Release Date: August 31st, 2012
Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Tania Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Layla Amir, Chiara D’Anna, Lara Parmiani, Fatma Mohamed
Peter Strickland here follows-up his 2009 feature debut Katalin Varga with an eerie and disquieting study of alienation, psychosis and 70s splatter-horror. A heady blend. Something of a critical darling at EIFF2012 and the recent FrightFest, Strickland’s picture manages to align these disparate themes so exactly one is dazzled by a filmmaker’s ability to produce a work that, while delighting in its reference points, succeeds fully on its own terms and forces the audience to re-evaluate any preconceived notions of horror cinema, also maintaining a delicate wit and playful tone. In short, Berberian Sound Studio is a triumph.
A deliciously hang-dog Toby Jones will never be more effectively cast than as uptight, buttoned down foley artist and sound mixer Gilderoy, a man as bland as his stultifying brown/grey shirt and cardy combos. Seconded to Italy in 1976 to ply his trade on fictional Giallo picture The Equestrian Vortex, Gilderoy is immediately set further adrift in his unfamiliar surroundings; louche producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and disdainful assistant Elena (Tania Sotiropoulou) seemingly hell-bent on making life as uncomfortable as possible for our shuffling, shambling hero. The Equestrian Vortex itself is a work of unwavering brutality redolent of Fulci, Argento or Bava in their grue-drenched heyday; a piece a million miles removed from the Heritage pictures with which Gilderoy is conversant from his middle-England comfort zone. As the watermelons are smashed and the radishes pulled to produce the accompanying sound to all Vortex’s blood-letting, Gilderoy becomes increasingly affected by the violence he must continuously observe, and the line between fantasy and reality blurs.
The audience never bears witness to the imagery the sound designer must endure, our understanding of the film-within-a-film’s content coming from Francesco or a voice-over cue’s (unflinchingly graphic) description of scenes and the contorted disgust of Gilderoy’s expression. With this, Strickland succeeds unequivocally; the otherwise mundane noise of a cabbage being chopped or a squash dropped taking on new, horrifying connotations when united with the desperate screams emanating from Vortex’s existing soundtrack. It is a deeply unsettling tactic. The sound outwith that manufactured by Gilderoy is equally superb; the clicking of a telephone’s dial tone or whir of a projector all heightened to place the audience in a world where the acoustic is everything, the sensory world our protagonist inhabits.
While easy to emphasise the excellence of the auditory, the aesthetic is proportionately significant. Claustrophobic of framing and set almost exclusively within the confines of the eponymous studio and Gilderoy’s quaint living quarters, there is a scuzzy otherworldliness providing further unease to proceedings. A close-up of an unnecessarily sinister black-gloved hand starting the projector for each bout of Vortex gleefully evocative of Argento’s Opera adds genre fun, whilst the recurring image of progressively rotting, eviscerated vegetation mirrors Gilderoy’s increasingly fractured mental state. This film is simultaneously, equally, beautiful and disconcerting to both watch and listen to.
Building towards a bafflingly potent climax that also proves potently baffling, Berberian Sound Studio takes you deep into the world of horror and wilfully trips you up at most turns. Opaque, cine-literate and really quite brilliant, it cements Mr Strickland’s status as a fledgling auteur of unparalleled verve and panache.