When my good friend (and Fangoria editor) Sam Zimmerman told me about Berberian Sound Studio, I thought he was making it up - it sounded too good to be true. Toby Jones (a solid character actor who always delivers) starring in a modern giallo about a guy mixing the sound for a giallo? AMAZING! It quickly shot to the top of my must-see list for Fantastic Fest, and I was lucky to see it at the same screening as Sam, along with FEARnet's Lawrence Raffel and Shock's Ryan Turek. Horror united!
Sadly, this isn't really a giallo - in fact it's not much of anything. Jones is indeed working on a giallo, but the closest the movie gets to having a discernible story is "Toby Jones gets frustrated working on a sleazy Suspiria ripoff." I kept thinking it was just a slow burn about his gradual mental breakdown until he snapped and killed someone (or everyone), but the film just sort of trails off, tossing in some Lynchian dream logic instead of paying off any of the film's minor subplots in a satisfactory way.
The most pressing matter in the entire movie is Jones' attempts to get reimbursed for his flight to Italy, and just when it gets really interesting (we learn there WAS no flight in the first place), it's dropped. No one ever mentions the flight or his money again, so what happened there? Perhaps we're supposed to take away the idea that Jones himself didn't exist, which would double as a (very thin) commentary on the unsung heroes of the film industry, whose tireless efforts mostly go unrecognized by the filmgoing public at large (raise your hand if you've ever waited until the sound or production design Oscars to go to the bathroom or fix yourself another drink).
But if that's the case, isn't there a better way to go about it than inside of a movie about a guy listening to the ADR and Foley sessions for a giallo called The Equestrian Vortex? And being a worthy message, shouldn't it be pretty up front? As the guy who makes the friggin' end credits for TV shows and movies, I certainly feel for those who do far more important things for a movie and get no recognition (outside of those Oscars that you fast forward), and would welcome a film that was literally about such a thing. That said, the opening titles for Equestrian are terrific - I would totally watch that movie.
So it's a shame that the titles are all we see of it. We get a ton of scene descriptions (many of which seem to be directly inspired by Suspiria, with young girls and witches in a school of some sort) and hear their gibberish dialogue during ADR, but we don't see a single frame of the film itself. At least until the very end, when nothing is making a goddamn lick of sense and (spoiler?) we see that Jones appears to be the star of the film? Also he's suddenly fluent in Italian, and the letters he's been getting from his mom are apparently comprised of lines from the script, or vice versa. Or neither. I dunno.
What I do know is this: there are more shots of vegetables in this movie than in a documentary about produce. The Foley dudes use lettuce for a variety of things, and he uses radishes to make a certain stabbing sound, plus there's some sort of squash or something (look, I'm not a vegetables guy) that they use for when a body plops to the floor. Part of Jones' character is that he's not into horror movies, and usually does documentaries and the like (he thought the movie was actually about equestrians - silly fool! Giallo titles never have a damn thing to do with the movie!), so one of the movie's few remaining strong points is watching him slowly get used to this nonsense after his first few scenes, where he's repulsed by what he's seeing.
And by "remaining strong points," I'm referring to the fact that the movie really works for a half hour or so, as it feels like it's building toward something and that our patience will be rewarded. Plus it's just amusing seeing them spoof on sleazy Italian filmmakers, who berate their actresses and (in the producer's case) do everything in their power to avoid spending any money at all. But since nothing pays off satisfactorily, it's hard to really say "Ah, it doesn't really stick the landing" - it never even lands the metaphorical plane. And again, even the subplots don't even pay off, let alone the main narrative, so if I were to watch this again, it's possible I wouldn't even like the stuff I enjoyed the first time, because now I know it goes nowhere.
But it's still got another solid turn from Jones, a few lovely Italian ladies (the receptionist in particular is stunning), and the occasional riff on giallo nonsense (a poultry tunnel!), which keeps it from being a complete waste of time. Plus it was on 35mm; always a nice little surprise in this day and age. Someday someone will make the great giallo about a guy making a giallo, but sadly this is not it. And if you're jonesing to watch a movie about a sound guy, watch Blow Out.