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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

The Horror of the Unseen in ‘Berberian Sound Studio’

I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies lately in anticipation of Halloween. One that stood out was “Berberian Sound Studio”, an independent British film from 2012. Directed by Peter Strickland, it tells the story of a shy sound engineer named Gilderoy and his slow descent into madness while he mixes the sound for a Gothic Italian Horror film. It’s light on plot and relies primarily on visuals and sound to drive the movie forward, which gives the film a very atmospheric, moody vibe.

Although the visuals and music carry most of the film, the human side of the┬ámovie is driven by the nuanced performance of Toby Jones. With his baby face and nervous mannerisms, Jone’s Gilderoy is a cautious man of simple pleasures. He lives in the English countryside with his mum, doing sound work primarily for children’s programs and nature documentaries. His skills got him the attention of Italian auteur Giancarlo Santini, whose film “The Equestrian Vortex” is much different from anything Gilderoy had previously worked on.

Other than a cool retro title sequence, film-within-a-film is never shown, but the audience gets an idea from its content from watching the process of recording its sound. The voice dubbing is primarily the female actors screaming, as well as a man playing Goblin obscenely raving. But the majority of film is spent in observance of the foley work. “The Equestrian Vortex”, for all of Santini’s philosophical and historical justifications, mostly seems to consist of horrible acts of violence against women.

We hear women having their hair ripped out, women being stabbed, drowned, tortured, chopped to bits, pushed out of windows, and several even more grisly fates. Because the acts are never shown on screen, we as an audience experience them through the sound, which all happens to be made by vegetables. By the end of the film, lettuce, radishes, squash, and watermelons take on a sinister tone as they stand-in for brutalized flesh. We never see the violence being committed, but hearing it becomes almost as bad.

Throughout the film, many a slow pan over rotting, gnarled vegetables become unsettling by their association with violence. During all of this, we see Gilderoy react to the violence, and we also see him participating in it vicariously, which all leads to his mental deterioration. But the interesting tension in the film comes from what is shown and not shown, what is seen and what is heard. And by subverting film’s tendency to be a show-not-tell medium, “Berberian Sound Studio” really becomes an interesting experiment.

The choices of what is heard but not shown leads to a transfiguration of common associations of slasher films and films in general. Because of its self-referential construction and Strickland’s clear reverence for film as a medium, “Berberian Sound Studio” explores the nature and expectations of film as a medium in both a literal and meta sense. The film itself is about the behind the scenes aspects of filmmaking, and the merging of the worlds of the film and real life. Many seemingly innocuous situations are imbued with creeping dread from the soundtrack and Gilderoy’s increasing paranoia and alienation. The darkened studio where most of the film takes place is unfamiliar territory to him, and he is surrounded by hostile employers and employees who speak a different language and share different values than him. His brief moments of calm come when he reads letters from his mum while listening to recorded sounds of his rural home. But even that ritual is soiled eventually, as the last half hour of the film descends into pure madness.

The film is stocked full of images of circles and loops, which carries over into the narrative and soundtrack as well. The analog fetishism places the film clearly in the 1970s, and also offers a tangible visual connection with the film’s structure. Circular objects like tapes, film canisters, knobs, mics, and blenders are shown recurrently. The analog fetishism places the film clearly in the 1970s, and also offers a tangible visual connection with the film’s structure. The structure is full of repeating images and themes which loop back on themselves as the world between the film and real life becomes increasingly blurred.

The violence against women in “The Equestrian Vortex”, exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, is brought back to the context of modern misogyny when one of the actresses reveals that Santini had been sexually harassing her. Gilderoy’s mention of work on nature documentaries is eventually followed through on by an intercutting of footage of an English countryside which may very well be from one of those documentaries. And towards the end, as Gilderoy’s voice begins to be dubbed over in Italian and his own life plays out on the screen, the loop of his own life and the film he is working on begin to converge in interesting ways.

The soundtrack itself also contains a lot of loops and recurring motifs. Interestingly enough, all of the sound and music in the film is diegetic, which further contributes to the sense that Gilderoy’s world is slowly melding with the world of the giallo film. The film’s end verges on incomprehensibility, but it remains interesting and provoking throughout.

The focus on sound, atmosphere, and colliding worlds makes the film a very immersive sensory experience. It would be a disservice to call the film a music video, but the fusion of visuals and sound works so well that the rhythm of the film makes watching the film akin listening to a really well put together piece of music. And though it is not particularly scary, and calling it a horror film would be a stretch, it does have a suitably paranoid and chilling atmosphere. I didn’t really talk about it much here, but it also has a fair bit of subtle but effective comedy, which shifts the tone of the film in a really appealing way. It all has me looking forward to Peter Strickland’s next film, “The Duke of Burgundy”, which purportedly does for erotic melodramas what “Berberian Sound Studio” does for horror films.

“Berberian Sound Studio” is available to stream on Netflix, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a more thoughtful and atmospheric take on the horror genre.

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