The golden age of horror: Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Chris: Berberian Sound Studio is an inverted horror movie. For the past month, we’ve seen again and again how the creative side–the cast and crew–affects a movie. Now we turn things inside out. Can the creative process of making a movie affect those who are working on it? Berberian Sound Studio says it definitely can, especially if the film is sufficiently filled with graphic images and depraved ideas. We’re shown a nebbish-like post production sound-mixing expert commissioned to work on such a film, and we watch it wreak havoc on his gentle sensibilities and mental health.

After the jump, I’d rather not get technical

Jason: I really loved this movie. From the very beginning, the sound and camera work set the scene for this amazingly dark, somewhat sweet, and wholly psychological film. Gilderoy, the main character, is a quiet mama’s boy that usually works on nature films. His inclusion in the crew for this film is a source of mystery for him, but he never gets an answer.

Chris: The setting for Berberian Sound Studio may require some horror movie vocabulary. Our man, hapless Gilderoy, thinks he’s been called in to help remix and redo the sound on a nice horse movie called The Equestrian Vortex. It isn’t a nice horse movie. It’s a giallo, that uniquely Italian 1970s cinema genre that incorporated equal doses of grindhouse and surrealism. We never see the movie within the movie here, other than a spectacular title sequence. Instead, we hear lurid descriptions and plot bits that clearly are not helping our protagonist’s fragile mental state.

Jason: At one point, Gilderoy mentions that he thought they were working on a horse picture to the producer who says something along the lines of “Oh, uh, yeah. She used to ride horses and stuff and now she doesn’t.” I guess instead of riding horses, she gets tortured by undead witches. Notably, I don’t think the witches got it all the great in the end either. There are a few lines of dialog that both make me laugh and wince at the same time.

Chris: I loved the bits of dialogue and sound cues here, and how they’re used. “Witch surprises Monica in her sleep and throws her out the window”…and then our intrepid foley artists smash overripe melons to the ground with heavy splats. “A little watery,” says Gilderoy, his face twisted with distaste. Director Peter Strickland fills the movie with moments like that. We can see what must be utterly disgusting video footage flickering on the Englishman’s face throughout. We see the horror in his eyes, the quaver in his chin. This isn’t the nature frolic he’d thought he’d signed up for. It isn’t just the movie that makes him uneasy, either; he’s plenty put off by the Italian post production crew working on it. Not only does he have trouble being reimbursed for his airfare to Italy, he can’t even seem to find out who it is who should handle such things. He doesn’t want to cause a fuss…but money really is tight, he tells a bored receptionist. He thinks constantly of the rustic little shed he records nature sounds from at his mother’s house (where he lives, we learn). He plays tape reels of her doorbell to try to soothe his own jangled nerves.

Jason: I’ve mentioned how much I like the camera work, and one of the bits that makes me love it is how stark – somewhat like Kubrick – and singularly focused it stays throughout. Since so much of the film is in the sound room, the camera will focus on the “silenzio” sign that flashes during recording. Often, the scene will involve Gilderoy sitting with the producer, recording dub and voiceover. The sound booth features mostly women – the nuns and the undead witches or whatever is going on – and features quite a bit of screaming. The producer never gets a scream he likes. After one screaming session, he notes to the actress that “I think the general consensus is that a red hot poker in a woman’s vagina is a very intense experience.” I think we would all agree.

Chris: That “silenzio” sign–meant to indicate recording in progress–freaked me right out. Jason’s also right about the camera work here. It’s gorgeous and stark. Every scene seems to have been fussed over at great length. Strickland is meticulous in his staging and setups. The director also makes this movie studio equipment porn. The vintage mixing gear and multitrack recorders are filmed with the same kind of leering yet longing with which Sports Illustrated shoots swimsuit models. There’s an incredible sensuality when we see hands operate potentiometers, sliders, dials and switches. An oscillator hums in the background, while black gloved hands (it is a giallo, after all) operate the film projector. This is vintage equipment porn of the highest order, and I ate all of that up. Any music fan is also used to hearing about “tape loops” in the recording process. Here we Gilderoy in his madness rig up the mother of all tape loop setups. It’s disturbing and beautiful all at once. If nothing else, Berberian Sound Studio induces incredible nostalgia for the days of analog recording.


