Right from the start of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio we are immersed in a bizarre and claustrophobic world which soon unravels into one of violence and paranoia.
Set in Italy in the early 1970s, we are introduced to a Gilderoy, a middle-aged sound engineer played by Toby Jones who has been tasked with providing the sound effects for a sinister film called the Equestrian Vortex.
The film is produced in the trashy but violent and sexually charged giallo genre and although we are given a brief glimpse of it through the opening credits – which are shot in black and blood red – it is brought to life purely by the sounds manufactured in the studio and the story board which is both clinical and horrific.
At first the sound effects raise a wry smile; there is a marrow being dropped which emulates the sound of a body crashing to the floor and stems being pulled from radishes to recreate the sound hair being pulled from the witches’ heads.
But soon the rotting vegetables start to pile up and mimic the ‘putrid corpses of witches’ which are discovered in the film. Later Gilderoy, with a murderous glint in his eye, relishes stabbing cabbages to create the sound of a body being mutilated, its veined flesh looking strangely human.
At one point, Gilderoy questions the extreme violence he is supposed to evoke through sound. But the engineer, who even sleeps in a small room in the studio, quickly becomes aware that there is no respite from this subterranean world whose corridors resemble a mortuary. The outside, referred to briefly with the mention of cocktails on the terrace, bears little resemblance to this dark, windowless place which is prone to power cuts.
The violent themes of the Equestrian Vortex are mirrored in the studio, with women bearing the brunt of this ill-treatment. Tellingly, director Santini treats his dog better than the actresses who create the blood-curdling screams for the film. By the end, even Gilderoy becomes involved in this abuse, using his technical skills to create a high frequency sound to assert his power over an actress who does not conform.
Berberian Sound Studio is beautifully shot, compelling and wonderfully sound tracked; it is without one of the finest films I have seen this year. It is on until Thursday at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.