Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Written by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosmo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna & Tonia Sotiropoulou
Pretentious is a word that I try to avoid using in my reviews, because it implies a lot of things. Using it can bring the automatic assumption that I find the director to be trying to hard to be artsy. It also implies that the viewers who like this film “get” the movie more than the average Joe. I cannot stress how many times I’ve seen people attack one another on message board for disliking something made by Lars Von Trier (or other insert arthouse director here) or some film that was clearly meant for a select few by saying that they didn’t “understand” it. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is a movie made for those who worship Italian horror films. Sadly, I am not one of those people. I prefer plot over style and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO doesn’t make a lick of sense by the conclusion. This might wind up delighting fans of SUSPIRIA and other Italian 70’s horror flicks though.
Gilderoy has flown to Italy for his new job as a sound engineer. He didn’t know that he’d be working on a graphic horror film about witches, goblins, and satanic rites. Horrified by the prospect of making sounds for gory kills, sexual torture, and other disturbing acts, he is naturally stressed out. The demanding producer is lingering over the set, the movie’s director is an eccentric nutjob, and Gilderoy finds himself a fish out of water. Insanity may be creeping in and in the end, the viewer is left to interpret what it all means.
Toby Jones isn’t your normal leading man and he takes center stage here as the timid Gilderoy. Jones does a great job of getting the viewer to sympathize for him. We feel as out-of-place as he is in this foreign land, even though we never leave the sound studio. However, Toby Jones is the one of the two reasons this film is not a complete failure. Every other cast member ranges in either being melodramatic or over-the-top menacing. To make matters worse, the final third throws what feeling we have for Gilderoy out the window in some final scenes so puzzling that it makes one wonder what the director was thinking, instead of what the audience is meant to take away from this incomplete mess of a film.
Every single time BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is heading to into effectively creepy territory, it seems to ignore the potential of a solid scary moment and shifts back to the characters interacting with each other at the sound studio. Pointless scenes of phone calls, sound mixing, and conversations about the film (which we never see a single frame of in one of the few wise decisions from director/writer Peter Strickland). I counted one scene that worked fantastically and the mood it set was never once revisited again.
Some may compare BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO to something from the likes of David Lynch or Dario Argento. While I am not a giant fan of the latter, I found this film to be trying way too hard to be something uniquely weird and also holding on too hard to the reality of working in the sound studio. It was like two very different films (both of which could have been interesting on their own merits) were constantly battling with each other on the screen. For more than half of the film, the scenes revolve around Gilderoy’s growing stress at his new job for this disturbing film. On the other hand, we get some hints at madness before the movie takes an incomprehensible turn in the final 15 minutes (which reminded me of Rob Zombie’s attempt to be artsy in the conclusion of THE LORDS OF SALEM) and somehow still managed to bore the ever-living hell out of me.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is a divisive movie to say the least. Judging from the rave reviews (Fangoria) and the hate-filled rants (Bloody-Disgusting) that litter the internet about this film, it will continue to be that way. I fall squarely on the side of the fence that hates this film, but if you dig on something like SUSPIRIA or Argento’s style-over-substance approach this might fit in your wheelhouse. It just didn’t do anything positive for me (save for one creepy scene about an hour into it).