'Berberian Sound Studio' Descends Into Mystery, Horror, and Eroticism

Berberian Sound Studio is a dazzling display of the ingenuity of sound engineers. It's also an ode to the giallo tradition that slowly evolves into a surrealistic exploration of the line between art and life.

Berberian Sound Studio

Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Toby Jones, Susan Cappellaro, Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco
Rated: NR
Studio: Artificial Eye
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-06-14 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-08-31 (General release)

"Santini told me it was something 'equestrian,'" says sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) at the outset of Berberian Sound Studio. He's recently arrived at the titular studio, where he's agreed to mix a film for charismatic Italian director Santini (Antonio Mancino). It's sometime during the mid-'70s, and the socially awkward Brit quickly discovers the project isn't really the spaghetti Western he'd imagined when he was first offered the job. Instead, Gilderoy finds himself at the helm of the sound crew for The Equestrian Vortex, an Italian giallo film. It sounds like a challenge, and so Gilderoy agrees to stay on, unable to anticipate the descent into mystery, horror, and eroticism that follows.

Despite its centrality to the film, we never actually see any of the footage that comprises The Equestrian Vortex, aside from an opening titles sequence. Through the conversations among the post-production dub vocalists and Gilderoy's overbearing supervisor, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), we learn that the film within a film's plot focuses on two young women at an equestrian boarding school who happen upon a den of putrefying witch corpses. We also learn that the subsequent action mostly concerns the torture of the witches, which Gilderoy is assigned to animate via sound editing.

As it follows his efforts, Berberian Sound Studio is a dazzling display of the ingenuity of sound engineers. It is also an ode to the giallo tradition that slowly evolves into a surrealistic exploration of the line between art and life. In combining these interests, the movie both investigates and demonstrates how sounds severed from their sources produce viewers' terror, using both Gilderoy's engineered effects and the voices contributed by young, sexy Italian actors. With the exception of one man whose performance lasts for only a few seconds, all of these voice actors are women who either speak in frightened whispers or scream in outright terror.

When it's not attending to these details of sound, however, Berberian Sound Studio isn't much of a story. The set is a plain, dark soundstage that Gilderoy only leaves in order to go to bed. With the exception of a few scenes where Gilderoy and the other sound engineers are creating effects, the film is composed almost entirely of static shots that accentuate the actors' stationary positions.

This means we don't see the blood and guts that we usually associate with scary movies. By using only sound to convey the horror, director Peter Strickland demonstrates that violence isn't just about gory imagery. He helps viewers to create their own scenes of terror. Hearing the sounds, we are able to imagine a landscape more terrifying than any that Berberian Sound Studio might have displayed, precisely because this landscape is ours.

Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film revolve around the sound effects for a sequence of torture scenes in The Equestrian Vortex. Many of these effects involve vegetables being smashed, slashed, ripped and otherwise destroyed. The physical reality of total vegetable destruction would seem humorous were it not for the way the sounds mesh with the action we are told is happening in the giallo film. Root vegetables having their greens ripped off no longer seem like innocuous sounds, but like human hair being ripped out. Such effects help us share in Gilderoy's growing discomfort, as they are transformed into a kind of Freudian uncanny, sounds at once strange and familiar.

The human voice also takes on new dimensions during the studio recording process. As actors record their parts, their faces warp. When one older voice actress records her part, she opens her mouth extremely wide, hunches over, and gnashes her teeth as she speaks. The younger actresses become wide-eyed and grab onto each other, demonstrating physically the fear they are expressing vocally.

As long as the actors stick to their parts and don't question the sounds they are asked to produce, their bodies and faces relax as soon as they leave the sound booth. However, not all of them are so lucky. Veronica (Susanna Capellaro) excels at reading her lines, but she has a throat problem that prevents her from screaming to Francesco's satisfaction. (The film suggests the genesis of the problem can be traced to her questioning of the producer's "vision.") And when she steps out of the booth, Veronica is unable to distance herself from her work; she's become too close to the terror she creates with her own voice.

When Veronica steps into the sound booth to talk to Gilderoy about her throat problem, we are treated to an inside view of this most disturbing effect. Their interaction seems to transform them, as both slowly morph into different characters. In her life outside of the booth, Veronica comes to embody the victim who dies in so many slasher films. And Gilderoy's voice changes too, reflecting what he hears while at the sound studio. Both are reshaped by the sounds recorded and created during production of The Equestrian Vortex.

It takes a long time for the film to articulate the idea that sound manipulates anyone who listens to it, extending the story's suspense. The final scenes in the movie seem like a marriage between hip, mid-'60s Hitchcock and late-'90s David Lynch. Colors swirl, worlds suddenly shift, the division between dreams and reality that became blurred in the sound booth is now erased by an onslaught of bright lights and fast cuts. The combination of the fast cuts, strobelights and shots of Gilderoy behaving in ways that he has not behaved throughout the film is overwhelming. By destroying the space between fantasy and reality, Berberian Sound Studio leaves viewers with the eerie feeling that everyday sounds are never going to seem normal again.





Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.