Frightfest Day Four: Berberian Sound Studio Ian White August 28, 2012 Features, Film4 Frightfest 2009 It’s 1976, and a nervy English sound engineer called Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been summoned to Italy to work on an exploitation horror film called ‘The Equestrian Vortex’. Poor Gilderoy is out of his depth in so many ways. For a start, he lives with his mother in Dorking and specialises in composing sounds for local nature documentaries. Next, he’s an anxious sort who not only can’t speak the language but is quickly bullied into submission by his imperious new colleagues, particularly producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and cult (although subtly respelling that word would provide a more appropriate description) movie director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) who hails Gilderoy as some kind of genius but is more interested in harassing his actresses than supervising the soundtrack of his film. Even when Gilderoy first arrives and asks studio secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou, soon to be seen in ‘Skyfall’) who he should give his airline receipts to, he’s rapidly put in his place and sent on a wild goose chase that will probably never end with his expenses reimbursed. The Berberian Sound Studio won’t win any award for workplace of the year. But it’s the movie within the movie which is giving Gilderoy his biggest headache. Although we never see a single frame of ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ (apart from an excellently realised title sequence, all black silhouettes against a blood red screen, so convincingly put together it’s hard to believe it wasn’t made by a giallo director in the mid-seventies) we do hear a lot of it as Gilderoy expertly mixes the actresses screams with handmade gore effects, ripping apart vegetables and splattering watermelons and spraying himself with tomato soup as he uses a liquidizer to create a convincing chainsaw effect. What we do know, from listening to the various cues that describe the action onscreen, is that ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ is a film about the sadistic interrogation of witches. But as Gilderoy’s insecurities develop into paranoia, and Gilderoy’s grip on reality begins to slip away, it becomes obvious that Gilderoy is involved in something a lot darker and more unsettling than just producing foley for some third-rate slasher movie. Has actress-with-a-grudge Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), the only character who seems to show Gilderoy any genuine kindness, woven some kind of horrendous spell and made the witchcraft of the film something real? Or is the too-tightly-buttoned Gilderoy, whose letters from Mum quickly turn from happily describing chiffchaffs nesting in the garden shed to, as the little man’s grip finally loosens, describing how she’s just found the chiffchaff’s bodies torn up by a predator, slipping into the nightmarish world of the film’s imagination? When he wakes up to find one of the actresses standing over him with a knife, is it a dream? When he plays and replays the screams of another actress, he can’t bring himself to turn off the tape even though he wants to. And when the actress brought in to replace Silvia can’t produce realistic enough screams, has Gilderoy’s mind snapped so far that he takes a sadistic pleasure in turning up the frequencies inside her headphones until her very real pain elicits the screams he’s looking for? Peter Strickland has directed an intriguing film heavy with atmosphere. It looks, feels and sounds genuine all the way to the edges of the frame – Strickland even enlisted legendary giallo star Suzy Kendall to supply some of the screaming – and it’s undoubtedly a heartfelt celebration of seventies giallo and the chaotic genius of Italian horror cinema. It’s a tour-de-force and was extremely well received by the FrightFest audience. But I wasn’t crazy about it. And I’ve thought about it a lot over the past couple of days and, even though I’m prepared to accept that when you watch film after film at an occasion like FrightFest inevitably you miss a few details, especially in a film like this one where realities keep shifting and there are stories within stories and, in this case, even the soundtrack becomes its own character… I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. It felt like an exercise in style over substance (in perfect keeping with much of 1970s Italian horror) but there were moments, particularly in the last reel, that felt like Strickland was just showing off his giallo knowledge and telling us how clever he can be, and I lost patience with the whole story. Also, Gilderoy (and I don’t want to take anything away from Toby Jones’ performance) was too mousey and submissive to hold my attention. Even when he tries to assert himself he gets smacked down too quickly. And what I really wanted to see was the suggestion of witchcraft, of some kind of occult relationship between the film and events in the real world, get some type of pay-off. I’m still not entirely sure what the true pay-off was, but I don’t think it was that one. In truth, although I wouldn’t honestly ever want to watch ninety minutes of unrelenting witch torture, I’d rather have sat through ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ than ‘Berberian Sound Studio’. If you ever want to watch a great movie about a shy sound engineer who loses his grip on reality, check out Manuli and Nichetti’s wonderfully charming ‘Volere Volare’ (1991) instead. It’s not a horror movie but neither, ultimately, is ‘Berberian’. I’ll go back to the ‘Volere Volare’ sound studio any time. ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ is not a place I’d ever care to visit again.