones’ Gilderoy witnesses the horrible murder of vegetables and watermelons by machetes and hammers, the resulting sound uncannily replicating the crushing and maiming of on-screen bodies. As Gilderoy — who speaks not a word of Italian — descends into loneliness and obsession with working on a deeply unpleasant film whose events we only hear, his mind starts to fracture.

Giallos had more mood than sense, and sometimes had no sense. That “Berberian Sound Studio”’s twisty developments prove thin could be read as an homage-of-sorts to the films it cagily portrays. Like those movies, it has copious mood and a great look, starting with Jones, an actor whose head looks like it was squashed in a vice. (Naturally he played both Truman Capote, in "Infamous," and Karl Rove in “W.”) Even watched with eyes closed, the film would be a delight; it’s deeply pleasurable listening to sound reels being abruptly stopped on a deck, or the whirr of tape being rewound at great speed. If it’s about anything, it’s about the transformative effect not just of film but of filmmaking. Like giallos, it casts a sinister spell that, if you’re caught up in it, short-circuits the need for something more rational.

 
 
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