Why I like Berberian Sound Studio
1) I saw Berberian Sound Studio in the worst possible circumstances: I watched the entire thing on my iPhone over several sessions walking on an elliptical machine at my local gym. Cardio is both necessary and incredibly boring, and I had gotten sick of listening to podcasts while I worked out. I saw some less-than-stellar movies, but Berberian Sound Studio captured my imagination. I got into Only Lovers Left Alive at around the same time, and I've been a fierce advocate for both films since. It seems like there have been a lot of smart, classy horror films over the last few years and I was really excited to share them with people.
2) Like Only Lovers, Berberian is total sound porn. Instead of music, Berberian focuses on the sound engineering and foley work used to make an effective horror film. I've never seen a film that made such brilliant use of sound effect work.
3) Confession time: I've never much cared for the "golden age" of 1970s Italian horror cinema. I think most of the appeal comes from a strange mix of nostalgia for an era that was before my time, a misreading of incompetent film making that gets confused for camp, and a gorehound's delight in a few key scenes of truly nasty gore effects. I'm watching Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2 on the second monitor as I type this and no one ever remembers anything substantial about the film. They just remember the eye gouging and the shark fight. I do like The Beyond and the Argento film Phenomena but Italian horror doesn't really work for me. But it does make a fantastic backdrop for Gilderoy's mental breakdown.
4) I am embarrassed to admit it, but I see far too much of myself in Gilderoy. I'm small and easily bowled over, and I'm often shocked when people act selfishly. His timid personality puts him at a huge disadvantage when he's brought to Italy to work on some perverse giallo film. My own experience in Italy taught me that the people can often be, um, unnecessarily assertive. A sheltered person like Gilderoy would easily be bowled over. Gilderoy's immediate supervisor is rude to him without reason, the receptionist is dismissive, and everyone either blows him off or talks down to him. The only one who treats Gilderoy decently is the film's director, and he's a manipulative narcissist with grandiose ideas about the misogynist trash he's creating.
5) The film takes places in a strange film noir world. The hallways disappear down impossible distances, the rooms never seem to be properly lit, and the recording rooms are all like tiny coffins. The entire movie world feels like an echo chamber, which is perfect for the best aspect of Berberian Sound Studios: the masterful use of sound.
6) I've never seen a movie so lush with aural detail. You never actually see the movie Gilderoy is helping to make, but the horrific special effects conjure up a pretty clear image of how nasty the movie must be. Sound is used to brilliant effect in the film. Every cut lettuce, every dropped melon feels like a violation of the human body. I've heard a thousand screams captured on horror cinema, but I've never heard anything as gut-wrenching as the screams of frustration captured in the recording booth.
7) The movie follows Gilderoy's descent into madness, as his life begins to thread into the movie. Perhaps the occult nature of the film casts a spell on him, perhaps he starts going insane, perhaps he was insane to begin with, a man who appeared out of the film itself. The ambiguity made the ending frustrating for a lot of people, but I found it intriguing. I can't wait to go back and revisit the film. Hopefully next time on a better screen.
Conclusion: I've never seen a horror film that so effectively used the mechanics of cinema to deliver tension. Watching Gilderoy degenerate to the chaos around him becomes almost operatic. The line between film and "reality" gets razor-thin over the course of the movie. It's a rare treat, and one of my favorite recent horror films.