Directed by: Peter Strickland.
Written by: Peter Strickland.
Starring: Toby Jones (Gilderoy), Tonia Sotiropoulou (Elena), Cosimo Fusco (Francesco), Susanna Cappellaro (Veronica), Chiara D'Anna (Elisa), Eugenia Caruso (Claudia), Antonio Mancino (Santini), Lara Parmiani (Chiara), Fatma Mohamed (Silvia), Guido Adorni (Giovanni), Pal Toth (Massimo), Salvatore LI Causi (Fabio), Jozef Cseres (Massimo).
Berberian Sound Studio is a horror movie about the making of a horror movie that curiously contains no actual violence. All the horror exists inside the head of the main character – a mild mannered English foley artist who heads to Italy to work on a horror film – that sounds kind of like Dario Argento’s Suspiria from 1977. His name is Gilderoy and is played by Toby Jones – and if there’s anything better than Toby Jones playing a man named Gilderoy when you want a mild mannered Englishman, I don’t know what it is. Gilderoy isn’t used to making these types of films – he’s more of a nature documentary kind of guy – so the question immediately becomes why they hired him in the first place? And why don’t they seem to like him very much? And why won’t they reimburse him for the flight to get there? And what is with all those increasingly creepy letters from his mother back home?
Berberian Sound Studio is a fascinating film on several levels. For one, it shows how sound effects used to be achieved. As Gilderoy watches the horror unfolding onscreen (horror that we never see, as the camera remains fixated on Gilderoy’s face as he watches), he see him chopping fruits and vegetables, and doing sort of other tricks to make everything sound appropriately creepy and bloody. Try closing your eyes in these scenes after your know what the sound really is, and it’s still creepy.
But the film is even better as a character study of Gilderoy, who slowly comes unraveled. Is it the images on the screen – which we hear about repeatedly but never see – that starts him on his downward spiral towards madness? Or was he already on the downward slope when he arrived in Italy? And what of that strange flight that he insists he was on, but the studio accountants say they can find no record of? Is the finale all in Gilderoy’s head, or is there some real external threat out there?
It’s to the movie’s credit that it never really reveals the answers to these questions. Written and directed by Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio is one of the creepiest movies of the year – a film that doesn’t rely on violence and blood in order to shock the audience, but rather on mood and atmosphere. As Gilderoy, Jones delivers an excellent performance – outwardly, he is the nicest, quietest man imaginable, even as he starts to lose his mind. But there is something off about him as well – even from the beginning, something creepy and just not quite right. Nowhere is this highlighted more than in the letters than periodically come from his mother back home, that get increasingly dark and violent.
Berberian Sound Studio is a movie made for movie lovers. It takes a look back at cinema’s past, and explores the power that movies hold over us. It is also one of the best horror movies of the year.