British director Peter Strickland’s sophomore film, Berberian Sound Studio, opens for a two-days-only engagement at The Belcourt starting Wednesday, and I'm giddy as Norman Bates when someone asks for a sandwich. If the title doesn’t ring a bell, let Scene editor-in-chief Jim Ridley fill you in via his Critic's Pick:
For weeks, the trailer for Peter Strickland’s giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio has been freaking out Belcourt audiences with its eerie quick-cut images and grotesquely squishy soundtrack. In what looks like a combination of the creepiest surveillance-nation aspects of Coppola’s The Conversation and De Palma’s Blow Out, Toby Jones plays an expert Foley artist who finds that his latest job — an Italian auteur’s splatter opus — is driving him to sonic delirium. Which makes this a thriller you’ll want to see in a theater as much or more for the sound system as for the big screen — so you’ll experience the full psychic torture caused by the sound of a knife plunging into a fleshy cabbage. Two days only. — JIM RIDLEY
Though sound effects rightfully take center stage, the music is just as critical to the nail-biting tension in Berberian Sound Studio. After all, the whole affair (including film-within-the-film The Equestrian Vortex) is a tribute to Dario Argento, the Italian director whose 1970s gialli ushered in a new era in which gory, low-budget slasher flicks aspired to be taken as seriously as the mind-bending Alfred Hitchcock thrillers that inspired them. While it's being polite to say that Argento's efforts don't quite reach that standard of sophistication, they do carry on the finesse with which Hitchcock integrated music into his features, and the iconic themes that resulted.
Indulge me for a little history recap, won't you? Hitchcock worked with the great Bernard Herrmann on the spine-tingling scores to Psycho, North by Northwest and others, setting the mood so adeptly that it sometimes takes as few as one or two notes to put you right back in the scene. Argento aimed for this from the very beginning: On his first giallo, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, he collaborated in similar fashion with Ennio Morricone, and the later Inferno featured Keith Emerson. Argento’s most enduring association, however, is with Italian prog ensemble Goblin, who are passing us over on their October reunion tour. Together, they created some of the most distinctive and eerie combinations of sound and picture in the genre, gracing breakthrough hits Deep Red and Suspiria as well as Dawn of the Dead, for which Argento teamed up with zombie king George Romero.
For Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland worked alongside the English group Broadcast, who began as a quartet in 1995. Over the next decade, the band condensed to the duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill, and their retro electro-psych grew progressively more experimental, showing an influence from the BBC’s legendary sound effects and music laboratory, the Radiophonic Workshop. These propensities make Broadcast a perfect match to enhance this tale of an engineer who, like the Radiophonic Workshop staff, spends his life using the sounds of inanimate objects to tell stories about a fantasy world — until the lines between fantasy and reality start to dissolve.
Sadly, Keenan died of complications from pneumonia in early 2011, midway through the project. This understandably explains why the soundtrack album is a little slim, and falls in square in the “for completists only” category — but completists won’t be disappointed. Though most of its 39 tracks run between 30 and 45 seconds, the snippets of instrumental themes interspersed with sinister whispers, screams and ghoulish laughter soaked in reverb, are a subtle and scary audio portrait of a descent into madness. The pitch wobbles enough to make the somber organs, bells and Mellotron flutes sound slightly seasick — an effect either carefully approximated or obtained the old-fashioned way, by playing worn tapes over and over on machines that aren’t calibrated quite right. Everything is off just enough to be equal parts foreboding and disorienting, and thinking about it makes me feel like checking over my shoulder. See the title sequence from The Equestrian Vortex:
As an added treat, there’s plenty of vintage gear to ogle, though it has a purpose beyond gear porn. Below, see Gilderoy (Toby Jones) bond with scream queen Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou, aka Monica in Vortex; see, it's already getting hard to keep track of what's real inside the movie) over what the Watkins Copicat tape echo unit does to her voice:
As far as we know, the screenings will not be followed by a half-hour demonstration of how the demon voice sound effects were made, but you can watch that here, if you're feeling pretty good about your grip on sanity today:
Showtimes are 5:10 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Pick your showtime here to find your ticket link.