Berberian Sound Studio
Release date: August 31, 2012
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay by: Peter Strickland
Cast: Toby Jones, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Manchino, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou
The days of great giallo are long gone, as the likes of Argento and Bava have either passed on or changed gears. In steps Peter Strickland with a curious little film that brings back some of the essence of classic Italian horror, while still maintaining its own distinct modern style.
Focusing heavily on atmosphere and surrealism, Berberian Sound Studio is quite unlike any of the horror films being pumped out lately to the point where one character even says, “This is not a horror film,” in a likely self-referential line of dialogue. The film takes place in the seventies, following a British sound technician (Jones) who flies to Italy to work on a gruesome horror film. As the pressure builds to finish the film, his life begins to emulate the nightmarish art he is experiencing, leaving him and the audience questioning: what is reality and what isn’t?
There’s a vague air of De Palma’s Blow Out roaming in the direction every time they focus in on the sound studio work. Strickland isn’t nearly as refined, but there’s a bit of a charm in that fact, as he sometimes dives right into what made giallo horror films worth watching. The surreal touch to the camera work and some smart experimental decisions help build atmosphere, which is a major positive in something that relies heavily on truly beautiful sound editing and mixing.
The recurring use of the SILENZIO sign in the studio calls back Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., and that’s one bit that works against the film. The reference to what could be considered a surreal masterpiece is fairly heavy-handed, but Berberian Sound Studio holds its own in terms of its surreal chops. The more liberties it took with its story after the midway point, playing with the notion of questioning reality, the better it got.
The story takes its sweet time to set up, moving slowly and getting a little repetitive at times in its first half. There’s enough humor to go around there, from watermelon smashing to stabbing in lettuce heads, and some particularly fascinating bits too before the film dives into its darker moments in the superior latter half. There’s a little scene where Jones’ character is asked by the crew and director to show how he makes a UFO sound with a light bulb that is especially memorable.
We don’t know exactly what sort of films his character made before this, but after some initial hesitation, we see a change in Toby Jones’ character and performance that adds to the atmosphere that the impeccable sound work has created. His spiral into madness is complemented nicely by Fatma Mohamed’s unsettling performance, but the rest of the cast is largely forgettable.
While it has its flaws, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is still an interesting, surreal film that might just deserve more than one viewing.