“Berberian Sound Studio” was easily one of the most talked about horror films of 2012, having generated much discussion at a variety of international genre festivals, including Frightfest in London, where it won the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor Awards. The film was directed by British helmer Peter Strickland, who rather oddly shot his 2009 debut feature “Katalin Varga” entirely in Hungarian, and has been pitched as a nightmarish and baffling mix of Lynch and Argento.
Set in 1976, it stars top drawer Brit character actor Toby Jones (“Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”) as Gilderoy, a mild mannered English sound engineer who arrives in the run down Italian studio of the title to work on a gruesome exploitation pic called ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ by Giallo director Santini (Antonio Mancino). The poor sensitive fellow soon finds himself having to work out how to recreate noises of torture and dismemberment using vegetables, and exposed to madness and sexuality both onscreen and off, starts to (possibly) lose his mind.
“Berberian Sound Studio” was not only one of the more discussed horror films of the year, but also one of the most divisive, and it’s easy to see why. The film has been described as a Giallo, and in many ways it is, with “Suspiria” era Argento style luxuriously sinister visuals, lurid colours, prowling camerawork and a marvellously baroque soundtrack from Brit electronica band Broadcast. However, this aside, the film is impossible to pigeonhole, or indeed explain, Strickland taking the relatively simple premise very quickly off the rails and into the realms of the abstract, suggesting witchcraft and madness without ever settling on either. On top of this, it eschews many of the expected touchstones of the form, avoiding out and out scare scenes or murders, and focusing mainly on generating an ambiguously sinister atmosphere.
Eventually, the film dives into full on oblique weirdness, Strickland apparently quite purposely leaving the viewer as bewildered as Gilderoy, and it’s this which will determine whether or not the film goes down well or not. Certainly, for those willing to simply go with the flow and enjoy the surreal esoteric creepiness of all there’s certainly a huge amount here to admire and enjoy, the film offering the kind of originality and ambition so often lacking in modern horror. Jones is magnificent and utterly believable as the comically parochial Gilderoy, giving possibly a career best performance, and though the film is too obtuse for any real character development as such, he at least provides a focal point for its increasingly fragmented and incomprehensible events.
On a technical level Strickland is a fantastic director, creating a phantasmagorical and all-enveloping experience that really should be enjoyed on the big screen, and open minded viewers looking for something bold and different won’t be disappointed.
UK viewers who unfortunately missed seeing “Berberian Sound Studio” in cinema, or those who quite understandably want a second shot at deciphering its many mysteries now get their chance, the film landing shortly on Region 2 DVD and Blu Ray through Artificial Eye. The package comes with a number of extras to sweeten the deal, including audio commentary and interviews with Strickland, a making of doc, deleted scenes, the original short film, plus the usual trailer and galleries – all of which may or may not help in getting to the bottom of things.
Peter Strickland (director) / Peter Strickland (screenplay)
CAST: Toby Jones … Gilderoy
Tonia Sotiropoulou … Elena
Cosimo Fusco … Francesco
Susanna Cappellaro … Veronica
Chiara D’Anna … Elisa
Layla Amir … Equestrian Girl
Eugenia Caruso … Claudia