Harsh Texture

Berberian Sound Studio

A sound engineer slowly unravels while working on hyper violent Italian horror film

Gilderoy, an english sound engineer arrives for work on an Italian film.  It was sold as an “equestrian” picture, a topic dear to his timid soul. When he sits in on a sound effects session the crew are whacking watermelons with machetes while the actresses scream in torment.  

“What kind of film is this, anyway?”

The film within a film is never shown aside from a mock credit sequence and a brief clip late in the picture, but given its affect on Gilderoy must be fantastically depraved and sadistic, like one of Bava and Argento’s sleek late 70s collaborations. Gilderoy’s sound engineering gradually makes him an complicit with the horrors on screen. Through countless takes he must devise audio illusions that recreate the experience of tearing hair out from the roots, smashing skulls, stabbing abdomens, and worse. All of this weighs heavily on Gidleroy’s gentle soul. Here is a man who maintains regular written correspondence with his “mum”, being forced to find the right sizzling sound for vaginal rape with a white hot poker.

Ultimately Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t succeed as a horror movie. The final third may reveal Gilderoy losing his mind, or it may be a bad dream, or it may be an attempt for a production with a shoestring budget to reuse previously shot footage. Whatever it is it’s more like a cheat than delivery of goods.

This is more of a piece with Beyond the Black Rainbow, both films share an absolute disdain for establishing shots: showing the audience the full set and the actor’s full body so we can understand the relationship between the characters and settings. In both films the lack of these can’t but feel amateurish on the part of their directors, but  Berberian mines this method for a small amount of success.  Since the film never establishes where Gilderoy stands at any point, the environment becomes fluid. Is Gilderoy in a sound booth, or behind the console, or at his bed reflecting on the day’s events? Sometimes the film will shift between multiple vantage points over the course of a scene.

If Berberian finds a cult of its own, it will probably be among analog audio enthusiasts. The focus on the vintage equipment borders on fethisitic with frequent close ups on spooling tape,  a variety of knobs, gears and levers. Playing with the old tools looks like an incredibly creative and fun endeavor.

Published: Aug. 12, 2016, 10:25 p.m.
Updated: Aug. 12, 2016, 10:25 p.m.