Written and Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"There is no reason to escape."
Tracing the evolution of a genre can be fascinating, particularly when two strands of similar DNA diverge and flourish. Given that they were cut from the same tattered, blood-spattered cloth, slasher movies and gialli were destined to grow alongside each other, with both following similar boom-and-bust trajectories. In the case of the latter, that decline was steep and swift; where slashers were at least updated (sometimes with postmodern sensibilities), the genre of sex, leather gloves, and byzantine murder plots has sputtered for the past two decades to the point of near extinction. However, two relatively recent homages—first Amer, and then Berberian Sound Studio—indicate that the idea of the giallo still persists. It would seem that it’s skipped straight to some post-post-modern state, where it’s defined only by its basic signifiers.
Such is especially the case in Berberian, which takes a meta-fictional slant in boiling the genre down to its elements. Sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is summoned to Italy for post-production work on The Equestrian Vortex, the latest film from provocative filmmaker Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancini). As someone who’s more comfortable working on nature documentaries, Gilderoy is unnerved to discover he’s scoring a horror movie with splattery foley effects and the anguished screams of lovely voice actresses (Fatma Mohamed & Eugenia Caruso). As the job becomes increasingly intense, he finds himself absorbed by the nightmare logic of the film itself. Reality becomes hazy, and a vague menace hangs in the air, leaving Gilderoy’s sanity in question.
Director Peter Strickland has crafted a curious little tribute here. Strictly speaking, Berberian Sound Studio isn’t a giallo at all, at least plot-wise. Unless you consider Gilderory’s shattered psyche, it’s not driven by a murder plot, nor does it feature a twisty, labyrinthine narratives. And yet, you certainly get lost in it all the same—in its entrancing rhythms, its dreary, claustrophobic setting, its perfect replication of a fever dream. A refrain has haunted the genre for decades accusing it of valuing mood over coherence, and Strickland has embraced that to an admirable degree—honestly, I’m not sure his plot is meant to be completely decoded. I’m not even sure if a coherent plot exists. There are developments to be sure, including a crucial one involving Santini’s sexual harassment of his actresses, but it’s quite elusive as a whole.
Instead, Strickland practically invites you to indulge in this loving recreation of an aesthetic. Berberian Sound Studio is Baudrillard’s simulacrum committed to celluloid: it’s a surface level reproduction, a hyperreal construct that doesn’t seek to create a coherent reality. Its recreation of the giallo aesthetic seemingly exists as pure homage; even when the lines between Gilderoy’s conception of reality begins to blur with the flickering images on screen, he isn’t consumed by the film he’s been working on. Rather, he finds only oblivion, a hum of white noise that erases whatever reality he knew.
But before arriving there, Strickland fondly replicates a style that’s immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the works of the Eurohorror masters of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. While the audience is never privy to any footage from The Equestrian Vortex, its animated opening credits sequence sets the mood with a Goblin-esque score and vintage graphics design. Other giallo hallmarks are scattered about: a black leather glove ominously cues up the analog tape machine (does that make this the film’s murder weapon after all?), alluring, seductive women lead Gilderoy down a disturbing path, and violence is implied throughout. Most importantly, Strickland has captured the otherworldliness of gialli—from the moment Gilderoy enters the studio, something is off. You begin to wonder if he hasn’t wandered into some dimly-lit hell full of endless, tedious toil. Shadows suffocate the studio, casting much of the movie in an oppressive pallor as we watch Gilderoy and his associates dutifully go to work at the minutiae of sound design.
In keeping with the film’s refusal to capture the narrative verve of gialli, these proceedings aren’t thrilling, nor do they exactly glamorize his unappreciated corner of the film industry. The real nightmare here is the horrors of such tedium, which should resonate with anyone who’s ever had their headspace invaded and skewed by work (I once worked two separate stints at a grocery store—both inspired crazy dreams involving items rolling down an endless conveyor belt). You’re inclined to feel for Gilderoy. Jones plays him as a bewildered sad-sack, a stranger in a strange land who can’t help but feel overwhelmed by a scene he doesn’t understand. Considering the film’s fondness for this era and mode of filmmaking, Gilderoy is far from an audience surrogate, especially when he seems to thumb his nose at the genre (“It’s not a horror film,” the megalomaniacal director insists, “it’s a Santini film.” Surely, ardent horror fans have had to defend the artistic merits of their favorite films from similar claims.
Teasing out further meaning from this dynamic and the inherent culture clash between British and Italian sensibilities reveals that the film might be more than an empty homage. On one level, Berberian Sound Studio is about giallo films (or Eurohorror in general, perhaps), as it explores Britain’s relationship and culpability within the genre. Arguably, it was the British who helped to kick-start the psychosexual wave of slasher films with Peeping Tom, a film that was infamously suppressed and its director essentially blacklisted. On the other hand, the Italians didn’t just take this ball and run with it—they practically ran a gore-soaked marathon with it by pushing it to its extremes. For the most part, England remained relatively prude, going so far as to eventually enact Draconian censorship measures—even as some of its own (like Pete Walker and Ken Russell) managed to churn out transgressive works.
To watch Gilderory’s journey into this violent and repulsive hellscape is to watch Britain confront its own repression and hypocrisy; it’s worth noting that he’s something of a mama’s boy in constant correspondence with his dear old mum, and the film strews hints that his experience on The Equinox Vortex is simply awakening latent tendencies. Eventually, you sense that he’s horrified at not being horrified by the experience. He finds it hard to score a scene involving a witch being stabbed in the vagina by a hot poker, yet he finds himself doing much worse later on. For Gilderoy, the most disturbing realization might be that he’s not much different from these Italian lunatic after all. What begins as a loose genre homage becomes an increasingly impressionistic but thought-provoking look at how we’ve always related to the giallo. What draws us to these deranged works, and should we really fret over our enjoyment of them? Predictably, the answer is found in completely giving one’s self over to the cinema screen. Buy it!
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