Review: Berberian Sound Studio


Before I ever saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria, I knew the film for its sound. It was back in 1996 in high school and I had yet to find a video store in my area that carried a copy of the film. I’d read up a lot on Argento and Goblin on the internet, and eventually found a site that had audio samples from Suspiria. It took forever to download the WAV file, but finally at night, lit only by the monitor, I listened to the scene in which the blind man is stalked by some unseen force.

To just hear the noise in the dark was absolutely terrifying at that age, and I think that experience was scarier than seeing the actual scene in the film. (I love Suspiria, don’t get me wrong.)

I mentioned all that because Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to the creepy sounds in Italian horror films. So much of it is lush and well put together, and there’s great atmosphere about it. For a while it seemed like the movie was going in an intriguing direction: something part giallo, part supernatural, part Barton Fink. But then…

[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 50th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]

Berberian Sound Studio - Trailer - Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou

Berberian Sound Studio
Director: Peter Strickland
Rating: NR
Country: Ireland
Release Date: June 14, 2013 (limited) 

Berberian Sound Studio is a movie about making movies. More precisely, it’s a movie about an aspect of post-production: sound design. The film centers around a fictional movie that we never see any clips from (except for the awesome opening credits). It’s called Equestrian Vortex, a title both ridiculous and sublime. It could be about anything, really, and wouldn’t be a bad name for a band. A sound engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels from England to Italy to do audio work on Equestrian Vortex, assuming the movie is about horses. His forte is nature documentaries, so that’d make sense. Instead, Equestrian Vortex is a trashy Italian horror movie about witches and black magic. But it’s not really a horror movie, at least the director (Antonio Mancino) insists that’s not the case — “It’s a Santini film.” He continually talks about history and truth while Gilderoy is forced to record the sound of women being branded, drowned, and mutilated.

The dialogue and the mayhem of Equestrian Vortex recall Suspiria and Inferno, and there are plenty of other Argento references packed throughout: black-gloved hands, the rampant violence against women, the sudden close-ups of objects for visual interest and mood, a subjective camera that might be the POV of another person. Snippets of Equestrian Vortex music written and performed by the band Broadcast recall Goblin and the theme from Rosemary’s Baby, as well as the score from the forthcoming Australian giallo Sororal. It helps add a certain authenticity to the film within the film, and provides some obvious horror cred for writer/director Peter Strickland.

Gilderoy is well out of his element, and he’s such a pushover on top of that. Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) is the local sound guy, and he wants none of this outsider’s input or experience. Everyone is a jerk to Gilderoy except for Silvia (Fatma Mohammed), an actress busy taking verbal abuse from everyone else around her. (More of that Argento-style violence against women, but this time it’s during ADR work.) Gilderoy is homesick a few minutes into the job. He’s immediately sympathetic — it’s that Droopy Dog mug and Jones’s polite voice. He’s such a frail soul, and he even gets letters from his mother describing the tranquility he’s left behind.

Paranoia pervades Berberian Sound Studio. Gilderoy is unable to leave the recording area, and he can’t get reimbursed for his initial flight. On top of that, he hasn’t read the script for Equestrian Vortex and doesn’t know when his job on the film will end. I mentioned that lingering camera, and it leaves you wondering if there’s someone watching Gilderoy this entire time. Could it be the person running the projector, who we only know by a pair of hands in black gloves? Is there real witchcraft involved? The possibilities are tantalizing, and with its slow burn and moody sound design, Berberian Sound Studio maintains a sense of mystery and dread for a while.

The other possibility is we’ve entered Barton Fink territory in the film, and the sound studio is the life of Gilderoy’s mind. It’s the private hell of creative types. Barton Fink is a pretty good unit of comparison — Fink goes to Hollywood to write a wrestling picture; if Bare Ruined Choirs came out 30 years later, Fink might have wound up in Rome doing giallos. Like Fink, Gilderoy’s got talent. There’s a beautiful scene where he’s able to create otherworldly noises using common items; there’s another fine moment where he enhances Silvia’s voice with a sound board.

Where Fink had peeling wallpaper, Berberian‘s motif (or at least one of them) is rotting produce. Watermelon, cabbage, lettuce, radishes — these are the sounds of people dying and getting maimed. There are shots of this wasted food with an ominous simmer in the background. There’s something corpse-like about the way the moldy food is shot that’s a great stylistic choice on Strickland’s part. It dawns on you that something’s definitely not quite right; something’s coming unglued.

The set-up is so rich, the potential so enticing, but Berberian Sound Studio blows it during the final third. Not completely, at least. There is a moment in that final third that’s unsettling and just teeming with frightening possibilities. Gilderoy gets an inkling about the true nature of Equestrian Vortex. The mayhem of the sound is joined with a chaos of vision. But then the movie gives up and tries to be clever. Some people will buy into it, but the choice struck me as lazy since it’s a movie that’s otherwise so well put together. Works that are truly clever never feel like they’re trying to be clever.

I wonder if the film concludes the way it does simply to be evocative and peculiar, as if both could be substitutions for being good. I love evocative and peculiar things, but they need to have something else beyond that, otherwise the peculiarity is just posturing. The end is just vague and a cop out. Vague I can’t stand, a cop out is inexcusable. It makes me think of what Strickland’s first draft of the screenplay was, or how he could have built into this ending more effectively.

Maybe the frustration is based on how Berberian Sound Studio creates a sense of dread and squanders it on attempting profundity through ambivalence. Even though Barton Fink isn’t explicitly explicated at the end, it closes in such a way that I couldn’t imagine another ending. It feels right; it makes you feel. The ending to Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t make me feel anything because it doesn’t amount to anything palpable — not for Gilderoy or Equestrian Vortex. I can intellectualize it, but even then the dots don’t feel like they’re connected. This is a finale full of sound and missed opportunity, suggesting something that makes me feel nothing.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.