Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film. Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy. To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film. It’s a Santini film.”
Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film. As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.
Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s. Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes. Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score. Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.
Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits. The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming. Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films. Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares. Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.
In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance. At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco). As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin. Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.
At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.” Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.
Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio