Synopsis: A sound engineer’s work for an Italian horror studio becomes a terrifying case of life imitating art.
After a comedy (Tucker & Dale) and a bit of B-Movie schlock (Event Horizon) I decided that the third foray into the world of the cinematic weird and macabre for my Halloween countdown needed to be something a little more cerebral. Atmospheric. Unsettling as opposed to just gory and shocking. Sitting on my DVD shelf for too long a time was Berberian Sound Studio, a film that seemed to perfectly fit that mould.
Gaining a trough of awards and accolades upon it’s release, including Best Actor and Director at the British Independent Film Awards, Berberian Sound Studio is a hypnotic and sensory contorting journey through the mind of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild mannered English Foley Artist drafted into produce sound effects on a low budge 1960’s Italian horror movie. Providing no explanation as to why they chose him to be there, with evidently no background in such sordid and gruesome material, Gilderoy is as lost as the audience as to the nature of the surreal and alien world he has found himself embroiled in.
Although made with UK film funding, it is for the most part an Italian language movie drenched in the aesthetics and machismo you would expect from a 1960’s Italian film production unit. It’s easy to imagine Fellini or Antonioni holed up for days or weeks, shrouded in cigarette smoke, perfecting the finishing touches on their masterpieces. Rather than a masterpiece though, Gilderoy finds himself chin deep in smashed watermelons, de-headed radishes and sizzling frying pans as he begrudgingly recreates the sounds of the torture he is forced to watch over and over again. Made from the start to feel like an outsider by the arrogant Producer (Cosimo Fusco) and misogynistic Director (Antonio Mancino) that hired him, Gilderon feels increasingly isolated and haunted by the screams and horrors he is forced to record. Toby Jones is his normal excellent self as Gilderoy, always looking 5 steps left of very uncomfortable, somewhere in the “get me out of here” range.
In Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland, responsible for both writing and directing duties, has created a psychological trip that is equal parts Mulholland Drive, Blow Up and Italian New Wave. Rather than relying on anything visual to create it’s sense of horror, Strickland uses sound to startling effect, drawing you into the enhanced aural world that Gideon rattles around in. Everything is notched up to 11 to create a suffocating atmosphere; the click of a button, the spooling of a tape reel, the hiss of a microphone. By setting it almost entirely in windowless or darkened rooms you also lose any sense of reality. It is difficult to know how long Gideon has been there, being pummeled with gory religious iconography and watermelon residue. Similarly it never lets you settle on where the line between Gideon’s reality and his psychosis blur.
It is a film that I think will benefit from repeat viewings, and certainly it is a horror for fans of the weird rather than fans of the gory. Ultimately though it is a fascinating sensory journey through the mind of strange little Englishman caught in a World beyond his comfort zone.
Conclusion: Would sit very well in David Lynch’s back catalogue, somewhere between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohammed, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappallero, Chiara D’Anna, Antonio Mancino