I suppose I could be Berberian Sound Studio’s ideal viewer. As a kid in the Seventies, I had a friend whose father was an art director at Pinewood Studios in southern England and I was a regular visitor to his home. We’d draw the curtains, turn off the lights, and play sound-effects records. Among the 40 or so recordings that the BBC released on Pye Records, there was one disc in particular that we listened to—or tried to listen to—over and over again: Vol. 13: Death & Horror. The opening cut? That old standard, “Execution and Torture,” including such perennial favorites as “Sawing Head Off,” “Red Hot Poker into Eye,” “Neck Twisted and Broken,” and “Burning at the Stake.” The purpose of the exercise was to freak ourselves out, and it worked a treat. I owe to those sessions the traumatic revelation of the power of sound to create mental images, even though the liner notes explained that the sinister sonics had been conjured in a studio by, for instance, a bloke setting about a cabbage with a hatchet.
I wonder if Peter Strickland, the writer-director of Berberian Sound Studio, had a similar aural epiphany in his youth. We’re introduced to the withdrawn, middle-aged sound engineer Gilderoy (played with eloquent reserve by Toby Jones) as he arrives in Italy to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, which he thinks might have something to do with horse riding but turns out to be a grisly horror movie. An innocent abroad in the visceral world of Seventies giallo filmmaking, Gilderoy’s a long way from the leafy Surrey home he shares with his mother and the garden shed studio where he normally creates sound effects for children’s TV programs and nature documentaries. But Gilderoy’s a pro, “a magician” according to Santini, the director who’s hired him specially, and he gets down to sorting out mics to capture the full-throated howls of terror the actresses strain to produce in the grueling dubbing sessions that make up the bulk of the film.
Strickland has fun with the cross-cultural comedy that sees Gilderoy finding his feet among the Italian crew. There’s Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the glowering producer who, when he’s not bawling out the actresses, is berating Gilderoy for his bad manners; the playboy Fabio (Salvatore Li Causi), always crashing the studio bearing chocolates and champagne; a taciturn engineer (Guido Adorni) constantly nibbling pumpkin seeds; and the elusive Santini himself (Antonio Mancino), a diabolical charmer and sex pest. At times, the Italian characters are drawn so broadly that a certain British comedy series from the Sixties and Seventies comes to mind: one wonders if Strickland might not have toyed with Carry On Screaming as an alternative title.
It’s left to the viewer to imagine the horrors that Gilderoy witnesses on screen as he labors on the sound mix for The Equestrian Vortex because we never see a single frame of it. But Berberian Sound Studio opens with a lovingly crafted credit sequence for the film, establishing an attention to detail that obtains throughout, especially in the camera’s fetishistic lingering over racks of analog audio equipment. And while the plot of Vortex does emerge—a group of teenage girls at a riding academy disturb the unquiet souls of nuns burnt as witches, who rise vengefully from the dead—it’s clear that this is merely an excuse for back-to-back scenes of torture and slaughter.
Berberian Sound Studio is Strickland’s second feature after his largely self-financed debut Katalin Varga, a surprise winner at Berlin in 2009. A former art student, versed in experimental film and music (he’s a member of a culinary-themed musique concrète outfit named the Sonic Catering Band), Strickland has declared that he owes his interest in giallo films to their soundtrack contributions by avant-garde musical luminaries such as Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio. And it’s the mixture of horror and experimental modes, as well as the formal panache with which they’re combined, that makes Berberian Sound Studio such an unusual British film, one that’s been warmly received by critics and won a number of prizes. But Berberian isn’t some worthy exercise in cultural contraband, smuggling in high culture under the guise of low. It’s funny, disturbing, and enjoyably puzzling, and its structure—a film (that we don’t see) within a film (in which we hear it)—allows Strickland to play an unsettling game with cinematic space.
Gilderoy senses that there’s something not quite right about the atmosphere in which he’s working. When a black-robed woman guides him into the studio sanctum for the first time like a sacrificial victim, Francesco greets him with the words “Don’t be afraid.” Intrigues simmer around him, and he can’t seem to get his airfare reimbursed. When he’s called on to take over foley duties from the lugubrious duo Massimo and Massimo, it all proves too much. He does a decent enough job at hacking away at vegetables as he stares aghast at a stabbing scene we can’t see, but when it comes to squirting water into a sizzling pan to simulate the sound of a woman being penetrated with a red-hot poker, he keeps missing his cue. “I can’t do this . . . stuff,” he tells an irate Francesco and threatens to quit. Santini browbeats him into staying by suavely explaining that his duty as a director is to depict the Inquisition truthfully in all its savagery, and asks: “Do you believe in God?” Gilderoy’s reply is priceless: “I’d rather not get technical.” But this mild-mannered chap is starting to go to pieces: sartorially, emotionally, and psychologically.
Strickland turns the formalism up to 11 to suggest Gilderoy’s unraveling, and the film’s narrative space becomes increasingly layered and looped, like a sound composition. It’s here that key filmic references are pressed into service. Strickland cites Juraj Herz’s pitch-black 1968 Czech New Wave comedy The Cremator as a major influence, particularly in its use of disorienting transitions where the sound remains unchanged across a cut or camera movement taking us from one scene to the next, suggesting a shifting and shuffling of layers as much psychic as sonic. Ultimately, Berberian Sound Studio gleefully eats its own tail, with Gilderoy consumed by the film-within-the-film. The depiction of his psychological collapse is a straight-up homage to Outer Space, the magnificent 1999 found-footage horror freak-out by Austrian experimentalist Peter Tscherkassky. But perhaps the nicest touch comes as a punch line to Gilderoy’s convulsive meltdown, which is literally rendered by frames of celluloid burning out in a projector: shots of the dappled hills of Surrey fill the screen in an extended pastoral sequence from one of his landscape films. That Strickland manages to make Berberian add up to something more than the sum of its densely interlaced references is a feat in itself.
We don’t watch horror or experimental films for finely drawn character studies but for their particular attention to what film theorists call “excess,” the stuff (color, music) that goes beyond the imperatives of most cinema, whether it’s the excess that takes monstrous or supernatural shape in horror, or the material, structural, and textural excess of experimental films. Here excess is manifested through the way sound overwhelms image, allowing Berberian Sound Studio to bring horror and experimental cinema together. But there’s also the additional pleasure of watching Toby Jones smuggle past Strickland’s formalism a nuanced and ultimately affecting character study of a weak man’s moral corruption. As he must, for if the film is ultimately shaped to Gilderoy’s psyche, then we need to be able to observe in person the fissures that signal the crack-up. “You English,” Santini says to Gilderoy, “always hiding.” The question we’re left to ponder is: did he ever really leave his garden shed?