FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 21, 2015

Day 21: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)


Dear marketing departments, will you ever learn? I know that sometimes a film will come along and it doesn't fit neatly into one-a-dem genre boxes. You sit around your big cherry wood table in your glass-walled conference room with your uneaten pastries and your padfolios and your potted plants in the corner, and then Amanda Woodward comes in and she's asking an awful lot of questions about your boyfriend Billy and it's so awkward, like is Amanda just trying to make you uncomfortable, you know, get in your head and psych you out, or does she really have designs on Billy? She's your boss and your landlord and you want to tell her off, but the personal risks are too great, and then you remember that time you were molested and also you realize that you have a stalker and--

Sorry. My understanding of the world of business is that it's pretty much just like D&D Advertising on Melrose Place. The point is, surely it's a PR conundrum when a movie isn't plainly one thing or another. "Thrillers" are expected to play out like this while "dramas" go like that...and if it's just some kind of mish-mash...eh, fuck it, throw it to the horror kids. They'll take it! It's like as a people we learned nothing from the horrible mis-marketing of William Friedkin's Bug, which did a great disservice to the film and pissed off horror fans who were expecting...well, something scary, or at least horror-y.

And so here we are with Berberian Sound Studio, which is supposedly a "tribute to the giallo." Here we are with Berberian Sound Studio, wherein "A sound engineer's work for an Italian horror studio becomes a terrifying case of life imitating art." I mean, if you go into Berberian Sound Studio with those seeds a-planted in your head, you would have certain expectations of the cinematic harvest, would you not? If so, well, spoiler alert, you're gonna experience some cognitive dissonance. Whether or not that affects your enjoyment and/or appreciation of BSS...I have no spoiler alert for that because I'm not your brain, sorry.

From the moment Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at Berberian Sound Studio, he is a man out of place. His quiet, unassuming nature does not serve him well in the brash world of the Italian horror industry. In fact, he was unaware that he would be working as a sound engineer on a horror film–the typically giallo-esque title The Equestrian Vortex led him to assume it was the type of nature film that usually composes his wheelhouse. Instead, actresses scream in the recording booth as foley artists hack up watermelons with machetes. Poor Gilderoy is hit with all sorts of culture shock.

Things only get worse as time goes on. The toxic relationship between the actresses and the men making the film reflects the violence in The Equestrian Vortex, violence we only hear and have described to us. In the film-within-the-film, women are stabbed...drowned in boiling water. Their hair is ripped out, and red-hot pokers are thrust into their vaginas. Gilderoy is the only one to find any of it repellent, and the producer admonishes him with the ol' "It's only a movie!" The effect is a bit sobering as a horror fan. Hearing those acts described, they sound positively degenerate, but haven't I seen much of that and more in the works of Fulci, etc? Sure, it's only a movie. But an unexamined life is not worth living, right? Basically it brought to the forefront of my brain place various questions I've had and still have about my relationship with horror movies.  This is not a bad thing, I don't think, and it's very personal.

Meanwhile, in the studio, the actresses are treated like meat: pushed beyond their breaking points, berated, and sexually assaulted by the director. All of it is too much for Gilderoy. Compound his discomfort with acute homesickness and financial issues (he can't get reimbursed for his plane ticket) and he is a man on the edge. But the edge of what? If you're expecting "a terrifying case of life imitating art", well, I'll tell you this: Gilderoy does not, you know, flip out and start stabbing people. While events absolutely lead to a mental break and life and art do mesh together, Berberian Sound Studio does not evolve into a "horror movie" in its final reel. Nor is there a neat-little-package resolution.

I didn't find this a disappointing ending or a disappointing film; in fact, I rather loved it. It is scrumptious to behold (those DRESSES), and the limited sets never feel redundant. It's definitely an arthouse thriller that gives a high-five to gialli without attempting to be a giallo in any way, so it's understandable if fans expecting a straight-up horror flick were peeved at what they got. That's not Berberian's fault, however, and all complaints in that regard should be directed to Amanda Woodward, President of D&D Advertising.

9 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

Good review. I liked but didn't love the film, but was definitely impressed by the director Peter Strickland's talent, originality, and obvious love for the horror genre even as he, as you rightly point out, is working outside of it. I think his follow-up, this year's 'Duke of Burgundy', is even better. Definitely a filmmaker I will continue to watch.

Stacie Ponder said...

I haven't seen anything else he's done, but he's definitely on my radar now.

Nicholas Kaufmann said...

I'm glad you liked this once, despite how loony it is. I did, too. Toby Jones was remarkable in the lead role.

smogo said...

The Duke of Burgundy is a brilliant, Jean Rollin-inspired lesbian sub/domme rom-com fantasy. It's pretty amazing.

Eliot Blades said...

I was really curious about the diva-like character in this. Initially I thought it was an homage to Edda dell'Orso and her peerless ability to modulate her voice in an age of limited ability to alter it in the studio. But a bit of googling has thrown up the real Berberian - check this out from 1961

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mxGHXCMPcM

I loved the film, but like I said it confused the hell out of the audience I watched it with. It's worth watching for that trailer/credit sequence for The Equestrian Vortex alone - awesome. I want to see that film - red hot pokers or not.

Nicholas Kaufmann said...

Ugh, that should say "liked this one." *shakes fist* Autocorrect!

Stacie Ponder said...

Great find, Eliot! I am not terribly familiar with the behind-the-scenes aspects of the Italian film industry, so you've certainly pointed me toward a good rabbit hole to disappear into. And yeah, that credit sequence was so perfect.

Well, The Duke of Burgundy certainly sounds like something I need to see. Thanks, guys!!

Sean Belcher said...

Felt the same way - was sold a different film by the marketing but ended up really liking what the movie actually was. One of those rare times I wish I had seen something at the theater, though; I watched it with some good headphones and the sound mixing was terrific, but I feel like I missed out by not experiencing this in a theater with a great sound system.

M said...

I've been thinking about this a lot, why I find some horror movies so unsatisfying, and it's not just because they so often get the lowest budget & worst cast, etc.

My working theory now is that you have 2 types of reaction to a violent event: one is to ask "why did it happen? What was the criminal thinking, how could he justify his actions to himself?", and Tragedy is when you at least try to answer that with character development. I think Horror is just trying to answer the second question, "How did it happen, was there much blood, what do the screams of the victims sound like?"

In that sense horror always seems exploitative to me, and the best horrors are those that have a bit of tragedy in them, some attempt at character study. The earliest horror movies made you empathyze with the monster as much, if not more than with the victims. And although I know you're a BIG fan of slashers, that's when horror seemed to veer into just gore.

I don't think fans of slashers are sadists enjoying the sight of helpless victims being made to suffer (I believe slasher fans are defensive because they think that's the accusation, and they're probably right). I think it's vindicating to watch people who are terrible ("Whatever my flaws, at least I'm not as bad as that!") and because it's a life-affirming experience to vicariously go through the victims' pain and then step out of the theater unscathed and alive. In that way, the movies are feel good.

I just think that there are ways and ways of making me feel good about myself as a person & about being alive that don't involve human sacrifices, either in real life or merely as an enactment in a movie. It's like getting a creepy love letter from a stalker who says he would kill for you. It doesn't so much make you feel flattered, as it makes you afraid of this psycho.

Having said that, I get this vibe from most horror movie directors that they must've been pretty frightened as kids, and that for them making movies is a cathartic thing, like a magical ritual where they don the trappings of the things that scare them to ward off evil. Like you pretend to be scary to scare away the real monsters out there. And perhaps their audiences are simply in tune with that spirit, they recognize each other intuitively and rally together for mutual support, and maybe that's what a horror fandom is.