Peter Strickland's independent psychological thriller Berberian Sound Studio was a darling of the critics and a hit with audiences at the London Fright Fest, even winning with the amazing triumvirate of Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor. Produced with funding and support from WarpX, Screen Yorkshire and the UK Film Council, this low-budget, high-ambition project began life as a short film of the same name, but has now grown to feature-length and, both written and directed by Strickland, has pushed its own experimental envelope into deeper and more provocative territory
Timid middle-aged English movie sound-engineer Gilderoy (the great and incredibly versatile Toby Jones) has been summoned to a little Italian studio to supply the effects and the audio mix for a new horror film, enigmatically called The Equestrian Vortex. He clutches his little white mug, affectionately reminding him of his hometown of Dorking and the rural documentaries he made there that he still feels so attached to, and takes his time to read the fondly detailed letters from his loving mother, whilst trying to bridge the language barrier, recoup his travel costs, and decrypt the cataclysmic movie that he has been assigned to give voice to. It should be a walk in the park for someone with his uniquely inventive precision, but Gilderoy soon discovers that he is out of his depth, and that his moral threshold is about to be pushed, battered and bludgeoned by images, moods, sensations and an inescapably dark situation spiralling out from the movie and into his own sense of reality.
He has to work with a bizarre bunch of Euro dictators. Two odd sound assistants, both mysteriously called Massimo, scurry about the studio like a pair of wordless Igors in Frankenstein’s laboratory. Interestingly, one resembles a typical heavy or assassin in an Italian seventies cop thriller, and the other looks like the author Salman Rushdie! The aging studio manager, describing each new scene set-up with a deadpan growl, has a distinct disdain for the newcomer. The producer Francesco, in a simply outstanding performance from Cosimo Fusco, is an unsettling obstacle and constant fly-in-the-ointment for the talented but spineless Gilderoy. With a superbly angular and vulpine face that is reminiscent of Patrick Wyngarde (Jason King), he comes across as a suavely sinister and Machiavellian henchman to Antonio Mancino’s comically egotistical director and self-proclaimed visionary, Santini. If Francesco is the Wyngardian hook-nosed underling, then Santini is like James Franco’s slightly older and more arrogant brother. Acutely protective of his artistic and revelatory historical film (to spit in his ambitious eye, it’s actually just an exploitation flick about tortured and executed witches fulfilling their bloodthirsty revenge upon a new generation from beyond the grave), his initial adulation for Gilderoy, whose intuitive skills really are untested in this arena, is odd, intense and clearly misplaced. As broached by the sympathetic Fatma Mohamed’s haunting vocal actress Silvia, herself as much a victim of Santini’s manipulative designs as the celluloid victims she lends her tonsils to, you have to wonder exactly why Gilderoy is the man chosen for the job. Why is Santini so insistent that this little aural wizard remain on the film despite his obvious discomfort with it and the attitudes of his collaborators? If he is so valuable and respected, why is he being treated so badly? How does a man so revered by his employer become so threatened by him?
“Tonight, I will destroy what is most precious to him … and bring the bastard to his knees.”
Whilst Strickland’s first feature film, 2009’s absorbing tale of cursed Carpathian vengeance Katalin Varga, was set entirely outdoors and on location, Berberian Sound Studio, only his second feature, remains entirely within the confines of the titular rat-trap. Even Gilderoy’s living quarters are just a room attached to the studio, the gnome-like soundman caught up in a web that he cannot extricate himself from. If the visible world has shrunken into a shadowy, jaundiced cocoon that settles around us like a fuzzy, funereal fugue, then the audible one is widened-out and stretched much further with the sensational use of the manufactured soundscape. Gilderoy is a waif. A metaphorical child lost and abandoned in a fairytale forest of witches and demons. The boundaries of what is real and what is art are blurred almost immediately, but as more and more depravities are perpetrated on the projection screen, so does Gilderoy feel more and more complicit in them, shedding more scraps of his humanity in the process. As resentful of what he is giving life to, he is also drawn deeper into the illusionary realm of the relentlessly nasty film that Santini feels he had a duty to make. Dreams and reality intermingle, and Gilderoy’s personality mutates. Does he believe he is a hero trying to save the voiceover girls from their onscreen characters’ fates? Or does it all become a quest to unearth his own hidden fears?
