Peter Strickland’s second feature follows the ill-fated process of a nebbish sound engineer as he goes down the rabbit hole in a Giallo-style exploration of the horror the horror of making horror movies.
Written & Directed by Peter Strickland / Starring Toby Jones, Fatma Mohamed, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino / Cinematography by Nicolas D. Knowland / Music by Broadcast / Production by Film4, Warp X
Timid British sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is welcomed to a small Italian studio by the screams and squelches of slaughtered watermelons. There to oversee the dubbing and foley of a schlocky exploitation flick about witchcraft, Gilderoy finds himself at the mercy of a wolfish producer (Cosimo Fusco), a pretentious playboy director (Antonio Mancino) and a grotesque soundscape of reverberating gurgles and piercing feedback loops. Peter Strickland’s second feature is the best kind of genre deconstruction: one loving of its subject but objective enough never to lose a sharp critical edge.
As Gilderoy suffers every hack and screech recorded, we are treated to a horror film about the horror of making horror, mixed skilfully into a Giallo-style thriller about a man suffering nervous breakdown. Lit and shot for maximum creepiness by cinematographer Nicholas Knowland, Berberian Sound Studio focuses on the details of the Foley artist’s craft in such minute detail that even the most functional objects become props in a distinctly vulgar, exploitative crime scene. Gilderoy’s hand-drawn sound maps become the scrawls of a maniac; the studio recording light becomes a warning against atrocities we should not see (but cannot help but hear, even with hands clapped over our ears); and a bin full of countless abused fruits and vegetables becomes the mangled innards of a festering corpse. That no actual physical violence is shown on screen underlines the degrading influence that this dark, oppressive environment of sonic assault has on the mild-mannered Gilderoy.
Strickland’s sharp but subtle direction handles bends from hilarity into sincere, poignant drama. No other film so explicitly demonstrates the power that sound and music hold over the images to which they are supposedly subordinate, and credit is due to Strickland’s award-winning real-life sound team Joakim Sundström and Stevie Haywood and composers, Broadcast, who clearly mainlined the nightmarish records of Goblin during production. Berberian Sound Studio is one of the most original films of the decade so far and often a stunning synthesis of cinema’s most central elements: light, sound, the actor’s performance, and the editing that twists and manipulates them into a whole.