Earlier this week, I went on a Toby Jones inspired flight of frenzy HERE, leaving me hungry for all things Toby. Instead of a selfishly long post about the many ways I adore Toby Jones, I thought I would perform a service to the indie horror community and parlay my passion into a review for an underseen, incredibly eerie film that also happens to star my lil' sweetheart, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio.
The plot of this film is as deceptively simple as a Kafka story. A mild-mannered sound engineer named Gilderoy (played to perfection by Toby Jones) leaves his ailing mother to travel to Italy where he will serve as a sound engineer for a mysterious film entitled The Equestrian Vortex. Right away, the men who populate the production team bully and verbally abuse the shy Gilderoy, and he forms a sort of kinship with the few female actresses on set. Like him, actresses Silvia and Claudia are constantly mistreated by the dickish director and his pack of lackeys, resulting in a tentative friendship between the three outsiders. As time passes, Gilderoy is disturbed by the film he was hired to score. It seems that the movie, which he assumed was a harmless film about horses, is really a graphic depiction of the Inquisition and features Guinea Pig worthy scenes of the two actresses being mutilated and tortured. As the troubled production drags on, the abuse on set escalates, and Gilderoy becomes increasingly detached from his life back home. Soon, he finds himself making cruel decisions his old self would have never considered.
Like the disorienting, nausea-inducing novel Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, this film perfectly captures the strangeness of finding yourself far away from home. Gilderoy is no fearless adventurer to begin with, but even the most iron willed among us would be unnerved by what he has to endure. Similar to Sebald’s novel, the sense of time is thrown off as Gilderoy is forced to work endless shifts in a windowless, darkened room. He has to watch terrible, strangely realistic footage of women being taken apart over and over again. The people who should be his colleagues take every opportunity to embarrass or emasculate him. And that’s all before things get really serious. Director Peter Strickland keeps us close to Gilderoy, making us feel his discomfort, homesickness, and damaged humanity. As he slowly starts to break under the strain, we sit shotgun right there with him, already implicated in his newfound depravity.
I’ve watched some screwed-up movies before. I’m no stranger to gore, but few films have disturbed me like this one. It’s all the more amazing since the incredibly violent movie-within-a-movie The Equestrian Vortex is never really shown. We hear the wicked director describe the tortures in a heavily sexualized manner, we watch Gilderoy as he cringes through his terrible job of giving sound to these horrors, but we see next to nothing of the hellish film. The most squirmy scene involves Gilderoy using cabbages to replicate the sound of hair being ripped from a woman’s scalp. The moist tearing sound, the look of disgust on Gilderoy’s face, and the continuous movement of his hands as he shreds more and more vegetables hint at the degradations he’s being forced to watch, and it gets your mind working to imagine something more horrible than the shoddy fake film crew of Vortex could have created. That juicy, wet sound still stick with you longer than you’d like, and for a hardened horror fan, that’s high praise of the lowest order. It seems that director Strickland understands that the true horrors are the ones you create in your own mind.
This film is also one of the most uniquely feminist horror films I’ve ever seen. From the beginning of the film, the mistreatment of women is one of the story's central concerns. The misogynistic Italian film crew disturbs Gilderoy, and Silvia and Claudia almost seen surprised when Gilderoy treats them like humans. Through Gilderoy, we’re placed in a man’s subject position, but he’s shut out of the dangerous Rape Culture present in the sound studio. For most of the film, allies himself with the female characters. However, as his decency is worn down by the repeated viewings of torture and by the constant bullying of the men around him, Gilderoy’s alliance with the female stars wanes. It’s when the emotionally threadbare Gilderoy refuses to stand up against an overt act of sexual violence that his true descent begins.
I love that feminist film making is interested in celebrating strong, triumphant women, but this film is valuable because it addresses a little talked about aspect of feminist thought. People often get caught in the fallacy that only women benefit from feminism, but this film depicts the ways that toxic patriarchal cultures damage the souls of everyone in the system. This is nicely echoed by the film Gilderoy is enslaved to. The women in The Equestrian Vortex have been accused of heresy and witchcraft and are subjected to a disgusting and increasingly sexualized barrage of tortures. While the Inquisition was a time of mass injustice for many, women were particularly targeted, and this sadistic attitude toward women is carried over to the modern world of the Berberian studio. It’s fitting that in order to complete a particularly horrific scene for The Equestrian Vortex, Gilderoy must sacrifice his humanity, and in that moment, he’s finally accepted by the violent men around him. It’s a dark message about the systematic nature of violence against women, but it’s one that desperately needs to be explored further.
Finally, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t remark on Jones’s performance. I had been a fan of Jones before I saw this film, but this movie convinced me of his skill and nuance. Through Jones, Gilderoy becomes a real, complicated person. At once humane and compromised, full of longing but afraid of emotional attachments, all of the paradoxes and contradictions of Gilderoy’s character is registered on Jones’s soulful, mournful face. Much of the success of this spooky shocker rests on our ability to endure and share Gilderoy’s pain, and Jones goes a long way toward making this connection with the audience palpably tragic.
This film is one that kills with subtlety. If you want some splashy gore, look elsewhere, but if you want a true slow crawl through the darkness of the human heart, give Berberian Sound Studio a go. It’ll stay with you, and if you’re lucky, it might one day let you go.