I got from this a similarly pervasive mood of engulfing diabolism that I get from Suspiria. Just like Jessica Harper’s Snow White-like American dance student does, Gilderoy arrives as a stranger in a very strange land, and is immediately assailed by customs and attitudes that he is not accustomed to. He is an outsider whose very difference to the world he finds himself in demands that he become the unwitting and reluctant catalyst and, in actual fact, instigator of a cultural revolution. And, of course, most devotees of giallo will recognise the device of having a foreigner – almost always an Englishman (David Hemmings in Deep Red, say) or an American (Tony Franciosa in Tenebrae, Michael Brandon in Four Flies on Grey Velvet)– as being a staple conduit for audience empathy. And a neat way to nail the international market too!
Much has been intimated about Strickland making his own reflective treatise of the misogynist bloodbaths that spilled forth from Italy during the seventies. The black gloves on the mystery projectionist behind the scenes are the most obvious reference to the giallo films that prevailed throughout that decade, and the one before it too, but the film that Gilderoy is working on is not, strictly speaking, a stalk ‘n’ slash, whodunit giallo picture, anyway. It is a juiced-up variation upon Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil but completely possessed by the evil of Suspiria – and, man, does it ever sound like a film you want to see! We have female students at an equestrian academy stumbling around the warren beneath it, most notably the queer-sounding “poultry tunnel”, wherein they uncover and disturb the putrid remains of executed witches, who return to pick the film’s cast off in gruesome fashion. Latin incantations and the occult are hugely rendered, and the sense of medieval sorcery is highly prevalent. It is, then, definitely a spin of Suspiria’s fairytale damsels incurring the wrath of a demonic coven lurking in the dark heart of a German dance academy. Yet, Berberian, itself, rarely panders to the formula of the sexy, thrilling giallo that we all know and love. With no killings and no stalking maniac this side of the projection screen, the film is an elemental tease of shivering tension, darkly ironic humour and pathological homage to a style and a mood that became so cult-cherished.
None of the Italian crew is likeable. They are all superficially polite to the Brit bachelor but swiftly turn into complete ogres who bully, intimidate and harass Gilderoy with almost incessant demands. But even if their unhealthy attitude and the claustrophobic atmosphere of pressure and dread gradually wear him down, continuous and unforgiving exposure to the hideous film that they have made, threatens to drive him insane. And yet, despite all this animosity, the situation occasionally seems on the verge of reversing itself, with roles and ideals both assimilated and swapped. Therefore, the impressions we have of the beleaguered soundman are that of identity disintegration and, conceivably, rebirth.
There is a lot more to this scanty tale than first meets the eye, then. As well as the ears. And much of it will be familiarly nostalgic.
Imagery of a witch-like stalker emanating from out the shadows and wielding a huge butcher-knife evokes the grim vision of a reanimated corpse in Suspiria. The fact that Gilderoy is forced, by duty, to watch the onscreen ferocity over and over again, for take after take, hour by hour, is from the same ilk as Argento’s victims compelled to witness vile murders in Opera by having pins keep their eyes open. This voyeuristic dilemma is actually better evoked here than in Argento’s bloody shocker because it is not heightened by circumstance and setting. Gilderoy is, to all intents and purposes, simply occupying a sound studio and watching artificially-created images flicker about on a screen. But the message, whether Strickland is actually opting to go down this path deliberately or not, is that we can all become desensitised to the depiction of violence simply by repetition and excess. Though, for some, the experience will be corrosive.
“Please … this is not a Horror film. It is a Santini film.”
