The mundane title doesn't clue you into the depths of horror lurking behind it -- nor is it meant to. "Berberian Sound Studio" is psychological horror in the strictest sense of the term. Not only are mind games afoot for the main character in the film, but any distress and terror you may feel watching the film is all in your head, brought on by the suggestions of the piercing, powerful sound work in the film.
"Berberian Sound Studio" screens at Images Cinema as part of the Williamstown Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.
The film takes place in an Italian horror movie studio in the 1970s. Sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is brought into work on a movie that sounds like the typical cheesy and sleazy horror movie made in that country during that decade.
It's something about tortured and executed witches buried in catacombs under a girls' school and the nightmares it unleashes on a couple of members of the student body.
Not that this is ever spelled out at any point in the film -- far from it. Watching repeated takes of the voice-over artists dub in dialogue takes hold after awhile and your imagination, as well as any knowledge you might have of horror movie tropes, will provide a clear vision of the fictional movie, though not one frame of it is ever shown.
It's hard for Gilderoy to put a finger on why the experience of working on this film is so unsettling for him. The sounds he lives with are obviously part of the problem. Because of his work, his life is a daily existence of constant terrified screams echoing out of headphones and in his mind, building levels of dread and paranoia to his work experience.
But is there anything really going on that he should fear? The staff at the studio are stand-offish, almost rude, with back stories and traditions that never really reveal themselves to Gilderoy, which makes their every move cryptic, even suspicious. The distress of the voice actresses and their suspicion aimed at the pretentious director doesn't make the mood any less frantic for Gilderoy.
Is there some sinister plot going on with the actresses?
Is there a conspiracy among the piggish male technicians?
Is Gilderoy a pawn? Why did they ask him to work on this film anyhow? He's never done a horror film before in his life.
And is horror measured in what you see or what you imagine?
The answer to that last question comes with each shot of a vegetable being smashed or sliced, despite never seeing the horror movie sequence it is meant to accentuate.
You already know, just by hearing the sound, and its auditory power, combined in with the image in your head, will make you squirm.
Add to that scenario the discomfort felt by Gilderoy, and you will feel properly squeamish.
In the end, this is a claustrophobic film about style more than substance, and the conclusion might be dissatisfying to some who look for a stronger plot. Somehow, though, the abstraction that rules the film's culmination, in which psychology transforms into psychedelia with the purpose of, frankly, freaking you out and continuing the mood beyond any point of plot, feels exactly right in conjunction with all that has happened before.
It is a movie that embraces the human imagination as the greatest component in fear, so it's only proper that it gives the mind some leeway in coming to its own conclusions in the end.