One of the most striking features of British director Peter Strickland’s debut film, the haunting rape-revenge thriller Katalin Varga, was its eerie sound design, created from a combination of electronic music and heightened natural sounds. It’s apt then that his follow-up movie, Berberian Sound Studio, should actually revolve around film sound and play with its capacity to disquiet and deceive.
The film’s hero, Toby Jones’s Gilderoy, is a shy English sound engineer who goes to 1976 Rome to work on the soundtrack of an Italian horror movie, a grisly tale of witchcraft, torture and murder titled The Equestrian Vortex.
Save for its opening credits, we don’t get to see a single frame of the movie, evidently a typical Italian giallo of the period, but as Gilderoy conjures up his blood-curdling sonic effects, hacking away at cabbages and watermelons within the confines of the dingy post-production studio, its lurid contents are only too clear. They also clearly unnerve Gilderoy. More accustomed to working on local documentaries from a garden shed in Dorking, he finds his new Italian colleagues elusive and exploitative and his task sordid. And as the film’s gruesome violence plays over and over on screen, his fragile psyche begins to unravel.
Jones does a very good job of conveying Gilderoy’s mental disintegration, but as psychological thrillers go Berberian Sound Studio is more art house than giallo and probably won’t unhinge too many contemporary viewers. What makes the film special, though, is its atmospheric and expertly crafted evocation of 1970s filmmaking and the analogue technology that made it distinctive. The film’s title, incidentally, seems to be a nod to the late, great avant-garde singer Cathy Berberian, wife and muse of Italian composer Luciano Berio. The last time I heard her name checked was in a Steely Dan song; good to see Strickland tipping his hat to her here.
On general release from Friday 7th September.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.