Retro Review: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012){0}

When someone says a new movie is “made for horror fans,” what they usually mean is that it’s fun, fast-paced, nostalgic, and probably pretty self-deprecating or subversive. Movies like Scream, Slither, and The Cabin in the Woods are “made for horror fans” in that way.

Then there are films like Berberian Sound Studio, which is made for horror fans who take the genre very seriously. Not only does this movie hearken back to an era and location that means a lot to the history of horror films, but it also knows what seasoned viewers expect from a conventional terror tale — and then it messes with those expectations in a series of highly compelling ways.

 Set in 1970, Berberian Sound Studio is about a reputable British sound designer who arrives in Italy to begin post-production work on a new film. Unfortunately for the uncomfortable Gilderoy (Toby Jones), the project he’s working on is a horror film of a decidedly grotesque nature. Although not accustomed to working on genre films, the newcomer manages to bring a great deal of professional craftsmanship to the project, which is called “The Equestrian Vortex,” weirdly enough; Gilderoy’s personality may not mesh with those of his newfound Italian colleagues, but nobody in the studio doubts the man’s talent for powerful sound design.


It’s tough to recall a thriller this obsessed with cinematic sound design outside of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, and it’s this seldom-discussed aspect of the filmmaking craft that makes Berberian Sound Studio such a strange but satisfying curiosity. Not only does the film show us how audio trickery is used to make scary movies scary, but director Peter Strickland manages to make “the audio” feel like an extra character in the ensemble. What begins as a character study about a lonely man in a strange place gradually transforms into a dark thriller that poses some compelling questions about the emotional and mental impact of making dark, violent, disturbing films.


Veteran character actor Toby Jones is simply excellent as Gilderoy, and while I’m not familiar with his roster of Italian co-stars, the entire cast is top-drawer. To choose just one example: It’s difficult to tell if Antonio Mancino is supposed to be a rendition of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, or an amalgam of adored and egotistical Italian horror masters, but the actor sure is a lot of fun to watch. Also worthy of note, not surprisingly, are a fantastic musical score by Broadcast, and (needless to say) some truly creative use of, you guessed it, sound design.

Berberian Sound Studio starts out pretty simply but you’ll want to play closer attention to all the little details as the movie goes on. Things get well and truly bizarre by the middle of Act III, and those who’ve made the most effort are the ones who’ll most appreciate the oddly creepy and darkly poetic finale. It seems like Mr. Strickland and his team have put together a clever little puzzle box of a film in Berberian Sound Studio,and the ones who’ll probably enjoy it the most are the old-school giallo junkies — or those obsessed with the magic of sound design.