BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. Extraordinary, intriguing, giallo-inspired horror movie
Do you know Italian thrillers and horrors from the 1970s? It was a decade of great success and artistic freedom for horror film directors. Horrors revealed their psychedelic, predatory, and unpredictable aspects (the most obvious example being the work of Dario Argento, a successful stylist without whom today’s arthouse cinema would probably look very different). Full of sex and darkness. Far from Hollywood clichés. Often brutal, wild, and formally twisted. Berberian Sound Studio is a kind of tribute to those times and that style. Before you is an extraordinary, intriguing arthouse film.
In Berberian Sound Studio an English sound engineer arrives at an Italian recording studio, a calm middle-aged man. He is lost and, above all, wants to get his money back for his flight. So far, he has worked on children’s programs. However, it turns out that he will have to work on a horror film, and his Italian colleagues are exuberant, loud, and have difficult personalities. But that’s nothing compared to the level of aggression that oozes from the silent film.
The action of Berberian Sound Studio takes place in confinement. The studio is the only reality here, suspended outside day and night. The title tells of a rarely seen stage of film post-production. Seemingly an ineffective subject matter takes on such blushes here that I think every true fan of the tenth muse will enter a trance during the screening. This is a movie about movies, but also about the sounds that accompany them. It’s a film about making horror, but also about the impact of horror on its creators. Finally, this is one of those films that will give you the answer to how to get the sound of plucking hair while pulling a radish and what cabbage is best suited for. But above all, Berberian Sound Studio is a story about the old world of filmmaking, where analog devices were in charge, and the production process was free from computers. In short, we have a little fetishistic concert ahead of us.
I have the impression that the film will be best appreciated by the “initiated.” Those who have seen several classic Italian horrors from a few decades ago or have encountered analog music production equipment – with all its aesthetic charm and non-modern magic. If terms like “giallo” mean something to you or you know the band Goblin, if you are tired of the repetitiveness of contemporary cinema and longingly look back at images from decades ago – you should see Peter Strickland’s film.
Berberian Sound Studio is a stylistic tour de force. There are no random shots here. The camera carefully crafts the details. Reel-to-reel tape recorders, tape rewinding, a projector lens throwing a beam of light. Menacingly flashing red light SILENCIO. Women’s faces with a beauty that is not contemporary. It’s aesthetic, European, and artistic. You’ll find reflections from Italian, Spanish, French films, as well as classics by Polanski, Coppola, Lynch, placed more in the atmosphere of the work than in the story itself.
The characters are psychologically credible, and their relationships are convincing. The underlying tension of the story largely arises from the collision of two different cultures with different attitudes toward people, work, and violence. Toby Jones’ excellent, unpretentious acting makes it impossible not to empathize with the fate of the lost sound engineer. The unassuming man is full of expression and convincingly alienated.
This is a story with a repetitive character. Scenes, situations, shots return – increasingly strange, denser, and more distorted. And although there are neither witches nor black-gloved killers in the story, horror will begin to flood the studio rooms. On one hand, the revelation of the film’s inner workings provides an opportunity to arrange humorous scenes, but on the other hand, on a different level, we will never free ourselves from the suffocating atmosphere of madness and paranoia. Here we have elegant, classically told cinema, although with a few sharp jolts. Physical violence is almost absent here; Strickland portrays the degradation of the mind, not the maltreatment of the body. The film is a precise, coherent study of progressive madness. The tension gradually builds. And only at a certain moment do we stop distinguishing between illusion and reality. Director Peter Strickland doesn’t hide that he’s referring to cinema from the past. He revels in it. Computer effects are absent here. The camera moves calmly, and no popular actor appears in the film. There is a meticulous celebration of details, faces, reactions of the characters, and a smooth shift of accents from what is unsettling to what strikes with concentrated terror.
The dramatic story of the sound engineer is actually just a vehicle that transports us into the cinematic past. The director resurrects the “old school” briefly on our screens. He takes us on a fantastically filmed journey to less frequented, somewhat forgotten regions. Because although giallo is often referenced today (e.g., Amer), and filmmakers refer to the works of Dario Argento (the recent Suspiria remake) or Lucio Fulci (the ending of The Void), the era of the 1970s, especially its European branch, does not return to the screen as often as more immortal classics.
Ambitious stylizations can easily become overloaded. Strickland has maintained the right proportions: we received an audiovisual spectacle in high gloss while still getting an engaging story. Even if it’s not as deep as it is flashy, it is far from cliché and full of tension. Berberian Sound Studio may not be a “cult” film, but it is a film made with ideas and appropriately stylish. Strickland appears to me as a sincere, complete, and inspired fetishist. This means he’s closer to Tarantino or Refn than the Duffer Brothers from Stranger Things, who simply do solid work on pop culture crochet hooks. Besides, watch his next film, The Duke of Burgundy, and you’ll see that the director is still creating incredible retro pieces that blow the competition out of the water.
And you? How many tens of watermelons smashed with glee can you endure without harming your sanity?