Unsound design

Director Peter Strickland brings the often under-appreciated art of sound design to the fore with Berberian Sound Studio, a richly photographed horror movie that cuts to the heart of female exploitation in genre films.

Though this is not the first time sound has been used to supplant violent imagery, rarely has it been used to greater effect. The audience never sees firsthand the depravity of the film-within-a-film at the core of story. Yet what unfolds is never a mystery as the studio’s projectionist very helpfully gives a matter-of-fact synopsis of each scene before he runs each reel. Strickland has learned well what all of the best horror directors know: the imagination can conjure up more unsettling images than he can perhaps show, making it simultaneously more tasteful and disturbing.

Berberian Sound Studio is at its best when it lets the seemingly routine business of sound design represent the exploitation of women in horror, as that film’s director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), is quick to point out that he doesn’t like the atrocities he presents but feels duty bound to tell the truth. “These things happened,” he tells us and we are expected to take him at his word, while in the voiceover booth his actresses are berated for their feeble screams.

Toby Jones in 'Berberian Sound Studio'

Toby Jones’s mild-mannered Englishman Gilderoy, selected personally and brought to Italy by Santini, is the foil to Sound Studio‘s misogynist staff, most especially the sound supervisor, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who repeatedly tells Gilderoy to be more polite, more considerate whenever the nervous Englishman tries to apply an ounce of professionalism.

Jones is at his wincing best when reproducing the movie butchery by regularly butchering produce, the remains of which are shown in visceral closeup, looking all the world like slaughtered human remains. The rending of stalks from radishes against the screams of a “witch” — a striking surrogate to the rending of hair from scalp — is still a visual and aural atrocity. Even the name Berberian is merely a vowel away from barbarian.

With such a solid foundation on which to build his horror, and a fascinating animadversion of the treatment of women in the genre, it’s curious that Strickland should switch gears in the third act and opt for esotericism. While Jones is a marvelous proxy for the audience (even if his mumbly London English is strangely less intelligible than the native Italian speakers), it doesn’t serve to throw him into an incongruous third act fantasy that was more coherent in the infamous Last Action Hero.

There’s an often thin line between cryptic and opaque and though Berberian Sound Studio strays a bit too far to the latter, blunting its otherwise unsettling metaphorical violence, it’s not quite enough to unravel what preceded it.

Goes great with: Session 9 (2001). An atmospheric creeper about an asbestos removal crew working at an abandoned mental asylum, and the mounting tensions between them as they begin exhibiting unusual behavior. Director Brad Anderson hired experimental music band Climax Golden Twins to score his subtle psychological horror and what they created is a fascinating aura that defies conventional motion picture composings.