Berberian Sound Studio is a film like no other you will see this year. Resembling a nail-biting fusion of The Conversation and Mulholland Drive, the sophomore effort from Katalin Varga director Peter Strickland is both a tribute to a by-gone era of horror cinema and a haunting study of how life imitates art.
Toby Jones takes the lead role in Berberian Sound Studio playing Gilderoy, an innocent sound engineer who leaves behind the cozy countryside of 1970s Surrey for the dark, claustrophobic confines of an Italian studio. Once there, trapped in a maze of dimly lit, windowless rooms which we never leave for the duration of the narrative, he is asked to work on the post-production of a bloodthirsty new release from giallo filmmaker Santini.
Though Berberian Sound Studio has very little in common with this acclaimed genre of horror cinema, Strickland’s film is a loving tribute to the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fucli nonetheless. The film Gilderoy is working on, after all, is pure giallo: A sexually driven exploitation picture loaded with gore titled The Equestrian Vortex. “I thought you said something about equestrian,” Gilderoy naively asks upon seeing his first glimpse of the film, though the audience are only treated to it through blood-curdling shrieks. “It is. She’s just not horse-riding anymore,” responds Santini.
On the surface, Gilderoy’s work on this film is mundane. As the foley artist, we watch as he employs a variety of fruit and vegetables to record the sound of The Equestrian Vortex’s horrific scenes. Cauliflower is split in two to represent the sound of someone’s beheading, for example, while lettuce is torn apart to establish the effect of a woman’s hair being torn out. But underneath, something sinister is constantly lurking; a sense of dread infused throughout every scene despite never once displaying any on-screen violence.
Soon, in much the same way that the audience becomes hypnotised by Gilderoy’s foley work – with thanks to Strickland’s repetition of whirling reels and wheels – our hero becomes eerily consumed by this project. His ability to distinguish the film from reality begins to slip and the story of Santini’s film overlaps eerily into what occurs in the studio. It’s at this point that Berberian Sound Studio takes an incredibly bizarre turn akin to the aforementioned Mulholland Drive (excellently referenced through the flashing red ‘silencio’ sign above the studio’s door) unleashing a plethora of surreal, brain-sizzling moments that are largely up to the viewers to interpret the meaning of.
And when it hits this dazzline final act it becomes abundantly clear that Berberian Sound Studio is something of a masterpiece. Guaranteed to spur furious debate, this is a spectacularly realized work of cinema that will continue to haunt, perplex and fester in your mind long after you have left your seat.
Berberian Sound Studio opens at the IFC Center in New York and at the Arena Cinema and Downtown Independent in Los Angeles on June 14th. It will also be available on VOD.