Berberian Sound Studio Blu-ray Review
Well, I think that Strickland and his DOP Nik Knowland have been quite clever here. The film is set in 1976 and is supposedly entwined, at least spiritually, with the giallo genre, so the claustrophobic, shadowy, enclosed look of the film is devoutly dyed in the wan yellows and browns that we often associate with the era (though possibly the British vogue of Get Carter and The Sweeney more than the garish, flamboyance of Argento at his demonic peak), and that also reflect the “yellow” that signifies the jackets of the original gialli pulp novels. The image feels warm and old and dusty. The studio is dry, and Gilderoy’s little living quarters even more so. Although not exactly arid, the impression of a parched environment is nicely observed by a print that actually does feel somewhat dated and jaded.
This is all down to a considered and deliberate aesthetic and not a reflection of the quality of the print – which I will say is excellent.
Like many Italian shockers of the period in which the film is set, there are plenty of vast close-ups of eyes, and these shots are astonishingly crisp and clear. Suddenly, those gorgeously classy Euro-babes with their warm and dreamy, come-to-bed eyes reveal intense ocular details that you would really prefer not to see, like blood-vessels and smudgy clumps of liner, and there is a little bit of tongue discolouration on show, as well, during those crazy screaming sessions. Close-ups of hands and fingers, such as when Gilderoy is working his aural magic with his buttons and switches and oscillators, or allowing a spindly spider to travel across his skin, are vivid enough to see pores and fingerprints. The texture of the victimised fruit and veg is just as keenly reproduced. The machinery and recording equipment are also showboated via extreme close-up photography, as are the cue-sheets and sound-design maps and notes that become all the more sinister as the film goes on. The encode copes admirably with all of this, keeping even the smallest and narrowest detail sharply defined. The texture of the paper is very clearly distinguishable too.
Contrast levels are consistent but, as I’ve said, this is an image that is a little bit drier than usual. Blacks are certainly satisfying, though never Stygian deep or impenetrable. Again, this seems to reflect the warmer, more stifling atmosphere of the studio, so is probably all very deliberate. One great shot has a hidden figure suddenly revealing itself from the shadows in Gilderoy’s room. It has been there all the time, but the effect is still quite impressive despite the blacks being less than stellar. Skin-tones are very natural. The colour palette is hardly all that testing – browns and yellows permeate all – but the gaudy reds of the faux title sequence with its striking imagery erupting against a black background, and the hues of the murdered watermelons and radishes definitely stand out.
I had no problems with any artificial sharpening, and there is no aliasing or bothersome banding going on. The 1.85:1 AVC image is also free from DNR.
8 out of 10.
Artifical Eye provides us with two choices here – a LPCM stereo track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Now, considering that the theme of the film is the importance and vitality of sound and the elaborate effect and power that such carefully created audio-mixes have upon the medium and the audience, you would expect that a fiendishly clever sound-design had been incorporated. Therefore, it makes more sense to go with the full-blown surround mix as that has vastly more potential to unhinge and to unnerve. However, whilst this is certainly a very fine track, it does not set out to completely exploit the set-up and is not, therefore, rife with surround effects and creepy elements of subtle immersion. This said, I would definitely stick with the 5.1 … as it possesses more vigour, clarity and raw immediacy, and is frequently scintillatingly detailed.
Solid, deep bass anchors the horror effects that Gilderoy and the goons fabricate, and also the enhance the bizarre night-time visitation that he receives. The meaty chopping of the watermelons and the other assorted produce is amazingly potent and full of bone-juddering depth and acutely realised violence. The crazy soundtrack runs the gamut of the weird and the wonderful, and the mix copes convincingly with it all.
I found the clarity to be excellent throughout. The dialogue is realistic and natural-sounding, with barking Italian vigour or softly sinister intonations from the inveigling, manipulative Santini, and some quite profoundly memorable yabbering and chittering and growling from the warped out witch and the “aroused goblin”. There is great presence afforded to the vocalisations, although don’t forget that the exchanges are usually subdued and quite intimate, with Toby Jones, especially, given to a meek and simperingly defensive approach.
Dislocated voices – for the scene-setting voiceovers of the studio manager (who looks a lot like Martin Balsam) and those moments when the dubbing girls deliver bizarre and frequently absurd snippets of character dialogue – issue effectively from a wide and spacious frontal soundstage. Voices can and do move across the front. Screams pierce the environment like a serrated knife. There is bravura impact gained from the depiction of one the fictional film’s murder sequences, which necessitates the sound of shattering glass and the hurling of a watermelon to the floor to ensure that even if do not see the deed, we will sure as hell hear and feel the horror of a girl being flung out of a high window, and landing headfirst on the ground far below. Also listen for the sizzling of oil in a pan for another totally realistic sound effect being performed, and the splashing about in a tank of water to depict some ghastly drowning. Excellent clarity and positioning means that these effects, and a great many others, sound exactly as though they are being performed in the room with you. Gilderoy earns some appreciation for his ability to make an ethereal high-pitched whining “UFO” noise via light-bulb and metal frame – and it is, indeed, cosmically eerie in this splendid mix.
