Berberian Sound Studio is the second film from writer / director Peter Strickland, following on from 2009’s critically acclaimed Katalin Varga. Set in the 1970s, it centres on Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an unworldly, middle aged sound engineer who travels from his home in Dorking to the titular sound studio somewhere in Rome. Gilderoy has been employed to mix the audio for Equestrian Vortex, a horror movie with satanic overtones. This fictional movie is clearly based around the output of the likes of Dario Argento, and at the beginning, we see a brilliantly realised version of the opening credits of Equestrian Vortex, a montage of medieval images of hell.
Cleverly, this is all we see of that movie. But we hear a lot of it, as Gilderoy records the actors reciting their lines to be overdubbed, and records their many, many screams. We see him stabbing at cabbages in time to the images he can see on screen and grabbing at vegetables to simulate the sound of witches’ hair being pulled.
From the outset of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is uncomfortable. He is unused to working on this sort of film “ he’s more at home with nature documentaries about the South Downs and is uneasy with his involvement with the exploitation flick he’s working on and the scenes of torture. He doesn’t speak Italian and he has difficult relationships with Francesco, the film’s producer and the charismatic director Santini. There are further nagging questions “ just why have they hired him? What are the arguments they keep having in Italian that he can’t follow? And all the time, the actress’s screams echo through the grimy corridors of the studio, permeating everything, getting into his head.
Berberian Sound Studio’s build-up of a heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere and the posing of these little nagging questions is brilliantly managed. The movie is set almost exclusively in the studio, where natural light never enters, and in Gilderoy’s hotel room where he goes to sleep. The ninety minutes pass without a moment of sunlight and barely an exterior shot. Another thing that really comes across superbly is the director’s fascination with the process of film-making. It’s a real glimpse of pre-digital studio life, with the camera lingering on the effects desk, various monitors and dials and magnetic tape. Toby Jones is fantastic as Gilderoy, managing to make an essentially colourless character someone who we want to spend an hour and a half with and whose fate is of genuine concern, especially as the claustrophobia and the aural barrage leads to cracks in his mental state. The film drifts into a Lynchian nightmare as the barriers between reality, dream and film start to break down.
Unfortunately, having set up an interesting situation and a genuinely unnerving atmosphere, Berberian Sound Studio seems to struggle to find a satisfying conclusion. While in a movie like this, it’s difficult to find a balance between tying up mysteries too neatly and leaving things too inconclusive and having audiences walking away scratching their heads as to what they have just witnessed. For me, Berberian Sound Studio fails to find this balance and is let down by its denouement. However, the vast majority of this startling film is like a brilliant bad dream.