English sound engineer Guilderoy (Jones) has arrived at an Italian film studio to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. Known for his work on nature documentaries, the reserved Englishman assumes this will be similar sort of film. In fact, it is a graphic horror movie. "I don't work on this kind of film" he tells producer Francesco (Fusco) as they view a scene of an extreme nature. Unfamiliar with the Italians' work he just saw the word "equestrian" and assumed it was some sort of horse documentary. As a blood curdling scream rips out the speakers, the producer shrugs. "She is a horse rider, she just isn't riding one now."
Initially welcomed with Italian warmth, Guilderoy finds the working environment increasingly stressful. He can't speak the language, doesn't understand the studio hierarchy and begins to have difficulties with his expenses. As the work progresses the darkness of the supernatural film they are working on begins to bleed subtly into the studio environment and beyond.
This is an extraordinary second feature from writer-director Strickland. Like the brilliant Belgian film Amer, Berberian Sound Studio is not a traditional horror movie, occupying the shadowlands where horror bleeds into the art film. However it does develop a palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia. The sound studio is a hermetically sealed environment in which Guilderoy works, eats and sleeps (or does he?) surrounded by walls and corridors. As the film progresses an becomes ever darker, logic and reason fall away and the film becomes mysterious, inscrutable even. This has lead to the inevitable David Lynch comparisons. While it is true that Strickland's use of velvet darkness to coat of the edges of the frame is reminiscent of Lost Highway, Berberian Sound Studio is a film steeped in knowledge and love of Italian horror cinema (in particular the Giallo sub-genre).
Apart from the film's brilliant credit sequence, which is actually the credits of The Equestrian Vortex with made up names and all, we never see the horror film that is being worked upon. Instead we see the actors, technicians and filmmaker's reactions to the film. Footage is of course projected in the studio. We see the dance of light through celluloid but we never see the projectionist, only (in a brilliant flourish) his black gloved hands. Were these Strickland's hands I wonder? The entire foundation of the film is a meticulous and fascinating recreation of the working of an Italian audio studio where every sounds is created and all dialogue dubbed, looped, treated and mutated. This is an audiophile's wet dream of a film.
This is not a film that explains itself, and individual viewers will have their own theories (I cannot wait to hear these) but for me the film is similar in theme to the brilliant novel Flicker by the late cultural theorist Theodore Roszak and also Cigarette Burns, John Carpenter's great episode of the Masters of Horror TV anthology. The act of sound recording becomes a ritual echoing the supernatural ritual depicted in The Equestrian Vortex, that ritual conjures up spirits and bends reality. There is a line I think is key. An actress tries to tell Guilderoy that he needs to understand why he was hired, they are interrupted and the question is never answered. I think this is at the heart of the film, I think the Englishman may be a sacrificial lamb in a way not dissimilar to Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. Certainly Guilderoy's connection to nature and a pastoral world is important, as is the recurring image of the discarded vegetables used by the foley artists rotting in the studio. Multiple viewings will be required, but by golly I think I'm onto something ...
... or perhaps he's just having a nervous breakdown. It is up to the viewer to decide.
Can Berberian Sound Studio be called a horror film? When Guilderoy finally meets Santini (Mancino), the flamboyant director of The Equestrian Vortex, he makes the mistake of calling it a horror picture. The director bristles, and puffs up like a cobra. "This is not a horror film. This is a Santini film!"
Berberian is not a horror film. It is a Peter Strickland film.