If a horror film can be reasonably likened to a bear trap, then the audience’s enjoyment, with exceptions, probably resides mostly in the first two acts as the filmmakers go about gradually winding and setting the spring. With Berberian Sound Studio, writer-director Peter Strickland has found an unusual solution for providing a catharsis that doesn’t compromise the dread he’s conjured: He doesn’t provide one at all, and that violation of narrative expectation is more disturbing than the emergence of a third-act ghoulie. In fact, one can reasonably assert that Berberian Sound Studio isn’t so much a horror film as an unusual workplace drama that follows a hero who’s having a very bad professional go of things.
Strickland obviously hasn’t invented this approach, and Berberian Sound Studio bears a great resemblance to certain H.P. Lovecraft stories as well as, explicitly, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and not just because both movies follow isolated heroes who go about endlessly tinkering with audio effects. Both toy with the ambiguity of a perfectionist who’s so lonely and egotistical he’s possibly having to invent a conspiracy to justify his mounting anxiety, or perhaps his anxiety has heightened his senses to a level of acuteness that enables him to suss out a dormant evil that’s hiding from everyone else in plain sight.
Here the lonely hero is Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British Foley artist working in the titular Italian studio on a gory giallo that concerns the vicious murder and subsequent wrath of a coven of witches. We never see the giallo, but most of Berberian Sound Studio allows us to watch as Gilderoy and the cast go about creating its soundscape with crushed melons and chopped vegetables, which stand in for the crushing and hissing of severed limbs and smashed heads and burning bodies. Gilderoy, who appears to be a bit of a prudish dandy, is often visibly disgusted with the film he’s working on, as he’d rather be mixing one of his lovely, soothing nature films.
On the surface, Strickland’s film is an amusing black comedy that parodies the horror movie’s continual status as the cultural black sheep of the cinematic landscape, but the filmmaker is most prominently concerned with painting a sonic portrait of alienation. Gilderoy is lost among the sexy, boorish Italians he’s forced to work with, a cultural cliché as deliberately and purposefully etched as the hero’s contrastingly foppish characterization, and he takes deeper and deeper solace in notes back home from his mother, who informs him of a nest of birds.
Giallo fans will be primed for the witches’ literal emergence, but Strickland never quite goes there, as he hauntingly forces you to create a profoundly frightening horror film in your mind with the rich tapestry of sound effects. The director astutely plants certain telling visual details and puns (such as a repeated close-up of a gloved hand that could just as easily be twisting a neck as adjusting various technical knobs), but he leaves you largely stuck on the outside looking in as Gilderoy either discovers a real evil or shambles irrevocably off into a realm fashioned by an increasingly addled mind. Either way, Strickland understands the most terrifying subtext of any horror movie and brings it brilliantly to the forefront: the fear that you, and everyone else, are all alone.