British director Peter Strickland follows up his acclaimed debut Katalin Varga with Berberian Sound Studio, an off-kilter '70s-set horror movie about a quiet, fastidious sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a giallo movie called The Equestrian Vortex.
Toby Jones stars as Gilderoy, the Englishman abroad who's charged with fine-tuning the sound effects, dubbing and musical score for the exploitation film. Knives plunge into vegetables, carrots are ripped from their storks and melons get sliced in half as Gilderoy meticulously puts noise to the brutal images put on screen by flamboyant director Santini (Antonio Mancino).
The violence (never explicitly shown by Strickland) is enough to make the unassuming Gilderoy wince - he's more at home working on documentaries about his home town of Dorking. He gets off to a bad start with his colleagues, too, irking beautiful receptionist Elena (Skyfall Bond girl Tonia Sotiropoulou).
It's a bold and dramatic change-up that will leave many viewers' heads spinning (this reviewer is still baffled!), but nevertheless it's a show of authorial confidence from Strickland to push his film into total mind-f**kery.
Jones, so often a supporting player, delivers a hugely impressive turn as Gilderoy. His splintering psyche (making him a narrator the audience can't trust) recalls Jack Torrance from The Shining and Black Swan's Nina Sayers. It's to Berberian Sound Studio's credit that it could easily sit as a triple bill companion with those aforementioned films and not look out of place.
High praise should go to Strickland, too, for his clean direction, inventive editing (blood-curdling soundbooth scream to tomato juice swirling in a blender) and almost fetishistic look at the process of celluloid moviemaking. Withholding scenes from his brutal film-within-a-film Equestrian Vortex is frustrating at times, but it leaves the audience room to conjure up some particularly vivid images. Vortex, complete with witches, horrendous use of a re-hot poker and a "dangerously aroused goblin", could pass for a lost Dario Argento flick.
Berberian Sound Studio cleverly whips up a mood of fear and anxiety without ever quite landing a big, visceral horror movie punch. Nevertheless, this is one psycho-surreal thriller that's destined to be a cult classic.