The brushed drums, shivering cymbals and medieval organ sound of the title music for The Equestrian Vortex are precisely the sort of things that would have been heard in Italian horror movies of the era before the likes of Fabio Frizzi and his synthesised brethren took over in the 80’s. This title track comes over really well, with passion and all the energy of free-jazz verve.
Surround use is not as developed as I hoped it would be, given the subject matter. I had expected murmurings and shufflings, movements and spooky utterings to emanate from over my shoulder, but although the rear speakers are active a lot of the time, there is little they present that draws specific attention to itself. I’m not saying that Berberian actually needs more of this sort of immersive material, just that the enclosed space of the studio, with all of its microphones and equipment, and the weird things that take place there, would have seemingly lent itself to lots of little noises to keep you unbalanced and permanently on-edge.
But, make no mistake, this is a superb track that is highly charged and incredibly detailed.
A strong 8 out of 10.
Artificial Eye manage to come up with quite a selection of bonus material here.
We have a half-hour Interview with Peter Strickland. The director meanders through a comprehensive chronicle of how the film came to be, his explorations of its sound design and his reactions to suddenly finding himself inside a proper studio and with a proper crew around him. However, Strickland comes across as very tired, quite unsettled and fending-off questions from an unseen interrogator whose queries are aggravatingly only shown to us as text on the screen. I must admit that I hate this style of interview. It seems stuttery, impersonal and jarring. In this case, it doesn’t help that Strickland’s manner, as we see it presented here, is apt to put you to sleep. This is an interesting, perplexing and debate-worthy film, but he skims over the actual themes and narrative twists and turns in favour of the more technical aspects.
Strickland also serves up a Commentary Track though this inevitably covers a lot of similar material, although we do get to hear some necessary anecdotes and a little bit of trivia regarding the equipment used and, especially, the creation of the sound design, and the references that influenced the project. If you are after the deeper contexts of the story, then you might be left wanting.
The Making of Berberian Sound Studio runs for 45 minutes and involves a fair few of the filmmaking team, including the great Toby Jones, whose hair looks quite amusingly mad here. However, a good deal of the things we learned from Strickland are repeated here, even by Strickland, himself. And then, a bit later on, when we move from talking heads to actual footage of the film being shot, the feature then regurgitates chunks of material that we have already heard, albeit glossed over different visuals.
There is a selection of Deleted Scenes that come with an optional commentary detailing what they were about and why they were removed. These tend to add more friction between those trapped in the confines of the studio, and the recording sessions, themselves, but add little to the story.
The original short film, also called Berberian Sound Studio, is trotted-out. More of a concept than a story, you can see the basis for the full feature and see how much it travelled into genre territory from this interestingly odd experiment.
Box Hill Extended Documentary. This is the mock feature Gilderoy had worked on previously to The Equestrian Vortex that we have seen fragments of during the film. For some reason, I am reminded of the Sheffield Tourism Board footage that fronts The Full Monty.
All sorts of techie imagery can appraised in a Production Design Gallery and, finally, we have Berberian’s Theatrical Trailer.
To be honest, this is the sort of extensive roster of detailed and frank making-of material that I wish all releases could boast. It is comprehensive and honest about the production and the trials and tribulations of getting low budget films made. But, the problem with this selection is its tired-sounding and laidback approach, its repetition and its lack of strong narrative exploration.
I had been hugely looking forward to Peter Strickland’s Spaghetti-Horror riff, Berberian Sound Studio, and my initial viewing delivered two thirds shock and supreme dread, and one third pseudo-intellectual wannabe head-scrambling that felt like a complete letdown. However, subsequent viewings distil yet more madness and fiendish psycho-bedevilment with fearless aplomb. It is hard to say to people that “no, you can get around the disappointing denouement by simply watching the film again with an altered mindset” when the story, itself, has been leading you in a rather distinct direction. This isn’t an M. Night Sham-a-lan trick, though. It is a Pandora’s Box of dark delights and audio psychotics and it does manage to work on several different and intriguing levels. Or wavelengths, if you will.
Is it arty-farty? Yes, but it is not as pretentious as some people have sniped.
Is it scary? Yes, but in weird and insidious ways that linger, unresolved, in the mind.
Does it make any sense? Yes. And, inevitably, no. But this where it wins its bonus points and, quite naturally, this enigmatic and elusive trait is also it’s most alluring and contentious talking-point. It asks you to think about the effect of sound and vision, and the entrapment of the arts. It compels you to question the necessity and impact of violence, as well as the blighting addiction to perfection and the assailing, all-consuming power of obsession. It also asks why such things remain so important to the sphere of imaginative creation.
On a suitably packed disc, with a terrific all-round AV presentation, Berberian Sound Studio makes for a deliciously dark and unusual experience. Some may find its abstractions and slow, steady pace off-putting, but this is an inspired piece of filmmaking that, even if it falters at the last fence, is sure to cast an unshakable spell over the eyes, the ears ... and the mind.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.