Combustible Celluloid
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With: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Mancino, Chiara D'Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Salvatore Li Causi, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Jozef Czeres, Pal Toth, Katalin Ladik, Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg
Written by: Peter Strickland
Directed by: Peter Strickland
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Italian, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 92
Date: 06/21/2013

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Audio Days

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in the glory days of Italian Cinema, when Westerns and cop movies and horror movies were cranked out by the hundreds and could get away with almost anything, many American and English actors were invited to join in. Clint Eastwood was the most famous example, but you can find everyone from Chuck Connors to Boris Karloff starring in these films. Now we have the amazing Berberian Sound Studio, a movie by an English director that pays tribute to this great period.

Our recognizable star this time is Toby Jones, also an Englishman, a character actor who gets big parts in small movies and small parts in big movies. Casual moviegoers might recognize him from Captain America or The Hunger Games, or perhaps the voice of Dobby in the Harry Potter movies. I remember him from The Painted Veil, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and as the other Truman Capote, in Infamous.

I'm spending so much time introducing Jones because he's the key to this movie. He plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered sound man who accepts a job working on an Italian horror movie in the 1970s. He seems to have no idea why he's been hired. He doesn't speak Italian, and he's never worked on a horror movie before. The only possible link is that the movie has "Equestrian" in the title.

He's rather meek and doesn't know how to behave around others. He tries to be polite, but winds up being rude. But when he has trouble getting reimbursed for his plane ticket, he's advised to be rude, and he can't quite pull that off either.

But he is good at his job. Director Peter Strickland shows him expertly twiddling knobs to make screams sound more terrifying and stabbed cabbages sound more like human flesh. (I'm only guessing, but it's a good bet that viewers who are familiar with older, analog forms of sound recording are going to get a great deal more out of this movie than newcomers.)

Meanwhile, beautiful but volatile Italian women wander in and out and the director tries to sleep with all of them. Eventually, though, things fall apart. The power keeps going out, and a feisty actress destroys several tapes. Eventually the material starts to get to him, and he begins hallucinating, more or less.

Strickland plays with several themes here. Gilderoy receives letters from his mother about some baby birds that are hatching. The various fruits and vegetables that create horror sounds begin to pile up in a hideous, mushy pile of ruined life on the floor. And after a particularly weird hallucination/dream, Strickland simply shows us a few minutes of footage from a nature documentary -- presumably something that Gilderoy has worked on -- though its placement in the movie makes it far more unsettling than anything else.

Otherwise, the movie takes place entirely inside the studio, with man-made sounds and lights, and nothing natural. These gruesome, twisted intrusions of nature only make things seem more horrible and out-of-sorts. They are as uncomfortable in this setting as Gilderoy is in this world of carnality and rudeness.

Horror fans will likely be disappointed that Berberian Sound Studio doesn't have any outright scares or much gore, and -- especially -- a lack of a coherent, fully-explained ending. Also, even though it pays tribute to horror, it's really more of a psychological thriller. But regardless of what you call it, it's a highly accomplished, intelligent, and effective piece of work, perhaps the best genre film I've seen since The Innkeepers.

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