Berberian Sound Studio | Film reviews, news & interviews
Berberian Sound Studio
Toby Jones swaps his garden shed for hardcore horror in Peter Strickland’s ingenious, giallo-inspired thriller
If in space no one can hear you scream, that’s certainly not a problem you’ll experience in a giallo sound studio. Known for their high anxiety and buckets of blood, the Italian giallos of the Sixties and Seventies gave us heinous horror, drenched in style. Directors such as Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and Dario Argento enjoyed a reign of terror with their handsome barbarism benefitting from fantastically histrionic sounds and scores. In Berberian Sound Studio writer-director Peter Strickland takes this phenomenon as a mere starting point, following his self-financed debut Katalin Varga with another absolute masterclass of tension and ingenuity, featuring screams to make your ears bleed.
In Berberian Sound Studio, Toby Jones is unimprovably cast as middle-aged mummy’s boy Gilderoy, a timid sound engineer from Surrey. It’s 1976 and he’s been flown to Italy to oversee the sound mix for The Equestrian Vortex, the blood-soaked baby of spectacular sleazebag Santini (Antonio Mancino). Gilderoy is not so much a fish out of water as one slapped onto a chopping block staring helplessly at a chef’s glinting blade. This fragile man is bullied by the producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco, pictured below left), semi-seduced by Santini, treated with undisguised contempt by an aggressive secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou, pictured below right) and bamboozled by the attention of abused female star Silvia (Fatma Mohamed). All this for a man more accustomed to the comfort and familiarity of the garden shed studio in his mum’s back garden.
It’s the stuff of nightmares - two specifically: the giallo within the film, with its witchcraft and butchery; and Gilderoy’s personal cultural nightmare, a nightmare of intimidation and embarrassment, the ordeal of a painfully innocent Brit thousands of miles outside of his comfort zone, working in a small space with hostile, emotionally volatile strangers. Rather sweetly, Gilderoy has brought with him recordings of comforting sounds from home (his mum’s doorbell for example) and there’s a gorgeous sequence where he dazzles his colleagues with his flair for aural enchantment. Gilderoy may be appalled by the violent imagery and cowed by the crew but, perhaps most cruelly, he’s tasked with coming up with ever more disgusting sounds, utilising a variety of prosaic props, replicating and contributing to the barbarism by, for instance, stabbing cabbages.
Berberian Sound Studio reaps many of its rewards by engaging the audience’s imagination. Wonderfully, Strickland chooses not to depict the giallo in question, instead he gleans considerable humour from the descriptions of the onscreen action. In addition, by focussing on the horrific sounds, the duplicate butchery and bloodcurdling screams, things become magnificently demented and eventually the mere sight of rotting fruit conjures dread.
The fictional studio’s name comes from Cathy Berberian, the American soprano, wife of Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio. Strickland is keen for his thrillingly strange and sophisticated movie not to be labelled a horror (recalling a line from Santini in the movie itself, who’s outraged by the very suggestion) and - although it flirts with horror conventions, just as Katalin Varga did with its rape-revenge plot - Strickland conjures a world that’s hypnotically unsettling rather than overtly frightening. Dealing in Gilderoy’s mental collapse and corruption rather than a physical threat, it is perhaps closest to a David Lynch film, with a strangling claustrophobia and playful approach to time and space, reality and fiction. Then there’s the reoccurring appearance of the flashing “Silenzio” sign, which glows an intimidating red as it grows ever closer; in Lynch films flashing lights signify danger.
Hilariously, it seems that the idea came to Strickland when his friend purchased a pair of particularly noisy trousers and he made a joke that their sound could be used to simulate thunder. Well it has certainly come on a long way from there. With this mind-bender and his contrastingly fresh and expansive (yet similarly suspenseful) debut, Strickland is showing himself to be a rare talent. Berberian Sound Studio segues confidently from the funny to the ridiculous to the oppressively strange, all the while maintaining an exquisite dignity. Strickland’s command of the film’s intimate, progressively disorientating visuals is as distinctive and impressive as his delightful experiments in sound.
If, like Gilderoy, the film loses its way a little towards the end it matters negligibly as this is exceptional, inspired filmmaking. Macabre, smart and teasing - fittingly for a film documenting the production of a giallo - Berberian Sound Studio makes a man going through hell horribly entertaining.
- Berberian Sound Studio is in cinemas from Friday
Watch the trailer for Berberian Sound Studio
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Frank Miller's 3D return to the world of Basin City proves a grotty and flat experience
Fritz Lang's lunar epic shines in a gleaming new print
As filmmaker and man, Attenborough had a tireless energy for useful work
Film about a lovesick teenage musical prodigy has a decidedly tin ear
Scarlett Johansson as a kickass brainiac is Luc Besson's latest superheroine fantasy
High theatricality and countyside capers in winning French comedy treat
Weather-related disaster movie loses its script to the elements
Pallid Daniel Radcliffe rom-com suggests the limits of self-effacement
The Dardennes triumph once again - this time by collaborating with Marion Cotillard
Satyajit Ray's classic of Indian cinema is beautifully restored
Love, life and the last days of punk embraced by three winning girls in 1980s Sweden
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top movies out now