Thunk. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Sorry, that was the sound of feedback. And this is the look of feedback: I saw the tremendous new movie Berberian Sound Studio yesterday and it’s all about the audio. Not since The Conversation do I remember seeing so much sound on the screen. Writer-director Peter Strickland has, with his second film, created a hymn to magnetic tape, but shaped it as a period thriller that weaves psychological shocks into an everyday story of recording folk.
Strickland wowed the festival circuit in 2009 with his first film, horse-and-cart revenge thriller Katalin Varga, which I watched on DVD during the Olympics. He funded it with inheritance money, having struggled to get his short films seen previously. Though British, I think he lived and taught in Hungary and Katalin Varga is set and shot in Hungarian-speaking Romania. A labour of love, it’s anything but indulgent: spare, slow-moving, modern-yet-ancient and genuinely gripping.
But Berberian Sound Studio is something else entirely.
It’s the 1970s; all browns and more browns. Toby Jones is intuitively cast as Gilderoy, a polite, suburban, mummy’s-boy sound engineer out of water at an Italian dubbing, foley and effects studio. Having seemingly made his reputation recording the sound for travelogues about his native Dorking, he has been hired by an Argento-like Italian horror director and his severe producer to weave his radiophonic magic on their latest witchcraft slasher, The Equestrian Vortex. If all this sounds a little spoofy, it is, with some spot-on blood-red credits for the movie-within-a-movie. It’s a movie about the movies, seeped in nostalgia for a more hands-on, analogue era, when tape spooled and great big, clunky switches were thrown and, in the world of grisly foley, watermelons were hacked up. In the first act, Strickland has plenty of fun with the in-jokes. More seasoned students of Italian giallo cinema will no doubt find even more to enjoy than I did, as, for all the hints of darkness, anxiety and intrigue, it’s OK to snigger along as a marrow is adjudged “too watery” to sound like a witch’s body falling from a tower and splatting on the ground below, and a seasoned thespian stands in the booth making disgusting noises to convey a goblin who is “dangerously aroused.”
It is a dark, ridiculous, eccentric, hermetic world, but an utterly convincing one. Strickland ensures that every footstep on the lino of a sanitised corridor feels real; this film takes tactile to new levels – when a spider gently crawls over Gilderoy’s hand, gently blown free, you half-expect to be able to hear its footsteps too. By turning up the mics, just as Gilderoy does, Strickland accentuates every seemingly insignificant click and crunch and hiss. Close-ups of needles and gauges and call sheets infuse this psychological horror movie about horror movies with love for the world it inhabits. Those around Gilderoy often speak in Italian, so that we know what they’re saying, via subtitles, but he is an alien landscape, his paranoia building.
I won’t go into any story details – even though the trailer, which has been on heavy location at the Curzon for months, gives a lot away – other than to say it’s a claustrophobic experience that very rarely ventures outside of the studio. If you hear footsteps on dried leaves, they are as likely to be footsteps on dried leaves in a pit in the studio as, well, dried leaves on the ground. Gilderoy’s mother’s letters, which Strickland blows up, full-screen, and allows us time to read, offer a glimpse of simple, bucolic Surrey life, and of the shed he usually works in (“room for two people at a time”, he says), and the effect is quite profound, even moving.
If you’re a cinephile, or someone who, like me, loves the 70s, Berberian Sound Studio has been made for you. But it is so much more than a magic carpet ride for valve-freaks. It is frequently terrifying, without ever showing the depraved Italian film that’s being so inventively and mundanely dubbed – it’s a case of what you don’t see.
This is a film that should be seen and heard. It’s not totally conventional, and plays the occasional temporal and narrative trick, but these flourishes are always underpinned by a truly thrilling sense of place. By the end of the film, you’ll feel as if you could find your way around Berberian Sound Studios, from the reception desk where Gilderoy’s plane ticket waits vainly to be reimbursed, to the mixing room where a taciturn, overall-wearing engineer grimly blanks Gilderoy because he interfered with his faders.
For the record, I really think we should give a ripple of applause to the Sound Department, which numbers around 20 people, from ADR recordist Ruben Aguirre Barba and sound consultant Emanuele Carcone to sound re-recording mixer Doug Cooper and Robert Karlsson, who, according to imdb, is the uncredited Dolby sound consultant (what a mysterious man).
Although it’s eerie and sad to see the name of Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, who died last year aged just 42, in the credits, she and James Cargill have supplied a suitably esoteric and period-appropriate soundtrack which stands as a fitting memorial to her. In a film about sound, this is not background music. Broadcast are signed to Warp Records, whose impressive film arm Warp X produced Berberian Sound Studio, with funding from Screen Yorkshire and the old Film Council. One imagines that Peter Strickland will not have to rely on an uncle’s inheritance to make feature films any more. This puts him on the map. And not just a map of Dorking and Box Hill.
Ooh, and if you’re not lucky enough to live near an arthouse cinema – and I appreciate that not everybody is – you can stream Berberian Sound Studio via Curzon On Demand right now, if you can afford £10 a pop. It’s here. (It’s a rich archive, too; Katalin Varga is also there.)