This Schlocktober, Comics Bulletin will be exploring the world of horror cinema, featuring thirty one notable films released between Halloween 2012 and Halloween 2013. Next up is director/writer Peter Strickland‘s Berberian Sound Studio.
I’m not going to lie. Not a lot happens in this film. And when things do happen, I’m not sure what the hell to make of it. As the climax of Berberian Sound Studio approaches, reality shifts, giving way to what, I just don’t know. But you know what? It’s kind of beside the point.
Peter Strickland has crafted a love letter to cinema itself, specifically to the Italian giallo cinema of the 70s — the world of Argento, Bava, Fulci, and more. And he does this in a way similar to two other films we’ve already discussed this month: Kiss of the Damned and The Lords of Salem. As with those films, Strickland is able to provoke the aesthetic of the 60s and 70s films that inspired him while keeping the storytelling totally modern.
And it’s easily the best of the three throwback films, although it’s not without its faults.
One fault, really; that incomprehensible finale that is more in the tradition of David Lynch than Dario Argento. Or maybe I just need to watch it again. And again. And again.
Because that slide into surrealism as sound editor Gilderoy (the incomparable Toby Jones) suddenly finds himself in a giallo, rather than just providing sound effects for one, could be genius. Even if it’s nonsense, the rest of the film is a master class on editing, framing shots, using sound, and creating unease from the mundane.
The story follows Gilderoy a British foley artist, as he arrives in Italy to do the sound editing on a project called The Equestrian Vortex, an occult film about the vengeful spirits of medieval witches tormenting the students at a riding academy. Gilderoy doesn’t speak Italian, is painfully shy, fears he’s not going to get paid (and by extension, be trapped in Italy with no way home), misses his mother and England dearly, and just might be going mad.
But here’s the thing. The opening credits for Berberian Sound Studio are actually the opening credits for The Equestrian Vortex. And from the moment they end to the final credits rolling, we never see another second of footage of the film within the film. Instead, we watch as Jones subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reacts to the images on the screen while mutilating vegetables to create the blood-curdling sounds of carnage.
The constant onslaught of murder and horror that Gilderoy is subjected to pushes him closer to the breaking point as the film goes on and he becomes more and more emotionally isolated from everything and everyone around him. This is represented beautifully by the way he relaxes with letters from his mother at home. He puts on recordings of nature he captured in the countryside of his home and the camera pans slowly down the page as we read the letters and he silently absorbs the atmosphere.
But even the letters from home take a decidedly brutal turn. Gilderoy can get no relief.
Strickland’s camera lingers lovingly on the machinery, the dials, the reels, the chopped up watermelon and tomatoes, the magic of movie-making, driving home the point that the narrative here is not so much about Gilderoy’s madness, but about the construction of illusion.
It doesn’t come together quite like it possibly could, and will probably not be a film everybody’s going to love. To be honest, I didn’t love it either. But it was fascinating and beautiful, with an amazing approach to storytelling. And I didn’t even mention the soundtrack!
Seriously, this is a film you should just go ahead and watch. You might hate it, but it’s worth a look. Or two.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.