Rating: Not Rated
Toby Jones, Fatima Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino
Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland
IFC Midnight
Release Date:
June 14, 2013

You have to hand it to BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO for originality. It will remind you of other movies – THE CONVERSATION meets a psychological meltdown meets the making of SUSPIRIA or maybe an Italian witch horror movie so wacky it was never seen in the U.S. – but you haven’t seen anything else really like it. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Director/writer Peter Strickland sets BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO in the Seventies and gives it a look and a sound to match – in a way, it’s like a “found footage” film. In another way, it’s exasperating. Overall, you will likely feel compelled to recommend it to you friends as one of the weirdest movies you’ve ever seen that actually got a theatrical release.

Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, an English sound mixer who has until now specialized in regional TV nature documentaries. However, he has been wooed and flown to Italyto do post-production at the Berberian Sound Studio on a low-budget movie called EQUESTRIAN VORTEX. With that title, Gilderoy understandably assumes it’s going to be a movie about horses and riders, so he’s quite startled to learn it’s one of those movies about undead witches tormenting the students at a girls’ school. He finds himself supervising and participating in smashing vegetables to get foley effects for scenes of mutilation, listening to the temperamental director berate the actresses for insufficiently terrified screaming and engaging in a Kafka-esque battle to get reimbursed for his plane ticket. Then strange things start happening in Gilderoy’s hotel room and at the sound studio and dialogue from the script finds its way into letters from Gilderoy’s mother back home. Is Gilderoy going mad, is the movie-making causing some sort of supernatural event, is something else going on entirely?

You have to hand it to filmmaker Strickland who, in the best tradition of the movies he wittily evokes with the film-within-the-film, seems to throw cause and effect logic to the wind. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is all about the feeling in the moment, whether that’s nervousness about a misplaced shadow, astonishment at the sheer absurdity of the post-production process (a scene of an actor in the sound booth making low-budget Italian horror movie demon noises is a kind of gonzo comic nirvana) or ennui at the tedium that is also part of filmmaking.

It takes a strange brand of courage to be deliberately dull in places, and this is where BERBERIAN gets dodgy. A little of that goes a very long way, and there’s more here than is needed to make the point. The movie’s conceit of explaining what’s happening on the screen but only showing us what’s happening in the sound booth actually works well, in addition to illustrating handily how much audio contributes to a feature.

There’s also the issue of what in the name of the Lord of Bananas is actually happening here, but as this question is often central to the genre to which EQUESTRIAN VORTEX so clearly belongs, BERBERIAN gets points for authenticity. Still, it would be nice for some kind of reward for trying to put the pieces together.

Jones, as usual, turns in an admirable performance, playing a shy fish out of water who is completely flummoxed by this deranged new world of gore, sex, temper tantrums, disappearing funds and the like. Fatima Muhamed makes an impression as an anxious actress and Antonio Mancino is suitably hard to read as the mercurial maker of EQUESTRIAN VORTEX.

In the end, it would be overselling BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO to say genre fans will necessarily like it, but people in the business and/or fans of old Italian horror movies will find much that is amusing, and nobody who sees this definitely odd cinematic entry is likely to ever forget it.


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