Although Strickland is very keen to insist that he hasn’t made a “horror” film – riffing upon Santini’s own inflated stance that he has made a “Santini film” and not just another slasher picture – his influences are very profoundly and dementedly culled from the extremist and artsy end of that very genre. His fascination for the Italian corner of such dizzy, gore-drenched exploitation revolves around the unique, exotic and violently avant-garde soundscapes that composers like Stelvio Cipriani, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai, Walter Rizzati, Goblin and even Ennio Morricone created for all those bloody-bladed sagas of jealousy, vengeance and homicidal insanity. Modulated and oscillated screams, grunts and chanting and the whole wicked expansion of the experimental vogue for musique concrete dominate this incisively disturbing scenario. Clearly Argento is held up as a bloody beacon of over-the-top stylistic originality and verve, and Strickland is heading determinedly in his direction – even the film’s poster art is a take on Argento’s own for Four Flies on Grey Velvet - but there are also many touches that have been lovingly assimilated from The Wicker Man, The Ninth Gate, Blow-Out and The Shining, all wrapped up within the warped, head-scratching cocoon of exuberant and elliptical Lynchian surrealism. And, on top of this, you’ve got an appreciative mood of intensely psychological paranoia that is highly reminiscent of the writing of esteemed British horror author (and neighbour of mine) Ramsey Campbell. Interestingly, one of my favourite of Campbell’s stories, called Ancient Images, involves the evil influence surrounding a mysterious, and fictional, “lost” film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. This meshing of the hidden “life” of cinema and of human madness permeates Berberian also. Gilderoy’s strange odyssey, then, combines a hell of a lot of grist for the genre-buff’s mill, although I can still see what Strickland means when he says that he is merely occupying the same space as the more conventional Horror Film. The world closes-in on the sound designer (or the editor, for that matter) of a motion picture, and days and weeks spent poring-over scenes, shots and individual frames with moral-sapping intimacy can, theoretically, reduce the artist, for that is what they are – and Berberian admirably strives to endorse this – to horrific, ego-twisted trolls of their former selves. The “horror” of Gilderoy’s situation can be taken on many levels, then. Is he trapped within the confines of a truly satanic labyrinth, perhaps a sacrifice to some celluloid demon, or is he simply going mad? Well, what I will say is that it will take a couple of viewings to make up your mind. And, even then, there will inevitably be an impression left, like some ghastly ectoplasmic residue, that some vital secrets have been held back … prompting you to take yet another trip into the cerebral wormhole of the Berberian Sound Studio, only to uncover more wild detours and possible conclusions than you might have thought conceivable.
“Francesco tells me you are trying to escape?”
The notion of the innocent being corrupted and somehow transformed by the imagery they are pummelled with also develops a vein of vile media-absorption that reminds me of Cronenberg’s awesome Videodrome cross-pollinated with the saturation-flooding of A Clockwork Orange. So there is no mistaking the fact that Berberian has been sired from an incredibly potent genre pedigree, becoming, thus, a monstrous mongrel of maniacal proportions that lopes off down some perverse paths that have possibly been more thoroughly investigated before.
As with most bonafide Italian thrillers, the women are exquisite. Elena, the uber-bitch secretary who saunters arrogantly along the corridor outside the studio is played by Tonia Sotiropoulou, the girl we briefly see helping James Bond to enjoy his “death” in Skyfall. Her sexy contempt for Gilderoy and, very probably, everyone else in the studio, adds a repetitious edge of confidence-draining bureaucracy, further isolating our nerdy, needy misfit. Mohamed is a luminous and semi-tragic delight. In some ways, she becomes something of an alter-ego for Gilderoy – for she, at least, is able to stand up for herself and to affect retribution, of a sort. And Chiara D’Anna portrays another vocal pawn in Santini’s powerplay, who doesn’t quite come up to the appropriate decibel-devouring standards until Gilderoy has his own hand forced in order to give her some malevolent motivation. However, I do think that she would have removed her ear-phones a helluva lot earlier than we see her doing here!
