Review: Berberian Sound Studio / Cert: 15 / Director: Peter Strickland / Screenplay: Peter Strickland / Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed / Release Date: 31st December
The studio in question is a post-production place in Italy. It is here, sometime in the '70s, that timid Dorking-based sound engineer Gilderoy (Jones) arrives, full of misgiving, to work on The Equestrian Vortex, a low-budget shocker about two boarding school girls battling witches. Very soon, Gilderoy has horrors of his own to contend with as he tries to pry his travel expenses from a frighteningly pretty secretary and does his best to cope with moisture in the condensers. The producer, spivvy Francesco (Fusco), bullies and needles him. The director, Santini (Mancino), is a buffoonish figure who wanders in occasionally with his dog. Silvia (Mohamed), one of the actresses, flirts with him vaguely, but that's disturbing too (Francesco warns him, “Be careful of that girl. There's poison in those tits of hers.”).
Plus there's the unpleasantness of the film-within-the-film, which requires sound effects for seemingly endless scenes of torture and mutilation. We never get to see any of this footage ourselves; instead, we witness the foley artists and Gilderoy doing their thing, massacring fruit and vegetables in sync with the lurid on-screen antics. Initially a somewhat comical spectacle, it gradually becomes disturbing. Gilderoy rips some cherry tomatoes off their stalks to imitate the sound of hair being torn out by the roots, and his face contorts with rage, a sign that this world of fictional violence into which he's been plunged is getting to him.
The first hour of Berberian Sound Studio is evocative stuff. The '70s exploitation flick milieu is recreated in convincing detail, with some nice touches to amuse the aficionado, such as the master tape being operated by a black leather-gloved hand, a la Dario Argento. The mediation of horror through cold technology has been done many times before, but in this instance the banks of retro gadgetry in Gilderoy's snug control room add extra allure – rows of plug-ins, dials and oscillators in battleship-grey units. And upon this period setting, writer-director Peter Strickland has overlaid an unsettling atmosphere of mystery and miscommunication.
But what happens next is much less satisfying. Reality collapses around Gilderoy, and the film collapses too. Overwhelmed by so much horrific imagery, it would seem that the troubled Brit has lost the ability to tell fantasy from actuality. But the director also dangles other possibilities which suggest that Gilderoy's delusions go deeper and predate his current predicament. Finally, all of the loose ends cancel each other out, and the result has about as much cohesion as a crushed watermelon. Still, it remains a provocative parable about the diabolical nature of cinema, one that seems to hint that making a movie can be a bit like selling your soul to the devil.
Extras: Interview with director Peter Strickland / The Making of Berberian Sound Studio / Deleted Scenes / Production Design Gallery / Extended Box Hill Documentary / Berberian Sound Studio Short / Trailer