Something is rotten in the Berberian Sound Studio and maybe, just maybe, it’s you. Not since Ruby Sparks has a film made me seriously consider whether or not my artistic taste had more than a hint of misogyny to it. You see, I like horror – a lot – and my enjoyment of it is unique insomuch as the cruder it gets, the more I tend to enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, I love smart and supremely crafted horror as well – which Berberian Sound Studio just happens to be – but I also like to see things slashed, impaled, and cut to buggery.
And the Berberian Sound Studio is where the sound recordings of all those vicious acts are created. Italy 1976, and the studio is guts deep in the giallo era of Italian cinema; cheap, sleazy exploitation films pioneered by the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. The films of this particular subgenre of horror – often dubbed ‘video nasties’ and banned in the UK – were famous for their lurid subject matter, for running excessive with the red stuff, and for their unsettlingly discordant but evocative soundtracks. The film currently being made at this particular studio? A Santini picture, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex) about catholic women being interrogated and brutalised after being suspected of witchcraft. Typical of giallo flicks, it’s fit to bursting with women being slashed, impaled and cut to buggery.
Enter Gilderoy, a quiet, reserved sound engineer from England, played to absolute perfection by Toby Jones. It’s Gilderoy’s job to engineer the splats, the rips and the tears, and to mix the screams and moans into horrific psychotropic frenzies. He’s not done this sort of thing before and before the film ends, he – and we – are forced to ask ourselves, what is it about the suffering that appeals to us? Why were there over two decades of these films? Many things are cut up and torn apart in the making of Il Vortice Equestre; cabbages, cherries, watermelons etc. and they’re all supposed to be women.
The wisest move director Peter Strickland makes is not to show any footage of the film within the film, save for the title credits; a jarring mashup of red, split open faces, red, screaming eyes, skulls and gothic architecture, and red. What denying us the actual film footage itself does is force us to use our imagination. When we see Gilderoy’s face distort in aggression when cutting up a cabbage with the ferocity required to match up with the action onscreen – which only he can see, not us – all we can ask ourself is “what’s being done to her?” The sounds are sickening, the aggression to which Gilderoy resorts sickens him, and I really have to ask myself: why do I like this stuff again? By enjoying these crude flicks am I in some way complicit with all this butchery? It’s a fascinating question.
The director, Santini, dismiss the idea that his films are exploitative. Beneath a baby smile, he purrs, they are not horror films. They are “Santini films”, brutal depictions of the human condition. “I hate what they did to these beautiful women. Really, I hate it. But it is my duty to show.” Well, Strickland cries bullshit on that particular excuse for excessive gore by depicting none of Il Vortice Equestre, demonstrating that one doesn’t need to actually show the slashings, impaling and cutting to buggery in order to depict the cruelty of such deeds. So, again, if they’re gratuitous, why exactly do we feel we need them? Why do we feel that a horror film wouldn’t be complete without them?
The violence and misogyny of Il Vortice Equestre is tucked away into little boxes of sounds effect cues on technical spreadsheets, cues like ‘Hair yanking(Hard)’, ‘Monica falls’, ‘Monica hits the ground’. In the studio, another melon splats to the ground. There is something unsettling and devilish in the professionalisation of the horror. Every man of the crew is simply showing up to work, co-operating, doing a job, and engineering cruelty towards women. Actresses are locked in a sound booth and told to scream behind glass. The lead actress, Silvia is abused physically and mentally by the all-male crew. After all, her pain is what makes her screams the best.
As Strickland bombards us with revolting images of the rot under the skin of the fruit and vegetable props, so too we come to see the corruption and violence boiling beneath skin of the men. The producer, Francesco stalks Gilderoy and the more vulnerable actresses like a tyrant, the crew appear almost zombified, totally unmoved by the horror around them, and the vampiric director Santini, slowly poisons everyone around him. The Italian men are simply – perhaps a little too simply – predators. It can hardly be an accident that the studio is a mere pair of letters away from being called the Barbarian Sound Studio.
Amidst all the Mediterranean passion, Gilderoy quickly fades into the background, his politeness a weakness too readily exploited by his coworkers. In fact, the only time that Gilderoy is able to hold his co-worker’s interest is when, during a power cut, he creates the sound effect of a spaceship for them in the darkness, using only a lightbulb and a rack of metal. It’s a soft moment of sweet near-music, a gentle glimpse into Gilderoy’s past life and work; a charming, spellbindingly simple, and typically British piece sci-fi trickery, straight out of Doctor Who. Then the power returns and everyone gets back to their gruesome work.
More used to working on charming documentaries in his garden shed, all this grotesquery naturally unsettles Gilderoy, but his squeamishness when faced with all the bloodletting is seen as English weakness. “You English. Always hiding” purrs the director. They correct his etiquette, tell him the only way to get things done is to become aggressive like them. Santini places a piece of fruit in his mouth to bring out his hedonistic side, saying “ah-ah. Where I come from, we swallow the seeds.” It’s an insidious form of assault disguised as improvement and, not unlike the calm manipulation of vegetables and actresses by the suited men, it’s savagery masquerading as a professional code of practice.
This has turned into more of an essay than a review, but that’s only because there’s so much to say about the film themes that I almost forgot about the technicalities. It’s simply one of the most effective chillers I’ve seen in years, seamlessly held together by a cocktail of rock-solid performances and hypnotic – almost hallucinogenic – direction. This is only Strickland’s second feature, but he is so assured of his craft, so subtly capable in nudging and twisting mundane imagery into something with a much deeper sense of menace, that he seems bound to be one of the most interesting directors of his generation.
In a film about sound engineers, it’s hardly a surprise that Berberian Sound Studio‘s own sound design is faultless. Very little, if any, non-diegetic music can be heard at any point. Instead, the slow distortion of the sound effects themselves substitutes for progression between chapters, discordant howls stitching scenes together in a slow procession, creating a numb sense of time passing at a disorientating, creeping pace. Everything starts to blend in on itself. We see nothing of the outside world, nor natural light. Gilderoy lives on the premises and is our sole vantage point, so, like him, we spend the entire film locked away, deep in the claustrophobic studio. It’s like solitary confinement. Time is passing, that we know, but days? Weeks? Months? And meanwhile, between chapters, screams are blending together, and the red light of the studio flashes at us angrily, oppressively, for SILENZIO.
It’s masterful storytelling, managing to be compelling despite the slightness of the plot, deliberate without ever boring its audience, and horrifying without gratuitously indulging in the very excesses of the genre that the film attacks without mercy. Which makes it a shame that Berberian Sound Studio just doesn’t quite nail the landing.
In the third act the film descends, as these things so often do, into madness and the walls of reality come crashing down around Gilderoy’s ears. Dreams bleed into reality, frantic editing chops his peaceful world apart with horror-style zooms, film burns and spikes of audio. The film seems to envelop Gilderoy whole. His dialogue becomes inexplicably dubbed over in italian, and he starts to see snippets of his own life up there on the screen.
As the ending to a character piece I suppose this is a satisfying enough arc, Gilderoy slipping from naïve, via aggression, into almost zombified insanity, but from a narrative standpoint, well, it’s just too easy. What about Gilderoy’s apparently non-existent flights? What about his mother back home? Is Gilderoy actually in Hell? Rather than attempting to tie up these various narrative strands, Strickland simply jumbles them up into an incoherent mess of editing and imagery and heads for the exit. It’s a beautiful mess no doubt, but an ultimately frustrating one, leaving the audience in awe – haunted even – but still numb with confusion. But maybe becoming numb is the only way survive in the Berberian Sound Studio. You don’t have to be mad to work there, but it helps.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.