Strickland and his DOP, Nic Knowland, get some mean coverage out of their meagre, insulated set. The crew had contemplated finding a small sound studio in Italy, which would have been ideal but, in the end, settled upon one in London. Not that it matters. Populated by a predominantly Italian cast, and limited to basically four walls and a floor-to-ceiling bank of meters, oscillators, gauges, cables and circuits, you will have no problem believing that Gilderoy has stepped from one world and into another. Alarming close-ups, including some striking shots of an intensely wild eyeball, gaping-jawed scream-dubbers and miasmic, pulverised watermelons (standing-in for sliced flesh), compound our involvement. One extremely impressive shot hauls back and back and back from a screaming girl in the sound-booth, until she becomes a transfixed moment-in-time that recedes into the deep, dark distance and finally pops out of infinitesimal existence like a star suddenly vanishing from the night-sky. Again, the sight of mangled and mashed fruit and veg, the victims of another day’s slaughter, conjures up parallels to the aftermath of a bloody battlefield massacre, or the giblet-strewn floor of an abattoir. You actually feel sorry for the tableful of fresh new arrivals, and you begin to dread the image of another pulpy victim getting the chop – almost as though we are being introduced to the nubile cast members of a slasher flick. Gilderoy’s cue-sheets and sound design-maps for the placement of his effects are lingered-on and travelled over, the actual writing forming almost cabbalistic text, or arcane ritualistic diagrams of ancient summoning. Strickland allows his editor, Chris Dickens, to be somewhat unorthodox as well. Some scenes close in upon a black frame … that then holds for a second or two longer than most other filmmakers would allow, prompting a little bit more edgy discomfort from the viewer. This could also be mimicking the strange power-cuts that regularly interrupt the recording sessions at the studio. The whole thing has a slow, smooth flow that intentionally lulls. Which is, again, all the better to draw you into this unusual and unsettling environment of sensory ambush. A sudden flashback to the film that Gilderoy had been previously working on, a documentary about the area known as Box Hill, also goes on for much, much longer than you would have anticipated, forcing you to assume that it may have some far deeper significance, but really just adding to the steady drifting from one accepted reality towards another, more artificial, but no less vital one.
“They’re here. They’re under us.”
What is so amazing about the film is that you come away from it with the belief that you have just witnessed something very savage and horrifically nasty … and yet you’ve seen nothing explicit being committed at all. Nothing. Except, maybe, the butchering of fruit and vegetables. But the impression of stomach-turning and terrible torture – the humble radish becomes an instrument of gruelling abhorrence - and bouts of vicious slaughter – let’s not get into the ravaging massacre of melons - is magnificently conveyed via the marrow-freezing sound effects and the dread and shock that we see churning and evolving inside poor Gilderoy’s eyes, who we know is actually witnessing these acts up there on the big screen, his naïve and cosseted sensibilities cruelly abused as he plies his trade in-synch with horrible depravity.
Toby Jones is magnificent as the timid and confused fish-out-of-water. His mastery of nuance and intimate character foible is second-to-none. You couldn’t help but side with his worm-turning store clerk in Frank Darabont’s nihilistic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist, and he was superb as the obsessive, vindictive Alfred Hitchcock in the otherwise ill-conceived TV drama The Girl. He occupies the same sort of persona as Charles Martin Smith, who can be equally sympathetic and hard-done-to, and then just as intense when called upon. But watch closely how Jones is able to alter his mood and change his demeanour with subtlety, grace and, when the time is right, unmistakable devastation. There is a wonderful moment when he takes some advice from one of the dubbing girls and demands his elusive flight reimbursement in the more volatile Italian manner of shouting and demanding. Gilderoy is genuinely seething for probably the first time ever in his life, but the very act of letting his anger out leaves him on the precarious borderline between rage and tears. On the one hand, we are ecstatic to see him finally fight back but, on the other, we are appalled that such a gentle soul has been driven to such out-of-character and probably painful extremes. And Jones ensures that Gilderoy has yet deeper emotions to explore. There is another moment – when he is called upon to do something he really doesn’t want to do - when we are almost physically willing him to go the extra mile and turn the tables on his oppressors. Given the right material and motivation, Jones could even play a heroic leading man. He sure as hell doesn’t look the part, I know, but he has such a command of personality and character that I am certain he could find the inner strength to galvanise an army if he wanted to.
Of paramount importance to this frequently oppressive, often spellbinding imagery, is the soundtrack.
The entire film is based around the power and magic of the sonic realm. The story is intrinsically fuelled by the things that we hear, but Strickland also uses sound as a tool, a blanket, an, explanation, a puzzle, and a weapon. You could shut your eyes and just listen to the movie and the effect would possibly be even more unsettling. I have the soundtrack CD (all performed by experimental sound design group, Broadcast – lead performer Trish Keenan sadly passed away just after the film’s release) and the cumulative effect is just as oddball, alienating and deliriously fiendish. The device that Strickland and the band, with whom he has worked before, adhere to is that all the sounds, the music and the effects that we hear on the track are believably culled from the studio, itself, as opposed to atmospherically ladled on top like a normal film soundtrack, or original score. That everything we hear is effectively “source”, in other words. Vocal performers are drafted-in to play what amounts to themselves and, unleashed upon the microphone in the recording booth, they bring to life, respectively, a grotesque re-awoken witch (Katalin Ladik), and an “aroused goblin” (Jean-Michael van Schouwberg) on the prowl in a girls’ dormitory. Their yabbering, jabbering, chattering, shrieking, tongue-flapping yowls, growls and squeals are incredible to behold, but perfectly encapsulating of the extreme vocal tricks that Italian composers, in the wake of Morricone’s unusual and strategic deployment of the human voice (Edda Dell ’Orso, for example) in the Spaghettis, primarily, but also in gialli, would be eager to generate. Once again, there are tonal suggestions that hark back to God-like genre-group Goblin and their Argento collaborations, but also to the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who crafted the unique sound of Dr. Who, amongst many other things, and they all get a vigorous doffing of the cap for largely uncelebrated services to the imagination.
