For as much as horror movies rely on their visual component to scare us, their less-appreciated weapons are their use of sound and suggestion. Often, we can imagine something far more terrifying than what our eyes can see, the recesses of our brains able to conjure frights that play on our central nervous system in ineffable ways. This explains why the superb Berberian Sound Studio isn’t technically a horror movie but sure feels like one. Writer-director Peter Strickland shows no blood, but he wrecks havoc on your mind. Much like his main character, you can’t quite explain what’s got you so afraid—you just know that you are.
Set in 1976, the film stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, an English sound engineer who normally works on kids’ movies and documentaries. Recently landed in Italy because he needs a gig, Gilderoy has lowered himself to work on a giallo, a cheap, tawdry style of horror movie that’s known for its massive amounts of gore and its low percentage of intellectual stimulation. Gilderoy becomes involved on the post-production of The Equestrian Vortex, a movie that, quite cleverly, Strickland never lets us see. We get vague plot points—it has something to do with witches and murder—but mostly, we hear it: The rehearsed screams of actresses and the smashing of fruit to simulate mutilated bodies suggests a truly dreadful, kitschy film.
Or perhaps not. The longer the homesick Gilderoy hangs out at the titular recording studio, the lonelier he gets—he speaks almost no Italian—and the more The Equestrian Vortex’s mystical, spooky ambiance begins to seep into his system. It’s not that the film-within-a-film is actually better than he initially thought—it’s that its supreme wretchedness (mixed with its apparently gruesome, depraved content) is starting to affect him on an almost subliminal level.
Strickland’s first film was the little-seen Katalin Varga, a harsh, searing drama about a young rural woman who ventures into her past to confront the man who raped her years ago, getting her pregnant in the process. Beyond a stripped-down aesthetic, the other clear commonality Strickland’s two movies share is an excellent use of sound design to amplify the dread and uncertainty. Working with supervising sound editor Joakim Sundström and a score by Broadcast, Strickland turns Berberian Sound Studio into an aural tapestry, one in which we get as lost as Gilderoy. Occasionally, a scene involving an emotional connection between Gilderoy and another character will be highlighted by an especially evocative piece of music—only later do we realize that the music is, in fact, part of The Equestrian Vortex. In this and many other sly ways, Strickland both observes and mocks how movies cue us how to feel, and in the process he asks us to examine the cinematic manipulation that goes on all the time that we may not realize.
Jones, a character actor who’s been in everything from The Hunger Games to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, does his own version of peekaboo that complements Strickland’s understated, atmospheric approach. As Gilderoy, Jones remains closed-off, wearing a sad grimace of stoic professionalism that hints at deeper melancholy but reveals little of the character’s inner life. It’s a smart gambit because as Berberian Sound Studio moves along, the film grows more mysterious, making us question what we’re seeing and wonder if some of the later scenes exist only in Gilderoy’s mind. Beginning the film as our ambassador to this world of slimy producers (embodied by a nicely slippery Cosimo Fusco) and pompous, talentless directors (Antonio Mancino, a subtle ham), Gilderoy starts to shift, his reliability being called into doubt. (He says he flew to Italy from England just the other day, so why does the airline have no record of a flight? Are his Italian bosses lying? Or is he?)
Playing with reality and fantasy, the literal and the subconscious, Berberian Sound Studio will understandably be compared to the work of David Lynch. But even if it’s not as startlingly original as that director’s finest films, the movie does offer a quietly building sense of unease as we realize that something isn’t quite right about this recording studio. Maybe it’s the charlatans with whom Gilderoy has to work. Or maybe it’s something else, something inside this closed-off man that he’s never quite acknowledged before. Ultimately, Berberian Sound Studio may be yet another psychological character study about the ways in which life and art intersect. But when it’s this genuinely upsetting and confidently executed, who can resist one more trip through a house of mirrors?
Director: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou
Release Date: June 14, 2013