The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.
Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naÃ¯ve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.
Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.
The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.
Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.
Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.
The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.
Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.
Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.
Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.