Berberbian Sound Studio
Dir. Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland’s sophomore film is a striking combination of dazzling Argento style and haunting Lynchian atmosphere; it’s as though the director glimpsed into the collective mind-space of these filmmakers and recreated what he saw and heard there in this claustrophobic nightmare of sound and vision. Set in the Seventies, Berberbian Sound Studio tells of mild-mannered British sound technician Gilderoy (Toby Jones), who is brought to Italy to work on the sound effects for a gruesome horror film. His increasingly nightmarish task slowly begins to take its toll, and before long, life begins to imitate art. Or does it? From the opening moments as Gilderoy is led into the studio – rather like a patient being led into a psychiatric hospital - an ominous dread seeps throughout proceedings and an ever dank ambiguity manifests itself.
Alone in a foreign land, Gilderoy is completely ostracised by the rest of the crew as he spends his days recording hours of screaming, crying and all manner of grisly sound effects: including a lustful goblin creeping into a room full of sleeping girls. Unspeakable acts of violence towards vegetables ensues as Gilderoy, bowing to the pressure of the task ahead of him, seemingly slides into despair and possible psychosis as he simulates the sound effects for the upsettingly violent film. Pulverising watermelons to suggest the sound of blades plunging into naked flesh, pulling stalks off radishes to mimic the sound of hair being pulled out of scalps and pouring oil into a hot pan to simulate a scalding poker being thrust into the vagina of an accused witch are just some of the macabre sounds he must create. As much as he abhors the violence depicted in the film, his part in giving life to these atrocities is undeniable. He soon begins to become unhinged by his complicity in simulating the sounds of violent death. As Peter Bradshaw evocatively articulates in his review of the film, “At the mixing desk (Gilderoy) is part high priest, part human sacrifice in the black mass of cinema production.” He is as much of an accomplice to director Santini’s horrific art and its arguably damaging effect on its audience, as he is a helpless victim of it. In his portrayal of a rationally minded individual thrust into an overwhelming situation that tests his principles, Toby Jones delivers an impeccable performance.
That Strickland chose the post-production process of an Italian horror film in the Seventies to serve as the backdrop for his tale of a sound engineer coming undone is not only irresistible, but also practical. Italian horror films were usually shot without sound; it was added in post production and the practice of dubbing the voices of actors was common practice. As anyone who has ever seen such films will testify, this usually results in an eerie, uncanny and rather ‘detached’ quality to the performances and situations onscreen. These disembodied voices echo throughout Berberian Sound Studio as they throb down empty corridors and fill close-up shots of wide eyes and mouths. There is so much here for admirers of gialli and horror all'italiana. Not only peppered with nods to the giallo – such as the black leather gloved hand that starts the projector rolling (and arguably Gilderoy’s downward spiral into despair) - the film is awash with striking images echoing the sexualised panic and violence of Italian horror; in particular the parades of ample-lunged beauties operatically screaming for their lives while surrounded by total darkness in sound booths. And then there’s the horror film itself Gilderoy is working on, The Equestrian Vortex. While we never see it, through the sounds Gilderoy creates we can imagine its devastating violence and obscene nature. Through inane dialogue whispered by voice-over actresses we also learn that it's set in a riding school plagued by witchcraft and violent occultists. In other words: Suspiria with riding-crops. The only glimpse (but what a glimpse!) we catch is its lurid opening titles; all rotoscoped and jarring imagery of Satanic cults, witches and abhorrent devilry, complete with an ear-splitting soundtrack of pounding piano, deranged drum arrangements and prog-electro courtesy of Broadcast doing their best Goblin impression.
There is a meticulous attention to detail with regards to the vintage sound recording equipment Gilderoy uses. It’s presented as an almost alchemical apparatus of occult origin, amalgamating technology with arcane mystery. The sinister, otherworldly portrayal of the equipment, as it records, manipulates and plays back all manner of alarming sounds, evokes the work of sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, who often presented technology as a quasi-magical force with ominous connotations. In the grand tradition of the giallo, the instruments of death (in this case, sound recording equipment) are strangely fetishised, as Strickland’s camera gazes upon them in exquisite close up and longing tracking shots. While many of the visual references may be lost on those not fluent in Argento, Bava and Martino, it shouldn’t detract from the power the film wields in its depiction of a mild-mannered, vulnerable man becoming increasingly disorientated in hopelessness, frustration and despair. Interestingly, the film also seems to have been inspired as much by vintage library recordings and the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, from whence the likes of Delia Derbyshire unleashed their unearthly and haunting soundscapes.
Sinister undertones abound in the mystery of why Gilderoy was hired to work on this brutal title. His background is in Home Counties nature documentaries. However this is not really the focus of Strickland's story. Much like the characters and plots in bygone Italian horror films, the characters in Berberian Sound Studio are merely pawns the director uses to explore the dark themes which take centre stage: isolation, psycho-sexual anxiety and the power of cinema. Much like the characters in the gialli of yesteryear, they're victims of cruel logic, and there’s a sense that they are somehow being manipulated by something beyond comprehension. The dark influence of horror cinema, perhaps? Strickland’s motives are ever ambiguous and his focus is not conventional.
All the beautiful build up leads to a sudden and unexpected ending that has echoes of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive; not as disappointing as it sounds given the unconventional nature of the film. Indeed, Berberian Sound Studio really pushes the boundaries of what constitutes horror, and what contemporary audiences expect from it as a genre. Far from demystifying the magic of cinema, Strickland’s film enshrouds it in an otherworldly allure.