out of Five
Running time: 92
Brilliantly directed, cleverly written and beautifully designed drama that plays like a disturbing Lynchian loveletter to the art of horror filmmaking and features a terrific performance from Toby Jones.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga), Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s and stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a tweedy British sound designer from Surrey who travels to the titular studio in Italy in order to begin work on the soundtrack of garish giallo-esque Italian horror movie called The Equestrian Vortex, about undead witches tormenting a group of sexy riding students. Struggling with the language barrier and overwhelmed by the colourful personalities surrounding him, Gilderoy becomes increasingly psychologically disturbed by his work on the film and soon his struggles to reclaim his expenses from the recalcitrant secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou) seem like the least of his problems.
Toby Jones delivers one of his best performances as Gilderoy, a mild-mannered man (he still lives with his mother) who's poured his heart and soul into his highly skilled work at the expense of a private life. There's also strong support from Sotiropoulou (wonderful as Elena) and colourful turns from Cosimo Fusco and Antonio Mancino as Corragio and Santini, the flamboyant director and producer of The Equestrian Vortex.
The film pours lovingly over every detail of Gilderoy's artistry, from the painstakingly written-out charts of which sound should go where to the nuts and bolts of foley work, deciding which type of cabbage sounds most like a head being caved in and so on. With this in place, the cleverly written script achieves some extraordinary effects, drip-feeding information about the film-within-a-film so that we understand what the sounds will be used for as we hear them and wince accordingly, even though we never see a frame of the actual film.
Strickland's direction is intensely claustrophobic throughout, heightened by some impeccable production design work and the fact that the action is largely restricted to the cramped sound studio. In addition, the script is often darkly funny (it's hard not to love a screenplay that refers to a “dangerously aroused goblin”) and subtly layers in several intriguing details; for example, it's mentioned that Gilderoy worked on children's television programmes, so it's tempting to imagine him hard at work on The Clangers and the like.
That said, it's fair to say that the distinctly Lynchian climax (think Mulholland Drive/Lost Highway) won't necessarily work for everyone, but it will at least provide plenty of fodder for post-film pub discussion and Strickland includes a number of scenes that are brilliantly disturbing in unexpected ways.
By turns chilling, disturbing and darkly funny, this is a highly original horror-tinged drama with stunning sound design, a brilliantly clever script and a terrific central performance from Toby Jones. Highly recommended.
Berberian Sound Studio (R15)