Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2013) utilizes the artistry — notably that of Italian horror greats like Dario Argento and Mario Bava — associated with the genre but uses them to tell a story not usually found in the brand of terror. Whereas the category usually preferred to enliven plots that found black-gloved knife-wielders chasing after impossibly beautiful young women, the movie instead hovers over a mild-mannered middle-aged man in a crisis and contemplates if he’ll lose his mind by the end of the feature.
As evidenced by the film succeeding Berberian Sound Studio, 2015’s intoxicating The Duke of Burgundy, which riffed on sexploitation overseas, Strickland is a man besotted with the low-budget, accidental subgenres of ‘70s Europe. But he’s a true artist in the sense that he makes movies part of their worlds but doesn’t try to only pay tribute to them. He recreates clichés. Berberian Sound Studio, more or less his debut despite making his first feature film in 2006, announces the kind of filmmaker Strickland is: the artist who’s a cinephile first but can nonetheless piece together original visions from treaded over territories.
In Berberian Sound Studio, we're concerned with Gilderoy (a first-rate Toby Jones), a cripplingly shy sound engineer in Italy to lend his hand to the sound design of “The Equestrian Vortex," a violent giallo film. Not one to push himself out of his comfort zone — he’s a man without much ambition, still living with his mother — he signed up for the project thinking it would be an innocent movie revolving around horses. By the time he’s able to process his mistake, though, he’s in too deep, already struggling to get reimbursed for his costly plane ticket.
Production turns out to be hellacious. His co-editor is aggressive, his voice actresses are consistently disrespected by the film’s director, and everyone scolds him whenever he hesitates when approached by a morally questionable situation. As the editing process progresses, the terrifying, misogynistic imagery of the film in front of him (which we never see, aside from an innovative title sequence) starts to toy with his psyche, too. Before long does it become more and more difficult to distinguish his life from the lives lived by the characters in the film he’s editing.
Smartly, Berberian Sound Studio never erupts into the violent climax we’d expect. Strickland conjures heightened feelings of dread throughout the picture but only releases tension through little bursts that only perpetuate the various ambiguities of the film. Because relief never comes to a head, we’re pressed to wonder if maybe it’s even a study of the nature of fear itself. By putting emphasis on the ghastlier elements of the material, Strickland causes alarm in lieu of that terror not always being so easy to pinpoint. It’s a horror film remarkably non-horrific. It’s just the muted imagery, the long stretches of silence, and the horror movie setting that disturbs us so efficiently.
For some, Berberian Sound Studio will work magnificently, messing with their heads and tap dancing on their nerves. But for most, the film might seem too ponderous, too inconclusive, to provoke. It might even appear tedious. But really try to embody Gilderoy — too weak to speak his mind, too far into a terrible situation to escape — and you’ll be overwhelmed by the nightmarishness that surrounds. B+
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Berberian Sound Studio August 5, 2017
o much of what makes Italian horror interesting is its dedication to atmosphere. Particularly in the case of giallo, the increasingly popular brand of stylish stalk-and-slash movies most prolific during the 1970s, slasher tropes were hardly as important as idiosyncratic editing, eccentric scoring, and simultaneously carnal and gory images. Ambience, one enhanced by kaleidoscopic colors, serpentine women, psychedelic fashions, and dripping red paint, dawdles longer in the memory than an especially intense kill-off.