If I actually reviewed Berberian Sound Studio last night immediately after my viewing, I would have been doing director Peter Strickland, myself, and most importantly you, the reader, and absolute disservice. Why? Because my immediate reaction would have gone something like “Um…did that…was he…where…huh?” But thanks to further deconstruction of Strickland’s crazy homage/inspired vision while I laid awake struggling with my own inner thoughts, I realized what this beautifully creepy behind-the-scenes mindf#ck actually represented, and it was like a switch flipped. Admittedly, I’m still not AS in love with the film as some reviewers, mainly the ones who had it in their top 10 last year (yes, you lucky UK bastards got it first), but Strickland’s technical prowess accomplishes loads more than meets the eye.
Berberian Sound Studio tells the story of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who gets flown in to work on an Italian horror movie, but he soon starts to question if he’s up for the task. Having to bring grotesque scenes of killing and mutilation to life with his knowledge of sound techniques learned while working on children’s television shows, he soon starts to see influences from the film spill over into his daily life, finding it hard to separate reality from fantasy. Gilderoy not only has to fight with his psyche though, as his co-workers don’t offer any help. From a director with the wrong intentions, to his cheapskate boss, and even to a privileged nuisance who interrupts work every chance he gets, Gilderoy’s job becomes harder every day. But will his sanity hold out long enough to complete the super gory film?
What Strickland does so damn well, in retrospect, is create a homage to Italian “Giallo” films (mystery/fantasy/horror lore) by not showing a damn second of the movie Gilderoy is working on. Titled The Equestrian Vortex, we hear the horrifying sequences being described by those workers watching them, especially when Gilderoy’s boss Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) is provoking him to find the best sounds. I swear, it was more horrifying hearing a woman scream off camera (playing on the projection screen in the studio), and then watching the sound technicians mash away at these juicy fruits to make the most vile, disgusting, and realistic murder noise possible. Keeping the true horrors off camera makes Gilderoy’s transformation entirely more effective, because then our imaginations run wild. Francesco even has a line during a particularly hard scene for Gilderoy to finish where he points out that nothing is real, and the sound engineer can see the technical aspects that make the film a farce, but Gilderoy is still shaken to the core – and so are we.
Strickland doesn’t stop his visceral assault there though, because every scene has little tidbits which require absolute attention. Be it Gilderoy’s personal homesickness spilling over into his work life, the massive pile of rotting fruit which only grows moldier and more disgusting as Gilderoy’s sanity diminishes, or the movie visuals that start taking over Berberian Sound Studio itself, we actually become engulfed by Santini’s (Antonio Mancino) fake movie just as Gilderoy does. If you notice the switch in subtitling, as less and less English starts to be spoken, or the removal of sound in seemingly normal scenes, you notice just how much Strickland intends to skew reality and mess with our heads, completely blurring the line until it’s all but indistinguishable.
This is where things got a little dicey for me though, because in an attempt to get all metaphysical on our asses, Berberian Sound Studio actually loses focus. Chilling, tense, and somewhat intriguing, Gilderoy’s descent into madness is overshadowed by some confusion and minimalist storytelling, as unfortunately I think Strickland expected a little too much from his viewers. Continuity became a thing of the past, scenes started to blend into one another with incoherent pacing, and Gilderoy’s journey goes from intelligently witty to ambitiously muddled. Strickland absolutely reaches for something celestially grandiose, but doesn’t quite have the story to achieve such remarkably insightful highs.
Give Toby Jones credit though, because this entirely underrated actor delivers another splendid performance as the tormented Gilderoy. There’s something about his small stature and feeble presentation that lets him portray a victim so well, so embodying a mousy sound engineer was literally the prefect role for Jones. He’s been making a proper name for himself over the last few years thankfully, but I’ll never grow tired of watching Toby descend into cinematic insanity as he does in Berberian Sound Studio.
Damn you Peter Strickland for utterly confusing me, making me think, and then winning me over with aesthetic horrors and behind-the-scenes magic that actually represents a nifty little look into the way cut-rate sound studios operated. Could you ever picture the man making those crazy goblin noises in a sound booth somewhere? Now you won’t have to, because Berberian Sound Studio takes you right into the captivating process. Well, that, and it plunges one character far deeper into old-school Italian horror than he ever wishes to be – and we get to watch him slowly unravel at the seams.