FOR HALLOWEEN: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Halloween doesn’t have to be over once the last trick-or-treater has crept back into the shadows of the night. You may still be possessed by the spirit of the holiday and in desperate need of some real scares. In an effort to address that need and help you find a choice that goes beyond the usual iconography of the season, I’ve picked three titles that may not immediately jump to mind when it comes to autumn-tinged chills and terror. They are not self-consciously seasonal choices, like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Michael Dougherty’s 2007 anthology Trick ‘R Treat, both excellent choices for cinematic fear on the pumpkin circuit. Two of them rely more on mood, creeping dread, an insinuating style and, dare I say, even a poetic approach to storytelling than the usual Samhain-appropriate fare. And one has an inexplicably bad reputation in the halls of conventional wisdom, accused of being repellent and tastelessly disturbing when it is in fact repellent, pointedly disturbing and entirely, rousingly effective in the shock and scare department, complete with a third-act twist that, if it hasn’t somehow already been spoiled for you, you will likely never guess. So when you’re ready, unpack the leftover trick-or-treat candy, get under the blanket and get ready. One of these—perhaps all three—will be just ticket to freeze your blood one last time before the more benign portion of our holiday season begins. You have been warned.
“I just need to scream, that’s all.” So says a beleaguered actress looping her lines in a low-rent Italian studio where the soundtrack of a sexually violent giallo film, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex), is being finalized under the guidance of the film’s abrasive producer and its pretentious, deceptively avuncular director. Also working behind the soundproof glass is Gilderoy (the marvelous Toby Jones), a sound engineer imported from Britain whose résumé is more closely associated with inoffensive nature documentaries than with the sort of ghoulish undertaking on which he now finds himself at work.
Gilderoy, a naturally recessive man ideally fitted to the anonymity of postproduction, is at first perplexed at having even been chosen to work on a film bearing a title he soon discovers has nothing to do with horses gamboling in pastoral settings. But that puzzlement soon gives way to an escalating tension between Gilderoy’s passionless, professional, purely mechanical need to just get on with the job and his increasingly apparent psychological defenselessness against the exploitative evidence of the horrors depicted in the film.
In its surface form, the strange, hypnotizing Berberian Sound Studio has a hushed formality that insinuates itself underneath your skin in search of a frisson of psychological fear, a method far removed from the violent visual cacophony of the typical giallo. Yet it is absolutely suffused with fetishistic close-ups— of 1976-vintage sound and film equipment—and hallucinatory aural landscapes, innocent sounds created from mundane Foley sessions which cannot be separated from associations with the grisly imagery they are meant to enhance, that are the hallmark of vintage Italian horror.
Writer-director Peter Strickland seals Gilderoy (and us) inside the studio, surrounded by sounds we cannot reconcile with sights that are denied us– the clever faux opening title sequence for Il Vortice Equestre is the only footage we ever actually see– and the free-floating dread and disorientation Gilderoy begins to experience eventually becomes our own. Even the letters Gilderoy receives from his mother back in England, filled with benign accounts of bird-watching and the unmistakable longing for her son—Gilderoy’s only lifeline to a world he recognizes— begin to take on awful shadings as the engineer’s grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous.
Viewers will be reminded of Argento, certainly (those close-ups of tape machines scream Deep Red), but through the constant layering of ghastly shrieks and perverse sound effects the spirit of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and the search for the perfect scream are imaginatively invoked here as well. Strickland constructs a convincing case for sound as a dominant, almost subliminal force in our experience of the movies, all while entertainingly deconstructing the very process by which that sound is assembled, dissolving the audience’s complicity into magnetic particles of horror which begin tightening around and threatening to absorb Gilderoy. But unlike in Blow Out, that perfect scream which somehow synthesizes frivolous art with inescapable humanity proves elusive. Within the walls of the Berberian Sound Studio there are only fading echoes, the blinding light of the projector bulb washing out everything in its throw, reels of tape spinning out of focus, and the final click of a switch signaling escape into the dark.
(Berberian Sound Studio is available on DVD and Blu-ray and is now streaming on Netflix.)