A delicately detailed immersion into the world of Z-grade Italian horror cinema that ultimately may or may not be a horror film itself, Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio” is a tense, teasing triumph. Affording the humble sound engineer his finest onscreen showcase since Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” this exquisitely crafted sophomore feature makes good on the atmospheric promise of Strickland’s debut, “Katalin Varga,” and offers British thesp Toby Jones a subtle moment in the spotlight. Edinburgh should be the first of many festival dates for this richly ambiguous pic, sure to be a conversation piece among discerning genre fiends.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Strickland’s and De Palma’s very different thrillers, both of which use their protags’ recordings of slasher-pic sound effects as a gateway to more enigmatic terrors, each take Italian cinema as their jumping-off point. De Palma was reinterpreting Antonioni, of course, and while “Berberian” carries a whiff of the modernist master’s elastic identity games, Strickland’s fascination here is with lower art: specifically, the lurid, semi-erotic giallo strain of Italian horror prevalent in the 1970s, recently re-popularized by undiscriminating genre champions like Quentin Tarantino.
Set in 1976, the pic takes place entirely within the fictitious titular post-production studio, where a particularly grisly effort, “The Equestrian Vortex,” is being mixed. Ingeniously, aside from a beautifully tasteless black-and-red credits sequence, Strickland never shows a shred of footage from the film, an evidently hysterical stew of sexed-up medieval sorcery. We can certainly hear it, though, as a factory line of jobbing actresses pass through the studio to scream bloody murder into the microphone, while a cornucopia of vegetables are hacked open to provide sound effects for assorted scenes of bodily mutilation.
Enter Gilderoy (Jones), a meek, shuffling sound engineer from Dorking, U.K. Accustomed to working on genteel British nature documentaries, he’s horrified to discover the grubby nature of his new assignment. Regarded impatiently by the “Vortex’s” bullying producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco); bewildered by the alternately garrulous and hostile Italian staff; and befriended only by a doleful voiceover thesp (Fatma Mohamed) who cryptically warns him of darker machinations afoot, he stoically gets on with the job. But as tempers flare in the studio and his doting mother’s cheery letters from home take on an oddly foreboding tone, it becomes apparent that the film is getting inside Gilderoy’s head.
Or perhaps the film was in his head all along. Just as entering Club Silencio in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” signaled that film’s segue into parallel lives, the blinking red “Silenzio” sign here is the cue for Strickland’s own perplexing inversion of reality, as Gilderoy’s life seemingly becomes assimilated into the film he’s working on.
To explain further would violate the film’s spell, but this is no tidy third-act twist, as Strickland revels in the feverish dissolution of logic that is often a less calculated feature of the genre he’s satirizing here. Icily disquieting rather than scary, the film is less an exercise in narrative than in tonal mastery. Even at its most oblique, however, it holds onto its audience through Jones, ideally cast as a shy, unworldly milquetoast who remains vulnerable even as he becomes increasingly unknowable. The fine supporting cast lends the film much of its tart humor; the briefly used Tonia Sotiropoulou is a particular standout as the studio’s stunning, splendidly unhelpful secretary.
In an altogether dazzling tech package, it is of course sound artists Steve Haywood and Joakim Sundstrom who particularly excel, cleverly balancing the film-within-a-film’s gaudy soundscape against the more shivery echoes of the studio and seamlessly braiding the lowering score by U.K. electro outfit Broadcast into the mix. Editor Chris Dickens also has much to play with in organizing the film’s multiple potential realities. Lenser Nic Knowland works wonders with the confined spaces and permanently brandy-colored lighting of the studio, itself wittily and evocatively designed by Jennifer Kernke.