The Brit-in-Italy scenario gets an emphatically grungy makeover in "Berberian Sound Studio," a twisted tribute to analog moviemaking and 1970s Italian Giallo horror flicks. Toby Jones plays the innocent abroad — not a traveler headed for a romantic thaw in the Mediterranean sun but a sound engineer who never sees the light of day and who's headed for — or perhaps already in the midst of — a mental unraveling.
Jones' reserved Englishman, Gilderoy, has been hired to oversee the soundtrack mix on "The Equestrian Vortex," a piece of psycho-erotic exploitation chock-full of evil priests, tortured witches, secret libraries and the requisite poultry tunnel. Whatever artistic flair on Gilderoy's part led the filmmakers to hire him, at the studio, he's instantly cast in the role of accountant-like functionary, out of his depths amid the loonies — the hectoring producer, the angry actress, the uncommunicative Foley artists and the pretentious director who insists he's making a work of historical truth.
Writer-director Peter Strickland, whose debut feature was the Romania-set revenge drama "Katalin Varga," uses atmosphere as others would use plot, and knows how to provoke comic shudders. But he tends to repeat himself, and he doesn't quite find a satisfying denouement for the inventive premise.
Even so, the muck is practically palpable. His film-within-the-film, though unseen, colors every frame of "Berberian," and every shot of Gilderoy's face. Jones perfectly modulates the character's reactions to on-screen carnage as he orchestrates actors' sound-booth screams. There's also the endless destruction of vegetables — the acoustics of violence — and the resulting pile of discarded produce, along with its creeping rot.
"Berberian Sound Studio." No MPAA rating. In English and Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Playing at Arena Cinema, Hollywood; Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.