Chris: What all that adds up to is a combination of visuals and sound that induces unease in us. We can see Gilderoy slipping away. We worry that a disgruntled actress with a legitimate axe to grind with The Equestrian Vortex’s lothario director Santini will get our timid hero in over his head. We end up at a climactic scene where there’s a match-cut between Gilderoy sleeping in his bedroom at night and him being attacked. The movie presents this masterfully while managing to be simultaneously subtle and explicit (no, really) about how far he’s finally gone ’round the bend.

Jason: Combined with the point we discover Gilderoy’s flight never left Heathrow, that scene with him being attacked in his sleep is one of the coolest parts of the movie to me. Gilderoy lies in his bed and, in complete silence, he is attacked. He struggles. You hear the projectors start up and the sound begin to run and suddenly Gilderoy’s struggle has sound! Switch to Gilderoy watching the scene with the producer, speaking perfect Italian and dressed with much more flair. He finds himself becoming part of what he has been forced to endure. It’s something akin to Munchausen syndrome.

Chris: What I also loved is that even though it appears that our hobbit-ish hero has become what he loathed, as he’s jacking up the feedback and sound levels into Elisa’s headphones to “torture” her into better screams, you can see tears welling in his eyes. The old Gilderoy is still in there, somewhere, but mostly buried. That part of him hates what he’s doing…but is helpless to stop.

I feel like we’ve been remiss in discussing the job that Toby Jones does here. He’s utterly fantastic throughout the film, a believably shlubby fellow who’s not only sheltered but perhaps so timid that we gradually start to understand the frustrations of those around him. The rest of the cast play delightfully into our expectations of what a giallo production crew should be. Cosimo Fusco is terrific as the badgering, bullying, often deluded Coraggio. Tonia Sotiropoulou–last seen as a Skyfall Bond girl–is magnificent as Elena the receptionist. “So it’s my department now?” she contemptuously asks Gilderoy, who’s simply wondering how he’ll be paid for his airfare to Italy.

Jason: Some of the actors and actresses provide a further glimpse into the action on screen as well. They have the lady come in to play the witch and she’s raspy and creepy, but my favorite was the goblin. They bring in this guy to make all these crazed demonic sounds, and the film spends a good bit of time focusing on this dude going nuts. Here’s what I put down in my notes: “The goblin is LOSING HIS SHIT. I guess that’s part of being a goblin.”

Chris: I’m an utter music geek, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this by talking about the soundtrack a bit. Peter Strickland has said he’d made a short, jokey version of the movie back in 2005, but then became interested in fleshing it out and making the film feature length. An avowed fan of experimental composers and avant-garde musicians, he no doubt spent some time attempting to find someone able to handle the composition demands of this film.

At the same time, a two-person British band called Broadcast had gone into deep studio hibernation themselves. They’d started out as a retro-influenced Britpop band in the 1990s, but with each subsequent album they’d gone further afield into experimental territory while still maintaining a link to their ethereal melodic roots. The duo, Trish Keenan and James Cargill, emerged after three years having crafted an even more untethered sound for themselves. The result was one of the more original records in recent memory, a record with the intriguing title “Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age” (“The Focus Group” is the duo’s longtime collaborator Julian House). The album is essentially a horror movie soundtrack without the actual film. It brings in field recordings, bizarre sound effects, tape loops, retro instrumentation, and pretty much anything else you might think of. It sounds like recordings of numbers stations in the spirit world, captured in a seance. Strickland heard the oddly beautiful, other-worldly-sounding recording and knew he’d found the perfect collaborators for his movie.

When Keenan and Cargill were asked to provide music and other sounds for Berberian Sound Studio, they jumped at the chance and began recording in earnest throughout much of 2010. Sadly, after returning from a brief tour of Australia in December of that year, Keenan was hospitalized with swine flu. She developed pneumonia and passed away a week later. Cargill somehow managed to complete the soundtrack to this film on his own, using their existing recordings, his own ingenuity, and her notes. What we hear in the movie–not just music, but also other bits that sound vaguely musical–is Broadcast with those haunting, looped, and manipulated voices representing some of Trish Keenan’s best, final work. I highly recommend the soundtrack to this movie–as well as the Witch Cults of the Radio Age record–as perfect, unsettling listening for a Halloween night.

(Berberian Sound Studio is available to stream for Netflix subscribers, and is available to purchase via the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)