In the whole history of horror and suspense drama, there's never been a more promising line than "Did you hear that?" Sound leaves too much to the imagination, which is where fear takes hold. As scores of radio writers learned in the 1930s and '40s, banging out hit anthology programs like Suspense and Inner Sanctum Mystery, you could forgo the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties as long as you had things that went bump in the night. The moaning wind, the creaking door, the step on the stair—this was the stuff of real dread.
Yet the aural element in movies, half the sensory experience, is seldom remarked upon—the measure of its excellence is how little you notice it. Berberian Sound Studio, a crafty second feature by British writer-director Peter Strickland, turns that dynamic inside out, to surreal and often comic effect. Toby Jones stars as a timid English sound engineer in the 1970s who arrives in Italy to mix a schlocky horror movie and gets pulled into a web of intrigue with the producer, director, and cast. Most of the action consists of them dubbing what seems like the entire movie, but the screen they're watching is always out of frame, and apart from a lurid (and hilariously dead-on) red-and-black title sequence near the beginning and a brief scene near the end, we never see the movie within the movie. It's grotesquely violent, but we have to fill in the visual ourselves as the actors and Foley artists incongruously go about their business.
"A new world of sound awaits you," declares the macho producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), when Gilderoy (Jones) turns up with his bags at the studio. "A new world that requires all your magic powers." Gilderoy seems to have plenty—he's one of those people who've mastered an obscure and idiosyncratic art to the point where their talent seems a bit otherworldly. "This guy can turn a lightbulb into a UFO," Francesco announces to the actors during a power outage, and Gilderoy does, blowing onto the bulb and rubbing it gently against a metal file rack to create a weird singing sound. Back in his hotel room he dips into his personal library of sound effects, which he's recorded himself on magnetic tape, and creates new ones, pointing a microphone at an electric blender full of tomato sauce to replicate a chainsaw murder (and splattering sauce all over himself). Later he plays a long tape loop that stretches back and forth across the control room like a spider web, a coffee cup serving as one roller and a wall crucifix as the other.
Gilderoy is a gentle man, unaccustomed to this sort of gruesome fare. Back in the UK he's specialized in nature documentaries, and he arrives at the studio expecting The Equestrian Vortex to be about horses, not witches and warlocks. He gives it his best, though, and there are some funny scenes of him recording the Foley artists. "Sounds a little watery," he says after one of them hurls a melon onto the floor to simulate a woman's body shattering as it hits the ground. When the witches are having their hair torn out by inquisitioners, Gilderoy rips the leaves off radishes, and when a character is being stabbed, he hacks away at some cabbage with a knife (his vicious chopping and grinding makes you wonder just how disgusting the visual is). Eventually he reaches his limit when he has to drop oil into a pan to suggest a witch getting a red-hot poker shoved up her vagina. "I can't do this . . . stuff," Gilderoy protests to Francesco, who gives him a good bawling out. For solace, Gilderoy rereads a letter from his sweet old mum back home, informing him that there are baby chicks nesting outside his bedroom window.
Scenes like these are a delight because they reveal how the imagination can turn one sound into another; even more entertaining are the scenes of voice artists doing their stuff. During the witch's resurrection and revenge, a regal-looking actress (Katalin Ladik) stands before the microphone, gesturing with hands and building from eerie inhalation and croaking exhalation to a torrent of frenzied gibbering and guttural laughter. Later, an actor (Jean-Michael van Schouwburg) arrives to do a similar number for a rampaging goblin, and his professorial appearance—glasses, mustache, turtleneck sweater—contrasts humorously with the roaring, blubbering tantrum he unleashes. If you're familiar with Italian horror flicks, you know that this sort of verbal overkill is par for the course; but isolated from the movie and presented as sheer unhinged performance, it's a pleasure to behold.
Sound can establish perspective as much as any camera angle, and Strickland plays around quite a bit with the idea. In the hotel room Gilderoy reads a letter from his mum as one of his home-recorded sound effects, of a mantel clock, plays in the background; the ticking draws us into her space (for all we know, it was recorded in her living room) as the handwritten letter appears onscreen. When the lecherous director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), hits on one of the actresses out in the studio, Gilderoy watches their encounter from the control room, where a woman's screaming comes over the playback speakers. Our sense of sound becomes so malleable that, as the eerie organ music from the soundtrack plays in the dark and rather decrepit studio, the studio itself eventually becomes the set of a horror movie, with Gilderoy as the appalled witness to Santini and Francesco's bullying and sexual harassment.
Berberian Sound Studio goes completely metamovie in the last 20 minutes as Strickland, paying homage to the strong surrealist streak in Italian horror, suggests that the pressure has driven Gilderoy over the edge into a nightmare world. (If you want to see this sort of thing done in high style, check out Mario Bava's sadly overlooked 1966 chiller, Kill, Baby . . . Kill!) What sets Gilderoy off is the latest letter from his mum, informing him that the chicks have all been killed by magpies, their heads torn off, just days before they were ready to leave the nest. "The parents are literally screaming," she writes. "It must have been the magpies." After reading this, Gilderoy goes to bed and wakes to hear someone at his door, rattling the knob; when he flings it open, the door leads out into the darkened and deserted studio, where the projector mysteriously comes to life, showing him a film of the previous scene in the hotel room.
The difference is that his dialogue has been redubbed in Italian by another actor, and from that point on, desynchronization of sound becomes part of the nightmare. The next night, when Gilderoy turns out the light in his room, the soundtrack goes completely silent, and after about 15 seconds of black a woman can be glimpsed tiptoeing across the room with a knife. When she attacks, a voice calls us out of the scene—it's part of The Equestrian Vortex, and we've flashed back to an earlier scene between Gilderoy and Francesco, playing out this time in Italian. An actress comes into the control room and asks Gilderoy to listen as she runs her lines, which turn out to be his mother's letter about the magpies, spoken in Italian and subtitled. In the movie's most repeated visual motif, Strickland zooms in or out on a red light flashing the word silenzio in the darkness; by the end of Berberian Sound Studio it seems less an order than a plea.