The sound of violence
This horror film shows what you hear matters as much as what you see, writes Donald Clarke
ONE CAN EASILY imagine some silly fellow emerging from Peter Strickland’s obliquely miraculous second feature and announcing that the thing was “uncinematic”. After all, Berberian Sound Studio takes place almost entirely within three rooms. There aren’t any explosions. There is much discussion of witches, demons and violent eviscerations, but none of those phenomena makes an appearance on screen. Couldn’t this thing have worked as a radio play?
As it happens, the images are more intriguingly slippery than that précis suggests. But this meta-horror film argues that, in
cinema, sound design matters – or, rather, should matter – every bit as much as cinematography. With his wild Transylvanian revenge drama Katalin Varga, Strickland demonstrated that he already knows how to film the wide expanses. Now, he turns inwards with startling results.
Set in an impressively drab, faintly Kafkaesque version of the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio follows Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a quiet English sound engineer – close to his mother, fond of tweed – as he travels to Italy to work on an outrageous horror movie entitled The Equestrian Vortex. Every aspect of the task causes him stress.
Gesturing towards the great giallos of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, the film turns out to be a disturbing festival of madness, during which red-hot pokers are shoved where no poker should go. The protagonist’s attempts to secure expenses are rebuffed with flamboyant Italian insouciance. The director becomes inappropriately friendly with one of the female actors.
Gilderoy continues to ply his strange trade. In a rare tribute to the world of the Foley artist, the film observes the hero and his colleagues as they simulate dismemberments by hacking a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. In one gorgeously spooky moment, Gilderoy creates the noise of a descending space ship by rubbing a light bulb along a metallic surface.
His labours do not, however, distract him from the various pressures. Gradually, Gilderoy begins to lose grip on reality as he finds his life melting into the bizarre universe of The Equestrian Vortex.
The only clip we see of the horror film is a flashy title sequence featuring brash reds, bold geometric shapes and music that – despite matching the period – still sounds vaguely futuristic. Julian House, founder of the Ghost Box record company, designed the excerpt and the entire film shares that label’s interest in the class of post-war analogue boffin who created the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Ghost Box music and Berberian Sound Studio seek out those places where carpet-slipper cosiness and antic unease form unruly combinations. The slightest glimpse of any poster-paint giallo blood would immediately dismantle that carefully maintained aesthetic. Played with hooded vowels and closed hand movements by the impeccable Jones, Gilderoy can listen to – indeed create – the noise of tortured witches, but he would surely vanish into nothing if shown beside such a beast. He moves through the world of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and the ghost stories of MR James (many of which involve middle-aged men visiting unfamiliar locations). Less exotic terrors dominate their landscapes.
Mind you, the film is a great deal stranger that even those singular entertainments. Strickland is not sure Berberian Sound Studio can accurately be described as a horror movie. It, perhaps, requires the same sort of stretch – that’s to say a modest one – to place the film in that genre as it would to manoeuvre David Lynch’s Eraserhead into similar territory. For all the creative fustiness on display, the director proves himself at home to entry-level postmodernism as he incorporates bucolic newsreel into the picture’s later, increasingly troubled final act. As in the best horror films, those closing scenes work hard to tug away the audience’s few remaining comfort blankets. As in Lynch’s finest work, the denouement allows many explanations, but gives the firm impression that no one solution will answer the many questions posed.
For all the ghosts summoned up, Berberian Sound Studio still comes across like nothing else you’ve ever seen – or, more to the point, heard.
Cabbage carnage: Berberian Sound Studio