Monday, October 20, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #20: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

The Story: A timid English sound mixer (Toby Jones) travels to Italy to work on a supernatural horror film.  The experience of posting the film demoralizes him so much that he begins drifting into a dark, semi-conscious state of existence. 

Expectations: This film turned up on several "best horror films of the year" lists.  That's all the recommendation I need.

Reaction: I understand why horror geeks love this film.  Watching BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is like getting an insider's view into the post-production of a Mario Bava movie, complete with the aura of mystery that we'd all like to imagine for a production like that.  I don't mean to suggest that this is anything like a documentary.  It's more like an ominous tone poem -- void of narrative, but chock full of atmosphere.  It's a potboiler brimming with the promise of terrible things to come.

Good horror filmmakers understand how important sound design is in creating suspense.  (If you don't believe it, just try watching your favorite horror movie on mute.)  Most of us carefully scrutinize the things we see in a horror movie more than the things we hear, so the latter can have a stronger effect on the viewer's subconscious mind.  In essence, that's what BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is about.  It's not a story so much as a testament to the unsung audio artists of the horror genre.

In terms of story, I suppose one could view BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO as a study of suppressed rage, a portrait of one man's descent into madness, or maybe just fragmented musings on the dehumanzing effects of working for a pretentious, cheapskate Italian producer.  Think BARTON FINK meets BLOW OUT by way of Ovidio Assonitis.... But story isn't the strength, or the purpose, of this film.  This is an experiment.  It will fascinate anyone interested in the art of horror filmmaking or filmmaking in general, but it might not work for viewers who don't bring such an appreciation to it.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Freud said that the things that frighten us the most, subconsciously, are things that seem both strange and familiar.  BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has all the familiar trappings of a horror film, but presented within a context that is unusual (at least to non-filmmakers).  Perhaps that's why the subtlest nuances in this film -- whether it's a matter of sound, lighting or editing -- are so unnerving.  We aren't used to watching horror films that don't show and/or tell us exactly what we're supposed to be afraid of.  The atmosphere of dread has no context, which is even more unsettling.

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