I don’t do movie reviews, leaving that to more review-y sorts than myself. I also don’t think people care what movies I enjoyed or didn’t. I leave that to more social media-y sorts.
That said, I wanted to share my strange experience with a strange movie I stumbled upon via Amazon’s streaming service, a psychological horror-esque picture from 2012 entitled Berberian Sound Studio. Wow.
Part of the challenge of being an avid horror movie fan is after time, you see so many movies that it’s rare to experience something new. There are still movies that stagger me in their execution like Get Out or The Devil’s Rejects or The Babadook or Resolution or A Ghost Story (not horror but still), but more often I see a variation of a movie I’ve seen before. Sometimes that’s fine if it’s good, but sometimes I want something freaky fresh.
And that’s what I got with Berberian Sound Studio. This movie seriously disturbed me, and I don’t react to movies like that often anymore. This isn’t about whether it’s a good movie or bad movie. It’s about seeing a movie that personally got under my skin, that tapped into core fears and insecurities.
In other words, it’s the type of movie I seek out.
Technically I don’t even know if you’d classify this as horror. The film is set in Italy in the 1970s during the filming of a fictional Italian horror film that is exceptionally bloody and vulgar, so in a way a movie within a movie. As the viewer, however, we don’t actually see the film, but instead see the people making the movie, someone rending and snapping vegetables to create the sound of hair being pulled out, a voice actor babbling terrifying sounds alone in a sound booth to voice the demonic mutterings of a goblin, playbacks of movie scenes to coordinate sound and music. People doing their jobs.
The fear, however, isn’t from the movie being made, but the alienation and mental deterioration of a meek and very British sound engineer named Gilderoy played by Toby Jones who simply doesn’t do horror. The graphic scenes of cinematic violence (which he sees even though we as the viewer never do), along with the toxic masculinity bubbling through the studio and a constant feeling of alienation, cultural and otherwise, begin to unravel Gilderoy’s psyche.
To explain why this movie was so frightening to me is difficult. There were many scenes where little happened, such as beautifully filmed images of rotting vegetables or long artsy images of analog tape winding on it’s playback journey. Berberian Sound Studio is a movie that I could imagine angering someone wanting action, maybe even myself in a different mood.
For me, though, it was like tasting a distilled version of a horror movie. The underlying fears that horror movies generally tap into: fears of being alone, fears of being out of control, fears of losing one’s mind, were all there, with the actual horror movie a fictional, off-screen presence within the movie itself. This movie, precisely because of it’s slow visuals, jacked right into my psyche, skipping over requiring the normal horrific visuals that would cause the fear and instead somehow inserting the fear direct, straight no-chaser. I completely accompanied Gilderoy through his descent, not because the visuals were terrifying, but because the underlying emotions were so recognizable and his vulnerability so understandable, and this was supported by unusual visuals. Take recognizable feelings and juxtapose them with seriously weird images and it’s an unsettling experience.
I loved this movie because it took me on a journey I hadn’t been on before. So strange, so beautiful, and, for me, so sincere. As a horror movie writer and horror movie fan, I don’t want weird for weird’s sake, but I do crave new, crafted experiences and I’ll forgive a creative movie that misses more than I will a decent movie that plays it safe. This movie hit me hard, and that’s not common for a jaded horror movie fan like myself. For this reason, I don’t care in the least whether writer/director Peter Strickland’s movie is considered good or bad. I’m not even interested in what other people thought of it. I just know this was a movie experience I’ve been craving, that fresh excitement similar to what I experienced as a kid watching a horror movie. For me it was the right movie at the right time and finding it without any knowledge or expectations made it all the more special.
Peter Strickland, if by some bizarre chance this blog passes your way, thank you for crafting a different type scare. I really needed this.