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DVD Watch: 'Berberian Sound Studio'

Analog audio horror that will send a chill through your ears
Richard Whittaker, 11:30am, Tue. Dec. 10, 2013

Just over a year ago, I saw a movie that, after I finished, I really didn't know how I felt about it. My only thought was, "I really need to see this again."

Berberian Sound Studio, which screened at Fantastic Fest 2012, is frustrating, shattered, brilliant, and entrancing. The second feature from British director Peter Strickland, it is a warped and highly literate love letter to the power of sound. Most especially, it is Strickland's depiction of how the aural architects of Italian horror cinema and giallo warped a generation of minds.

Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Hunger Games) plays Gilderoy, a squat, quietly intense, English sound engineer. He's been hired by exploitation Italian filmmaker Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) to mix his next film, a supernatural shocker called The Equestrian Vortex. It's a change for Gilderoy, who is far more used to creating the soundscape for pastoral documentaries. (As an extra on this disc, Strickland helpfully includes one he made specially for the movie, a guide to the lovely Box Hill.) However, it's a long way from the Norfolk Downs to the titular studio. An alien abroad, at a time when British people saw the rest of Europe as exotic beyond measure, Gilderoy is out of his depth from the moment he arrives.

Think of it as the evil twin of this year's other sonicly infatuated feature, In a World (read our interview with writer/star/director Lake Bell). Of course, there's always going to be some naysaying about making a film (a visual medium) about sound, but cinema is sound as much as it vision, and has been since The Jazz Singer. Gilderoy is used to creating pleasing noises: Now his mental state collapses as he tries to find the right mix for satanic incantations, or the most accurate stand-in for an axe to the head. All the while, the rest of the crew wheedle and manipulate, and the witch-burning influence of The Equestrian Vortex seems to seep out beyond the screen.

There is no blood, no physical violence (except for some serious vegetable abuse). Even the super-gory film within the film is kept hidden, with the audience left to fill in the gaps as the foley artists give sonic life to visceral death. But Strickland isn't interested in blood squibs and silicone wounds. He's fascinated by the power of reverb and weird sounds to create fear.

It's also undoubtedly a film obsessed with analog technology, with editing razors and grease pens. "I couldn't have made this film in 2012 with a bunch of laptops running protools," Strickland explains in his director's commentary. His monologue is as gloriously frustrating as the film itself. He resolutely (and rightly so) refuses to explain exactly what is happening inside the studio. Yet he does give hints, clues, and references, like an intro to a master class on sound design. Even the title (an homage to avant garde lounge singer Cathy Berberian) is something the audience needs go away and research.

But it's not affectation or mere set dressing. Strickland's story is told in loops and motifs. Few directors are prepared to tell a story in so determinedly non-linear a fashion, and most that would simply get written off as David Lynch wannabes. However, Strickland is an heir to great experimenters like Kenneth Anger and Peter Greenaway, and his narrative is purposefully disjointed, repeating itself, hinting, and foreshadowing. The cast is filled with real sound engineers and avant garde vocal performers, giving this unreal environment a sense of grounded terror.

And that's part of why this is such an earworm. It demands complete attention and intellectual curiosity. At the same time, nothing creates a more visceral response than a scream. Strickland balances the visceral and the cerebral to create a film that will fascinate, infuriate and terrify in equal measures.


Berberian Sound Studio (IFC) is out now. Also released this week:

Fast & Furious 6 (Universal Studios) A sad moment, as the latest installment in the franchise that made Paul Walker a household name gets its home release. (Read our review here.)

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor (BBC Home Entertainment) Five decades of the greatest, longest running TV science fiction show: now for the next five decades.

Man of Tai Chi (Anchor Bay) Keanu Reeves' hard-hitting martial arts fantasy, intended to make stunt man Tiger Chen an international star. (Read our review here and our interview with Reeves here.)

The Hunt (Magnolia) Thomas Vinterberg places Mads Mikkelsen under the microscope as a man falsely accused of sexual abuse. (Read our review here.)

Despicable Me 2 (Universal) More Gru and more minions doesn't add up to much more fun. (Read our review here.)

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