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Review: ‘Berberian Sound Studio’

Experience The Sounds Of Horror

Toby Jones is an English sound designer hired on an Italian horror film in

Credit: IFC

Above: Toby Jones is an English sound designer hired on an Italian horror film in "Berberian Sound Studio."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Berberian SOund Studio" playing this weekend at the Digital Gym.


Film is a visual medium yet "Berberian Sound Studio" (playing Friday and Saturday night at 10pm at the Digital Gym Cinema) asks us to listen as much as we watch.

It's appropriate that "Berberian Sound Studio" opens with an emphasis on the sounds of an audio specialist arriving at an Italian post-production house in the 1970s. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an Englishman who seems immediately out of place. He doesn't speak Italian, and even if he did he seems ill-prepared for dealing with the more extroverted and informal Italians working on the film. Adding to his level of discomfort is the fact that he thought he was coming in to do sound work on a film about an equestrian school and instead he has been tasked with the grisly sound effects for an Italian giallo-style thriller.

So at his first session, a couple of sound guys demonstrate how chopping up watermelons is the perfect way to convey the sound of someone being brutally stabbed. So what we get is the image of fruits and vegetables being massacred but for the sole purpose of creating sound effects for a grisly Italian horror film. So your brain starts spinning in wild new directions as it deals with the disconnect between the image we see and the sound that is being created for something completely different. This is the clever conceit of “Berberian Sound Studio,” which takes sublime delight in demonstrating that the suggestion of horror through sound can be more disturbing than showing graphic imagery on screen.

Upon his arrival, Gilderoy is told, "A new world of sound awaits you, a new world that will require all your magic powers."

At first it’s hard to imagine this frumpy Englishman as a magician but we soon seen his powers as he makes a light bulb sound like a UFO. As he slaves away in his audio booth or in a world secluded within a pair of set of headphones, we never see the film he’s creating the sound effects for. We glimpse its opening credits with lurid images of witches being tortured in olden times. But after that all we see is Gilderoy brutalizing fresh produce and recording women screaming so hard that their eyes become bloodshot. The result is both a deliciously witty take on the horror genre and a truly eerie psychological thriller about a man possibly losing his mind.

Director Peter Strickland makes us hear horror in a new way. He also creates an affectionate behind the scenes homage to craftspeople or should I say magicians like Gilderoy.

Photo caption: Toby Jones arrives at the "Berberian Sound Studio."

Photo credit: IFC

Toby Jones arrives at the "Berberian Sound Studio."

Online tickets for "Berberian Sound Studio" can be purchased here. "Berberian Sound Studio" is presented by The Film Geeks, a group of programmers from Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Pac-Arts and FilmOut, and with myself as organizer. We are all volunteering our time to program the late night film series and run the screenings because we are all dedicated to genre films that push the envelope.

"Berberian Sound Studio" (unrated and in English and Italian with English subtitles) is one of the most original and innovative films of the year. Its ending is not as strong as I was hoping for but what comes before is so inspired and well crafted that I can't really complain. See this... and hear it, in the lovely Digital Gym Cinema where you can appreciate all its nuance.

Companion viewing: "The Conversation," "Blow Out," "Modern Romance" (for the scene of Albert Brooks working with foley technicians)

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