From the moment Toby Jones’ diminutive, bookish sound engineer Gilderoy steps in through the doors of the titular recording studio, brought over from England to record ghoulish giallo flick The Equestrian Vortex – the opening credits riffing on Seventies convention and close ups of black leather gloves changing the reels hammering the influence home – a sense of unease slides in like fog, and builds with creeping certainty until the final third as Peter Strickland, the much applauded director of Katalin Varga, makes good on his acclaim.
Shot, like the movie they’re adding sound to, in both Italian and English, Gilderoy’s poor grasp of the former marks him out as like us, a voyuer into the drama playing out in the fictional flick’s post-production. Ignored by the cast and glowered at by an elderly rival, he struggles to prise his airfare from the disdainful receptionist, faceless accounts folk on the phone, and the sneering producer with Kafka-esque impotence.
Even physically he’s out of place – short and bald in contrast to the lithe and menacing producer Francesco (Angels & Demons‘ Cosimo Fusco), the playboy-like director Santini (Antonio Mancino), and the aloof, porcelain beauties recording their screams in synch. His alienation only ever enhanced as he either hears things – the melodramatic nightmare of the movie – unfold without us seeing them, or sees things – bitter arguments, romantic couplings – accompanied only by music or silence through the soundproof glass of his control booth. Everything is at least, one degree of separation from him and us.
Tethered to his charmingly provincial way of life by letters from his mother, the crunch of autumn leaves, and a UFO sound effect he perfected form children’s TV, he grows gradually more transfixed by the events unfolding – whose effects he simulates, from pulling a witch a hair out with the stalks of radishes, to stabbing a lettuce in lieu of human flesh, and eventually a sizzling frying pan to capture the magic of a hot poker in some unseen ladyparts.
A cast member, who confides in Gilderoy with fearsome intensity, goes berserk, scattering the tape across the control booth, and a letter from his mother takes on a tone of gothic foreboding, and the phrase “it must have been the magpies” echoes around him. His efforts to get reimbursed for his flight go nowhere, and he’s told the flight doesn’t even exist, and then finally he’s tormented at night, his torment then projected on the studio wall and his challenges of “Who’s there? I’ll call the police!” suddenly in Italian.
There’s endless close-ups on the piles of abandoned fruit and veg – stabbed, drowned and smashed to capture various acts of on screen violence sonically – growing ever more mouldy and decayed, as if they’re the visual cues of a man unravelling far from his comfort zone. There’s a touch of everything from Almost Famous to Devil’s Advocate in the idea of an sheltered soul exposed to a world of squalid glamour, and a whole lot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant in this brilliantly intimate tale of suspense and sanity, that well and truly cements Strickland’s cinematic cache.