In what is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring cinematic works of the past twelve months, British director Peter Strickland’s sophomore feature Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – starring the ever-superb, chameleon-like Toby Jones – takes a rather unusual and unsettling look back at the world of 1970s Euro horror. The framework of this affectionate yet disturbing ode to Italian horror from the 70s is based around sympathetic protagonist Gilderoy (Jones), a timid, middle-aged audio engineer from Dorking who is mysteriously selected to travel to Italy to begin work on a movie, the details of which he has no knowledge of until his arrival at the studio.
Having only been told the title of the project – The Equestrian Vortex – Gilderoy is left somewhat dumbfounded when he realises just what type of film he is set to begin work on. From the outset, it is clear that Gilderoy is far from comfortable in his role working on the project. The studio manger, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the film’s director Gianfranco Santini (Antonio Mancino), behave in a fashion that is both sleazy and aggressive in equal measures, rendering Gilderoy’s isolation all the more intense.
While the audience is never shown as much as a glimpse of what horror maestro Santini’s The Equestrian Vortex looks like, we are given a stark enough impression of its content via Gilderoy’s engineering techniques, as he produces all manner of revolting sound effects by stabbing and slamming various pieces of fruit and vegetables. This, combined with his days spent in the studio listening endlessly to the screams and shrieks of voice actresses, all begin to lead to his subsequent breakdown. As his disturbing work begins to infiltrate his dreams, the lines between reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred, with Gilderoy slipping deeper and deeper into the world of the movie.
In essence, Berberian Sound Studio can be seen as two separate acts, with both delighting equally. The first act is ultimately a fish out of water story, tracking a humble Englishman’s struggle to adapt to a new, alien environment. It is, however, in the second act that things become slightly more interesting, as Strickland’s vision and depiction of a man’s disintegrating psyche really come to the fore. Meanwhile, Strickland’s direction is one of deft brilliance, conjuring up a truly authentic sense of what it must have been like to work on such a project at the time, whilst his exposition is positively Lynchian.
Ultimately, Strickland’s towering Berberian Sound Studio is a film that should be seen by all. Fans of the 1970s school of Italian giallo horror will be rewarded with a raft of knowing nods and winks to the genre, whilst anyone with a simple love for cinema in general should be enamoured by its profound brilliance. Jones has never been better, and you’ll never look at a cabbage in quite the same way.