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Berberian Sound Studio [Blu-ray]

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Actors: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Layla Amir / Director: Peter Strickland / Classification: 15 / Studio: Artificial Eye / Released: 31 Dec 2012 / Run Time: 92 minutes

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      09.05.2013 10:40
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      A rather disappointing faux horror film

      A review of the Blu-ray, available from amazon for about £12.

      This is part of a (post)modern trend for making films which pay homage to the horror movies of the past, while at the same time trying to create something "better" by being too self-aware to be purebred horror, but still hopefully appearing low-brow enough to not scare off the kind of people who balk at anything resembling arthouse.

      It is the 1970s. A quiet, shy English sound engineer, Gilderoy, is summoned to Italy to work on the postproduction for a horror movie. Appalled at the nature of the film he is working on, he is hopelessly out of his depth in a country where he can't speak the language and is held in contempt by most of his co-workers. Inevitably, Gilderoy starts to lose his mind.

      I found this kind of disappointing, after all the acclaim it received. It looks and sounds absolutely amazing, but doesn't add up to much of anything. As a general rule among my friends, people who don't know much about Italian horror movies liked this; people who know their spaghetti horror don't. Which probably says something about horror fans taking their hobby too seriously. But it also says something about critics who take it for granted that horror films aren't worthy of attention, but who greet an over-intellectualised riff on old horror movies with cries of ecstasy.

      America gives us Tarantino's cocksure pastiches and reference-heavy horror by the likes of Rob Zombie. I don't usually enjoy films like that, but at least their hearts are in the right place - they're trying to recreate the feel of whatever they're referencing, rather than trying to distance themselves from it ironically. When the British to have a go at the same kind of thing it either ends up with a Simon-Pegg-style smugfest or out-and-out pretention (with the honourable exception of the League of Gentlemen).

      Unfortunately I found Berberian Sound Studio sitting at the pretentious end of the spectrum. It doesn't tell us anything about Italian horror. We never see the film which is being made - although we do see its opening credits, which look more like something AIP would have made than anything Italian. But the excerpts from the script we see, as the voice cast have to dub in their dialogue, suggest that it's not unlike Suspiria. A siller, cheaper Suspiria, perhaps with a bit of Mark of the Devil thrown in. The sound effects and use of music are more reminiscent of Lucio Fulci than of Dario Argento. This all made me think that the makers of this film were treating all of Italian horror as one big amorphous block, which of course completely misses one of the main reasons it's so fascinating - its incredible variety.

      It feels like a gratuitous use of horror as a backdrop for the sake of it, and often feels like the director has nothing but contempt for the films he's taking inspiration from (which surely can't be true). It just annoyed me, really. I always get irritated when I feel that I'm being cynically targeted as a demographic, and this felt that way big time. A sinister arthouse film about dubbing an Italian horror movie? I should lap that up, shouldn't I? Well, maybe I would have, if it had had a plot...

      There are some very good things in the film. Toby Jones is the best of them. His performance as the hapless Gilderoy is fantastic. Meek, confused, shy, awkward, introverted, he's lost in his own little world most of the time, and Jones makes us like him even though he's pretty useless. None of the other cast members were known to me, but Cosimo Fusco was good as the overbearing producer, as was Antonio Mancino as the sleazy director (although he could have done with being a lot sleazier).

      The film looks and sounds great, too. The camerawork is brilliant, and it prowls around, getting lovingly detailed close-ups of vegetables, spiders, control panels and whatever else happens to be around. The film lovingly embraces the analogue technologies used to make films back in the seventies, with lengthy close-ups of tape spools, film canisters, mixing desk knobs, projector components etc. There are also little moments of giallo parody, as when we watch Gilderoy from outside his bedroom window, or - most obviously - in the black-gloved hands of the unseen projectionist. It's claustrophobic - it all takes place indoors, apart from a snippet of a nature documentary that appears at one point.

      The sound is also amazing. Gruesome sound effects are created by recording the sounds of fruit and vegetables being smashed up - all these details look utterly authentic. As Gilderoy mixes the sounds together they becomes genuinely sinister, with lovely use of ambient noise, electronic sound, and music that blends in so seamlessly that it becomes almost a sound effect in itself. (The excellent soundtrack was created by electric melancholy band Broadcast and completed after the very sad death of their singer, Trish Keenan.)

      But film it as beautifully as you like, when nothing is happening, nothing is happening. There's a subplot about Gilderoy trying to claim back his travel expenses, but it never feels like it's ever really going to be resolved. There are sad letters from Gilderoy's mother, which tell us everything we need to know about the character and ultimately rather labour the point. But after a while it just gets boring.

      It picks up in the last 20 minutes or so, as Gilderoy finally starts to lose it, and the film takes on a very welcome hallucinatory aspect. The use of sound, of dubbing, in this last section is better, and while it isn't ever more than slightly menacing (it isn't a conventional horror movie by any means), it is definitely atmospheric. But I don't think the end is enough of a pay-off for having sat through the rest of it.

      I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. The idea is great - Gilderoy seems to belong to a world of kids' TV and tourist films, working in his shed like Joe Meek. The 'Oliver Postgate meets Dario Argento' idea could have made for something great. And the Italian film we hear being dubbed is hilarious - it evokes Suspiria, but is much trashier. I wish we'd seen more of the 'dangerously aroused' goblin.

      But while it isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, it is still a disappointment. Perhaps I don't 'get' it (although I've never been terribly patient of the idea that films have to be 'got'). I don't know. It just feels like it could have been a lot more than it was if it had embraced the horror rather than keeping it at an arty arm's length.

      It's a modern film, so you can expect it to look and sound pretty great on Blu-ray. If it didn't someone would have seriously messed up. I wish I had a better sound set-up at home, as I suspect this would really have benefited from that; as it is, it looks superb and sounds fine. Artificial Eye's pre-menu ident is really pretentious, but probably less annoying than the full minute of idents we have to sit through before the film starts.

      There's a 30-minute interview with the director (not so good, he's not great on camera and seems to take ages to remember things). There's also a making of, which is nicely split between talking heads and behind the scenes footage. A director's commentary was too difficult to sit through.

      There's also a one-minute student film, a precursor to the main film in which two men make sound effects (it's quite funny); and a full-length version of the pastiche wildlife documentary (which is mildly amusing, but the voiceover doesn't really sound right). I think the extras are in standard definition, and the picture quality on this fake documentary isn't very good - it's intentionally been made to look old and a bit shabby, but even so it doesn't quite look right.

      I tend not to have a great deal of patience with films that take the trappings of horror but try to pretend they're not horror. Berberian Sound Studio could have made for a cracking pastiche giallo, but instead looks like the work of a man who'd like to make a horror film but is worried his film-school pals would sneer at him for doing so.

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