Peter Strickland’s sophomore effort Berberian Sound Studio was on many people’s ‘must see’ of the festival lists. It’s a film that, due to its subject matter and the era it takes place in, had me excited from the get go.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) a timid British sound engineer is hired by famous Italian director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to assist his team finish his new horror film, The Equestrian Vortex. Unnerved by the filmmakers footage, and feeling a bit isolated, Gilderoy begins to wonder why he was handpicked for this project, and as events and characters become more sinister, finds himself living in his own horror movie.
Berberian Sound Studio may take place in the ’70s and have the aesthetic of the giallo films that defined that era of Italian horror cinema, but it is more than an obvious visual homage. It is a love letter to sound, more specifically the manifestation of sound and its importance within film, and its vital role in horror.
The way Strickland intentionally divorces image and sound is mesmerising. What this allows is for the audience to create the imagery that the sound implies, for although we see no violence on screen, the mere inclusion of sound makes it feel explicit. It’s like a different level of conscience sound, that as a cinema lover, we may take for granted. In nearly every case audio is a key tool for horror filmmakers, because it’s only through sound that they are able to create the atmosphere and fear that is needed to frighten people. It’s not until you take it away – something that Strickland experiments within the film – that we see just how vital it is.
I know all this talk of sound may have you believe that Peter Strickland forgot to concentrate on his visuals, but that is by no means the case. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, with Nick Knowland’s cinematography adding so much claustrophobia to the piece that the unsettling nature of Gilderoy’s predicament becomes even more intense. The director has obviously done his research and knows how to shoot, and even though it harks back to the giallo, to me it is constructed much more like a Lynchian nightmare. The hybrid between the two could not be better realised.
Toby Jones, once again, shows that when given a character he can work with, there’s few better. He’s an actor too good for the middling sidekick roles that Hollywood seems to give him. His bumbling, fish-out-of-water Britishness leads to quite a few laughs, but combined with the language barrier, also creates a great deal of paranoia. And as the film continues, becoming more and more intense, it climaxes in a frenzy of terrifying scenes that I will not admit to fully understanding after one viewing. But even with their ambiguity, the intended sensory impact is undeniable.
Berberian Sound Studio is everything you want it to be – an incredibly moody, pulling-back-the-curtain homage to an era and craft that many adore. It is narratively complex, visually stunning and boasting a sound design that demands to be experienced.