It's very rare to see something innovative done in the horror genre. There are some great new horror movies out there, but most rely on traditional tropes to get the job done.
'Berberian Sound Studio' is that rare bird, a movie that takes horror in a decidedly odd direction. Unfortunately, it doesn't fully succeed.
The plot centers on a sound effect artist named Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an uptight, introverted Brit that gets a job doing foley work for an Italian horror film. And it's set in the late 70's, when these films (known as Giallo films in Italy) were a full on art-movement, with tales of gore and lust from directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci that pushed the boundaries of horror.
From the start, we know things are awry; every person Gilderoy encounters, seem secretive and evasive. He's working on a movie called 'The Equestrian Vortex', which is filled with perverse scenes of torture. In an intriguing move, director Peter Strickland never shows one frame of the fictitious film, leaving it to the gruesome sound effects and Jones's unsettled reactions to fill in the blanks of its depravity.
The director and producer of the film keep Gilderoy in the dark on everything, including getting any paid compensation, and the more he works on the film, the looser his grasp on reality becomes.
There are a lot of great nods to the art of sound effects work in the film; fruit gets stabbed to sub for human flesh, and dropped to sound like a body hitting the pavement. We see just how taxing it is for an actress to scream repeatedly, and all sorts of trickery to make voices more rich and disturbing. It also shows just how much work it took for this process pre-digital technology.
As Gilderoy's mental state deteriorates, the walls between reality and dream get shattered. He begins speaking fluid Italian with no explanation, and begins to see his life used as source material for the film.
The problem is that past that point, things get extremely opaque, with little resolution. This borders on arthouse elitism and seems for all intent that Strickland ran out of story, making things up as he goes, and copping out on some story elements that would flesh out the film.
As a result, 'Berberian Sound Studio' works as nothing more than moody imagery and sound textures, and can't attain the heights of great paranoid thrillers like Roman Polanksi's 'The Tenant', or more rewarding dream imagery ala David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet.' One has to think a better plot resolution remains on the cutting room floor in Gilderoy's studio, lost in the same abyss as his sanity.