News Column

Sound of violence

June 14, 2013

YellowBrix

By KYLE SMITH

'BERBERIAN Sound Studio" reminded me of the time my friend Daniela walked out of "The Shining." "I can't take it anymore. It's too scary," she said. It was the opening credits.

But, in her defense: Who hasn't been mesmerized, if not terrified, by the intensely foreboding theme at the start of "The Shining"? The power of sound is the foundation of "Berberian," a clever, elliptical, slightly bizarre and altogether transfixing psychological thriller.

It's about an English sound engineer (the ever-exceptional Toby Jones), an artist who can "turn a light bulb into a UFO," who goes to Italy in 1976 to work on what he thinks is a film about an equestrian. In fact, it's a cheesy ultraviolent horror flick of the Dario Argento school, and though we see none of it except the (gloriously imagined) opening credits, which cleverly substitute for the opening credits of "Berberian," we learn all we need to know from watching the sound guys at work in a studio. Near the beginning, when they produce sickening sounds by smashing a watermelon, you can't help but imagine that brains are being spilled on-screen, and it's all the more unsettling. Be forewarned: Terrible, awful, unspeakable things are done to fresh produce in this studio.

So the underlying situation is fascinating, not to mention wittily rendered, as we catch inklings of what the horror film is about (something to do with priests, witches and a "dangerously aroused goblin"). It's more difficult to get a grasp of the overlaid story of the engineer. Gradually, as surrealistic "Barton Fink"- or even "Eraserhead"-like touches come in, the engineer's imagination and the horror film start to blend together. He grows angry, in a repressed English way, about not getting paid by the abusive producer (Cosimo Fusco) even as the director (Antonio Mancino) swears that the horror film is a feminist opus: "I hate what they did to these beautiful women," he declaims. "But it is my duty to show! The world must know the truth!"

The lack of clear direction in the closing act seems to me like the movie doesn't know where to go and hopes to get by with weirdness and trickery. Still, whatever is happening, writer- director Peter Strickland (in his second film) makes it fantastically eerie and eerily fantastic. I imagine both that Hollywood studios are begging him to do a standard horror flick, and that he will refuse because he is aiming much higher. May he keep going in the direction he's headed: He could well be a major new filmmaker.

Originally published by KYLE SMITH.

(c) 2013 The New York Post. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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