BBFC Classification: 15
Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Chiara D’Anna, Fatman Mohamed
Every so often a film comes along that gives you the same chills and thrills as many of the classics yet does it in a way that defies the conventions of genre. The Canadian film Pontypool did it a few years back by taking the zombie genre and totally giving it a fresh spin by using language to transfer the zombie infection, and British thriller Berberian Sound Studio has seemingly done something similar by documenting one man’s descent into delusional hell by way of just doing his job in unusual circumstances.
English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives in Italy at the request of Italian film producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and intimidating director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to provide the sound effects for their latest film The Equestrian Vortex, and is immediately uncomfortable with the Italians’ apparent lack of concern over refunding his travel expenses. Pair that with the fact that The Equestrian Vortex is a horror film (or “a Santini film” as Gilderoy is sternly told when he raises the issue) and Gilderoy begins to experience doubts as to the job he has accepted.
As time goes on Gilderoy tries to keep his head down and get the job done but as his difficult-to-please employers start piling on the pressure, Gilderoy becomes immersed in the sights and sounds of the film he is working on and the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur, causing the mild-mannered engineer to lose his grip on what is real.
Berberian Sound Studio is refreshingly different in its approach to paying homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s. Much of this is down to writer/director Peter Strickland’s smooth direction, teasing us with what Gilderoy is seeing but never explicitly showing us. Instead we get several shots of vegetables being stabbed and chopped to provide the squelchy sound effects for The Equestrian Vortex, while various actresses come to the studio to provide screams and haunting vocals for the film’s soundtrack.
Another strong point of the film is the performance by Toby Jones, who excels as the timid British worker simply accepting a job that should be straightforward. His understated manner and childlike naivety as Gilderoy are as charming and endearing as they are frustrating when he truly becomes the fish-out-of-water once Santini and Francesco begin to get more aggressive with their demands.
As with many of the films that Berberian Sound Studio is aligning itself with, the narrative isn’t straightforward and by the final act things start to get very weird and surreal, and that may be the one thing that puts many people off. The first hour is a very slow but deliberate build-up that touches all of our senses and excites with the possibilities of what may happen, but the film never quite goes to the places that you want it to and the climax (of the film, as opposed to the story) dances around having a definitive ending, leaving it ambiguous and open to interpretation.
It goes without saying that Berberian Sound Studio is a film that really stands alone amongst the endless barrage of bad CGI-based horror and flaccid found-footage chillers that have flooded the market over the last few years. It respectfully nods its head towards the giallo without ever going the whole hog and having a stalking killer with black gloves, and it provides a constant atmosphere of unnerving threat that never quite spills over into all-out violence but teeters on the edge, giving you the promise of something very different to what you are expecting. Whether it delivers on that promise depends on how appreciative you are of the works of Dario Argento or David Lynch at their most profound, as this film plays at that end of the movie playground, but if the ending seems like a bit of a let down after such an intense build-up then at least it shows that director Peter Strickland is on the right track with regards to creating an atmosphere and setting up an interesting story, and that bodes very well for the future.
Special Features: Audio commentary by director Peter Strickland, interview with Peter Strickland, The Making of Berberian Sound Studio featurette, deleted scenes with commentary by Peter Strickland, production design gallery, Box Hill extended documentary, Berberian Sound Studio original short film, theatrical trailer.
UK Release Date: 31st December 2012