FrightFest 2012: ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ review


From the creative mind of Peter Strickland, the director behind 2009’s hugely promising Katlin Varga, comes the long-awaited Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Starring our very own Toby Jones amongst a host of all-Italian talent, Strickland’s Film4 FrightFest entry (having already screened at the revamped Edinburgh Film Festival) is an audiovisual tour-de-force, doing for giallo what Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) did for silent cinema. Jones plays the enigmatic Gilderoy, a sound engineer from Dorking who somehow finds himself in Italy’s fictional Berberian Sound Studio – so-named after the American soprano Cathy Berberian.

Commissioned to work on ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, the latest exploitation shocker from lecherous horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino), Gilderoy is thrust into a world of screaming sacrificial beauties, unholy witchcraft and bludgeoned fruit and veg. Yet as the post production process lengthens, Gilderoy’s own precarious hold on reality begins to slip.

For only Strickland’s second full feature, Berberian Sound Studio is quite simply exceptional. Easily one of the most technically adept films ever to have at FrightFest, his ode to giallo cinema leaves almost no trope untouched, immersing itself fully in a genre defined by the works of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci back in the 1970s. Jones’ Gilderoy begins life as a delicious cipher into this murky, smoke-filled world, before developing into something truly intangible, nay indefinable.

Whilst Jones will rightly take his plaudits for a superbly understated lead performance, it’s Strickland’s sound design that should be reserved for highest praise. Every single effect, be it diegetic or non, adds layer upon layer to this ever-evolving cinematic onion, often leaving the audience with little grasp of where they truly are, but with this little care besides. Like few films before, Berberian is a film that places the use of sound on the highest possible pedestal, effortlessly evoking a myriad of emotions and responses with the most basic of tools – be it an over-ripe marrow or bed of twigs.

Whilst difficult to define as a horror per se (Santini himself, in a Christopher Lee-esque declaration, passionately defends his own film against the ‘horror label’). However, Strickland’s latest has the potential to leave one profoundly shaken – if given half the chance. With few comparable pieces outside of the giallo genre itself (E. Elias Merhige’s Murnau-concerned, 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire aside), Berberian Sound Studio strikes notes few would even knew existed.

From 23-27 August, CineVue will be reporting back from this year’s Film4 FrightFest with a bucket-load of gruesome reviews. For more of our festival coverage, simply follow this link

Daniel Green