Horror films are filled with the things that nightmares are supposedly made of: monsters, madmen, murder, assorted blood and guts.
But those are really just the props of nightmares — representations of the psychological terrors that really plague us: our fears about mortality, isolation, abandonment and failure. Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is one horror film that opts to skip the usual frolic among those metaphorical monsters in favor of a deeply unsettling dive into the subconscious.
It's also a movie about horror films themselves, and it accomplishes the tricky task of paying homage to one type of scary movie while indulging in an entirely different style itself. Strickland sets his story in Italy in the 1970s, at the height of that country's boom in giallo cinema — pulpy, gory, lurid murder mysteries made on the cheap, with the sound often sloppily added in during post-production rather than on set.
Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound man who's just arrived at the titular facility to work on creating the soundscape for The Equestrian Vortex, a bloody tale of horse-riding, witchcraft and gruesome killings.
But no image from that movie within the movie is ever shown on screen, and while giallos are defined by their gruesome violence, Berberian Sound Studio has none of its own. The terror Strickland is looking to inspire isn't the kind that shocks or startles; it creeps up, digs its claws into our insecurities, and attempts to quietly drown us in our own anxieties. The director may be overtly paying homage to Italian greats like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, but it's the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg whose influence help make it truly scary.
Strickland is just as meticulous as Lynch at creating unsettling atmosphere, often — appropriately enough in a film about a sound engineer — with his soundtrack. Long periods of silence are punctuated by the sudden clatter of analog studio equipment springing into action. Actors in booths voice sound effects and screams; somehow, it eventually becomes more disturbing watching them create these sounds without the context of the images that would normally go with them.
The director is equally careful about isolating his protagonist, creating an environment designed to leave him utterly alone and unable to control his surroundings — and then causing his reality to collapse around him, along with his sanity.
Gilderoy is completely unsuited for the project he's come to work on. He doesn't speak Italian. He is intimidated by both the macho men and the glamorous women of the production. (One suspects, based on the sweetly smothering letters from his mum, that he doesn't usually stray far from the small British town he calls home.)
To top it off, it turns out Gilderoy has never even worked on a horror film before: Strapped for cash, he accepted the job and flew to Italy without looking at a script, assuming based on the title that this was a project similar to the bucolic nature films that are his specialty. As he sits down for a peek at the rough cut with the film's overbearing producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), he's a little shocked at what he sees. But a job's a job.
Jones' performance matches the understated precision of Strickland's direction note for note. He plays Gilderoy as meek and painfully withdrawn, the sort of man who probably went into sound work to escape under his headphones; he works long hours late at night with a microphone, a sound board and as little contact with other people as possible. When frustration and fatigue begin to take hold in his unfamiliar new surroundings, he has no outlet for letting off steam.
It's true that Strickland is more interested in foreboding atmosphere and character study than in narrative. Berberian Sound Studio never pretends to be an easy viewing experience, even for Italian horror fans who may delight at Strickland's talent for re-creating the visual palette of those films. (He's having fun, too, subtly making light of their sound-design techniques — which frequently involve the savage destruction of various fruits and vegetables.) But difficult though it may be, this mesmerizing blur of reality and dream is a much better nightmare to be stuck in than one of our own. (Recommended)