Dir: Peter Strickland
Stars: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Antonio Mancino
It was pretty obvious when I watched Peter Strickland’s first film, Katalin Varga, that he was going to be a very special director. His mastery of light, sound and cinematography was startling and highly refreshing, in an industry that seems to prize these qualities less by the day. Berberian Sound Studio is rather a unique concept, but he manages to pull it off and then some.
Sometime in the ‘70s, Gilderoy (Jones) arrives in Italy at the behest of director Santini (Mancino) to take up a job as a sound engineer on a new giallo picture, The Equestrian Vortex. He is greeted and tutored by Francesco (Fusco) whilst he waits to meet the elusive Santini and battles the receptionist (Sotiropoupou) to claim back his travel expenses. Gilderoy gradually begins to lose his grip; his background of working in his shed on his Magnum opus, a natural history documentary about Dorking and the South Downs, is no preparation for undertaking this horror project.
Strickland has managed to deliver a film which oozes creepiness and suspense from the very start, when Gilderoy arrives at the studio only to be confronted by Sotiropoulou’s abrasive receptionist. Later, when Gilderoy asks “Santinti mentioned something about equestrian?”, Francesco growls back “she was on a horse, she isn’t right now.” Indeed, one of the greatest conceits of Berberian Sound Studio is that you never actually see any of the film they are making. Bored men simulate aural atrocities with common or garden vegetables and kitchen implements.
Sound is the key here, and a grossly underused essential component in most horror films. Here it is employed to unsettle and unnerve – both the star and the audience. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes involves total silence, the suspense becoming almost intolerable. It is the key element in Gilderoy’s descent into confusion and madness; from the repeated stabbing of cabbages to incessant screaming, these noises burry their way inside his head. As he loses his grip on reality he seems to become trapped within the film, and as the other characters begin to exhibit the grotesque, we too seem to loose out grasp and sense of equilibrium.
Berberian Sound Studio is reminiscent in cinematic tone of Lynch’s Wild at Heart; full of metaphors and out of focus close-ups. It has the feel of a Kafka novel as Gilderoy’s attempts at clarification only lead to confusion and frustration. It is rather an intense, yet refreshing experience: A horror film without any visual horror. Sadly we will never be able to watch The Equestrian Vortex, however I do have the masterpiece that is Suspiria to tide me over.