“The twigs … they remind me of home.”
A dazzling conceit is fabulously aided by terrific performances and a fiendish atmosphere of ever-building dread and paranoid suspense. But – and I would remiss in my duties if I didn’t say this - the whole thing comes crashing down when the mystery fails to deliver even the slightest tinge of what may actually be happening beyond the projection screen and the mixing desk. It is all well and good to play the Lynchian mindf*ck card, but when your story and your characters and your scenario are this strong, you owe it to your narrative and to your audience to provide some sort of fitting denouement. I love ambiguous conclusions very much indeed, with the standoff on the edge of humanity at the end of The Thing being my absolute favourite, of course, but the intangible warrens of cerebral musings from the likes of Kubrick or, especially Antonioni, whose classic Blow-Up serves as a huge inspiration for Berberian, and the fact that Strickland goes off down this infuriating, infernal and indefatigable “think for yourself” road is an undeniably commendable tactic. But as much reward as there is for the viewer in the unravelling of clues and the personal deciphering that is made out of the enigmatic conundrum that revolves around Gilderoy, it would be better all-round if something even slightly less abstract had been at the end of the line. Berberian defiantly goes for something entirely different and all the more massively textured, and manages to leave a huge array of possibilities left open to us. But the most damnable thing is that, even given this ripe sub-genre of mental-mazes, we need more to go on than what Strickland actually hands out. Taken at face-value, the answer about life-imitating art is all-too obvious, and I’m positive that he doesn’t want us to just settle for that.
As it stands, Berberian Sound Studio acts as both an insidious psycho-drama of spiralling paranoia, and as a sideline homage to one of the great unsung marvels of the Horror genre – the art and “power” of the sound designer, with the film also serving as an amusing chronicle to how dedicated and creative these technicians are. Cinephiles and genre-addicts will delight in the references that abound throughout, and those who enjoy a striking and challenging character-study that doesn’t strictly play by the rules will also find much of merit. Peter Strickland should be applauded for crafting such an unusual, fresh and disturbing drama, but I still can’t help feeling unsatisfied with the outcome.
In fact, much as I felt about Ben Wheatley’s equally highly-praised genre mash-up, Kill List, the film ultimately comes undone and has precisely the sort of starkly divisive conclusion that could actually be extremely annoying. You have invested a lot in what is, admittedly, a very slight story and been incredibly eager to have the resolution resonate, but the momentum stalls in the final furlong and the mystery just circles, forever out of reach. However, Berberian Sound Studio is an infinitely better film than Kill List. Its finale may irritate and confound in equal measure, but at least it is not so horribly obvious, so shoehorned, and so cack-handedly executed, and it does not derail what has gone before. Instead, it probably encourages a return to Gilderoy’s gilded-cage of sinister sound and fury which, if anything, is a masterstroke from Strickland. Thus, in the knowledge of what the film is not going to do, you can savour the whipcord atmosphere and nuanced characters, and focus in different directions.
Berberian Sound Studiois audio-alchemy of the decidedly diabolical. Its creator is a genuine talent to watch out for, and if he had nailed his conclusions with more verve and sensation in this, only his second feature film, and with a bit more thought, or at least something more tangible for us to grasp hold of, I have no doubt that this would, indeed, be a masterpiece. However, it disappears up its own enigma and falls frustratingly short of the high-watermark it has set for itself.
Nevertheless, thanks to brilliant performances from everyone, though most notably Toby Jones, and a fantastically sustained atmosphere of pure dread, Berberian Sound Studio still comes highly recommended.
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