Italian giallo films have made something of a quiet comeback recently. Restored blu-rays of Dario Argento and Mario Bava’s films are inviting renewed considerations of the genre outside the canonized Suspiria, and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer presented a dedicated contemporary revisitation of the genre. Now consider British writer-director’s Peter Strickland’s sophomore feature Berberian Sound Studio, a densely atmospheric and wonderfully bizarre journey into the increasingly fevered mind of a sound effects engineer of an Italian horror (but don’t call it horror!) film in which is the film itself is never actually seen, but only heard.
It’s 1976. Gilderoy (the great Toby Jones) is a meek, soft-spoken English sound effects engineer who has just flown into Italy in order to produce sonic gore effects for a giallo-type film made by the eccentric self-fashioned visionary Santini (Antonio Mancio) and a curmudgeonly, dictatorial producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco). Santini’s affairs with his voice actresses create complications on the set, one of whom he develops a personal connection with. The gore effects manufactured for the film, inventively executed through a ritualized destruction of fruits and vegatables, slowly creep into Gilderoy’s psyche, causing him to slowly lose any motivation to work on the film, but he remains without a means of escape. That Berberian Sound Studio takes place almost exclusively in the studio’s dank, 70s-sepia interiors contributes greatly to the film’s deliberately escalating aura of immersive claustrophobia.
Berberian Sound Studio basically continues where the opening five minutes of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out left off: with the problem of fidelity, specifically the issue of conjuring a convincing scream. How does one recreate within the confines of a sound booth the fantastic events occurring onscreen? But Gilderoy eventually encounters the exact opposite problem: how sound effects change the nature of the actions that produce them. The film is strongest during the moments where Gilderoy and other foley artists invent horrifyingly violent sound effects from everyday quotidian objects, specifically food. Chopping up a watermelon to simulate the sound of stabbing flesh, or severing a radish from its base to create the sound of a woman’s hair being pulled away from her scalp – such practices eventually seem like acts of violence on their own. Strickland has a remarkable ability to let his camera sustain on his filmed details in a way that lets the audience immerse in the wholly unique subjective world created by the sound.
Berberian Sound Studio follows Hitchcock’s doctrine fully: what information audiences fill in with their imagination is always more horrifying than anything that can be filmed. Even in the confines of this (almost) single-setting film, there’s a world of elements to explore. And it’s Strickland’s seasoned, expert control of dense atmospherics that creates the necessary groundwork for the film’s absolutely nuts third act.
The Upside: Expertly crafted, incredibly atmospheric, wonderfully original take on the affective experience of horror.
The Downside: Not so much a horror film as a film interested in the psychological mechanics of horror; not a film that’s invested in clearly answering its many questions – all of which is fine, but this certainly isn’t for anybody going in and expecting a conventional genre exercise.
On the Side: Berberian Sound Studio is based upon a short film Strickland made in 2004.
Berberian Sound Studio is now playing on VOD and in New York and Los Angeles.