REVIEW BASED UPON THE ARTIFICIAL EYE BLU-RAY RELEASE
Verdict: 10 out of 10
Already being hailed as one of the best films of 2012, and with a great deal of positive praise being heaped on Director Peter Strickland, “Berberian Sound Studio” is now ready to reach a much wider audience than it’s original theatrical release permitted as it arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray. But, put simply, is all the positive buzz as valid as you’ve been led to believe?
Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a middle-aged and stuffy English Foley/SFX Artist, accepts a job offer to work in Italy on a film called “The Equestrian Vortex” being made by Director Giancarlo Santini and his Producer Francesco Corragio. All of Gilderoy’s previous work has been focussed on dubbing and mixing all manner of sound effects for nature and children’s programmes based around his home town of Dorking. The last thing he expects upon arrival is to be thrust into the sleazy and brutal world Italian Giallo movies. In the 1970’s, during the heyday of Dario Argento (“The Bird With The Crustal Plumage” being his most accomplished example of a true Giallo work) and Mario Bava, Italy was awash with these kind of films. Giallo movies were based on the wildly popular yellow-jacketed paperbacks of the era, whose plots were essentially whodunnits with a real slice (pun intended) of violence and gore to whet the Latin appetite. Gilderoy finds himself unwittingly submerged into this strange, dark and vicious environment without the benefit of any language skills, and as his senses are assaulted by on screen imagery and endless screaming his sanity begins to unravel…
“The Berberian Sound Studio” is Peter Stickland’s second film after “Katalin Varga” in 2009, and it is more than fair to say that almost from the very outset it is clear that there is more than just an assured hand at work here. Strickland is a master with the use of visuals and framing, drawing his audience into the fragmented world of Gilderoy through a powerful technical arsenal that leaves the audience almost constantly unsettled and tense. In one scene where Gilderoy literally starts to experience the doors from one reality burst open into another, the sequence ends with the print seemingly being burnt away as the negative unspools amidst an aural assault. Arguably this is where Strickland as both Writer and Director has achieved something truly remarkable; under his control the screen no longer protects the audience. We are all literal observers to Gilderoy’s meltdown, and it is with this technique that the film manages to achieve it’s unsettling yet mesmerising atmosphere.
Many reviewers have already likened the elliptical nature of “Berberian Sound Studio” to the works of David Lynch, and while there are some striking similarities in the technical mastery on view here, Strickland’s vision is truly unique, and in many ways truly British. This is a film that at its very core explores with great detail how the typical British ‘stiff upper lip’ condition merely heightens the sense of alienation and psychosis experienced by the main protagonist. Arguably this would never have had such a huge ring of truth if any other nationality, or perhaps even any other Director were exploring it.
It is also worth bearing in mind that those with knowledge of 70’s Italian filmmaking will find an even deeper level of appreciation for the movie. From the technical elements it explores, such as dubbing and sound mixing, through to the Producer being responsible for the actual soundtrack of many Latin films of the era, it shows an impressive eye for detail throughout. Additionally, the use of colour and texture is not only convincingly period, but pays homage to the likes of Argento, Bava and even Fulci through the ridiculous yet sadistically violent plot of “The Equestrian Vortex”. Interestingly enough we never see a single frame of this film-within-a-film, but instead are constantly being told about it through the use of edit cues, over-dubbing of dialogue, and the loud smashing of watermelons to mimic the sound of crushed skulls. This subtle concept of using the audience’s imagination to create the images of extreme horror in their minds without showing anything at all on-screen, is something that was first perfected with the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (unsurprisingly, in 1971). Strickland uses it here brilliantly, and Toby Jones as Gilderoy is utterly compelling as he shows us everything through his facial ticks and mannerisms. One moment, which features Jones in a very slow close-up as his face reacts to what he sees on the screen in front of him, almost seals the actor a place at the top table with some of the greatest character actors in the business today.
“Berberian Sound Studio” is certainly not for everyone, and I can imagine that those raised on a diet of extreme Hostel-esque savagery will be utterly bewildered by the whole thing. However, that is perhaps the whole point. What Peter Strickland has achieved is what can perhaps only be described as something akin to ‘horror-art’. This may not be as new as it sounds, however: both “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been permanent exhibits at Art Museums across America, and there is now another film that in time may deserve to stand alongside them. It is one of the best British films I have seen in a long time, and perhaps the most visually challenging movie since David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” in 1986.
If you are someone who appreciates that horror can be a true art form in the right hands, or a fan of Italian cinema, then you will find “The Berberian Sound Studio” a work of sheer brilliance. Hopefully its power can transcend such a limited audience over time, as I suspect that like the work of some of the world’s best cinematic auteurs that this will become a high profile cult classic. I suspect that this is just the beginning for someone with talents as rich as Peter Strickland. I simply cannot wait to see what he plans to do next.
The Last Word:
A truly mesmerising piece of filmmaking, that paints the production in a fresh and wholly subjective light. Psychological art-house horror at it’s absolute best.