A Study of Hauntology in Berberian Sound Studio
When it comes to movies, sometimes sound is much worse than the visuals on the screen. Personally, I'm a person who is easily affected by sounds. Even as a horror fan, I cringe at the sound of stabbing and crunching of bones in a film. There are times you can tell if a kitchen knife was pierced through a melon. But if the effects are realistic enough, the sounds will stay with me for a while. So coming across Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio was either going to be a nightmare or a pleasant film about the makings of a 70’s Giallo film. Turns out the film is a mixture of both, and as a fan of the hauntology movement, this film is truly one of a kind.
Created by philosopher Jaqcues Derrida, Hauntology is a portmanteau between the words “Haunt” and “ontology”. The meaning has taken on various definitions over the years but essentially means a “nostalgia for lost futures”, as defined by late critic Mark Fisher. The movement is focused on aesthetics of the past (primarily 70’s British Culture) and the ways in which they still haunt our present. It's mostly associated with the British electronic music scene, but hauntology can be found in any form of art. Library music, psychedelia, samples from 1970’s UK Public Information Films, and the use of vintage recording devices like 60’s and 70’s synthesizers and cassettes are just some of the various unique elements that are commonly found in British music acts such as Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, and The Broadcast. The latter scored the soundtrack for Berberian Sound Studio. These elements evokes a haunting sense of nostalgia and weirdness. In Berberian Sound Studio, these elements are present as Strickland details the creation of a 1970’s Giallo at the peak of its popularity. Berberian Sound Studio goes beyond paying tribute to the sub-genre. It brilliantly demonstrates the psychological effects of sound and media through a hauntological lens.
Set in the 1970’s, The film is about an introverted sound engineer from Dorking, England named Gilderoy (Toby Jones). He travels to a post-production studio in Italy to work on an upcoming film called The Equestrian Vortex directed by Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). Innocently thinking it is a film about horses, Gilderoy is shocked to find out it's actually a Giallo film. We don't see the film at all. We only see Gilderoy, the film within a film's producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), and voice actors come together to create the Vortex’s horrific sound effects. In the midst of chopping up fruits and vegetables to match up the violence on screen, trying to get his flight reimbursed, witnessing the mistreatment of the female cast, and listening to their screams, Gilderoy’s psyche begins to spiral down this rabbit hole of Italian filmmaking as his life and his work on this film become one.
Strickland’s decision to focus the camera on the analog equipment rather than Vortex makes this film within a film to act like a ghost, leaving its remnants to haunt both the audience and Gilderoy through the film's exploitative sound effects and piercing screams. The only thing we see from the film is a visually striking title sequence created by Julian House, who is well known within the Hauntological movement for his designs for various Ghost Box record artists. The sequence, which is heavily inspired by 70’s Italian and gothic horror titles, lets us know that Vortex is indeed a Giallo film. One notable example is the title’s animal reference, a common trait of Gialli like Lucio Fulci’s Don't Torture A Duckling or Dario Argento’s A Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Cat O Nine Tails.
From here on out, Strickland presents a fetishized look at the various analog recording devices used. We see repeated close-up shots of Gilderoy and Francesco’s hands turning up the dials to increase ambient background tracks in the studio. Additionally, a tight shot of a gloved individual turning on a film projector as the voice actresses begin to record a scene set in a witch’s burial ground, hinting at another Gialli aesthetic of a black glove concealing the identity of the killer. Despite this noticeable Giallo nod with the use of the black glove, Strickland ensures that Vortex's essence stays present as our eyes only gaze at the technology behind it but the overall visual content remains a mystery. We then see Gilderoy using a 70’s style cassette tape recorder to obtain the sounds of a blender with an up-close shot of tomato sauce, similar to the various tight shots of Gilderoy and the crew chopping up melons and lettuce as they look upon the vicious torture scenes in Equestrian Vortex. These shots may seem silly but those who are familiar with Gialli know that extreme close ups are a typical style cue to enhance suspense. However, Strickland subverts these Gialli elements by averting our attention from the physicality of Equestrian Vortex to focus on the weird behind the scenes moments. These include Gilderoy creating and mixing sounds effects of exploitative violence, similar to thosefound in any Gialli film from the 1970’s. The fetishizing of the analog tech is heavy in Berberian Sound Studio but this, along with the Equestrian Vortex's absence allows Strickland to establish tone, mood, and a 70’s style setting that leaves you with an otherworldly, yet nostalgic impression. You get a good idea of what it must have been like to work in an Italian studio on a Giallo film during the 1970’s.
The film's use of repetition creates a feeling of psychedelia and delirium, which speaks to Gilderoy’s deteriorating mindset. The narrative of Berberian Sound Studio adds to this by making us and Gilderoy go in circles. First, it has our protagonist go from working at the studio to chasing down Elena, the studio’s secretary, to get his flight reimbursed multiple times. Then it proceeds to show him at his rental home where he thinks he can be at peace only to have his work follow him, worsening Gilderoy’s mental breakdown. Finally, he returns to another grueling day at the studio. The repetitive narrative illustrates that Gilderoy's life is becoming a perpetual loop.
There's already a sense of unease because Gilderoy is already out of his element but the merry-go-round makes the audience’s mind spin even further. As the film progresses, Gilderoy grows increasingly tired. Due to Toby Jones’ brilliant performance, we feel his discomfort with the aggressive environment at the studio and misogynistic attitudes from Francesco and Santini. For example, there’s a scene where Gilderoy records sound effects for two brutal torture scenes in Vortex. One of which includes that of a witch being assaulted with a red hot poker in her vagina and another scene of a witch drowning. These scenes, on top of the screams he has already recorded, nearly make him want to quit. Francesco, of course, tries to make Gilderoy understand that “it is only a film”. The repetitive nature of his current job shows just how demanding and emotionally taxing it can be on someone who is more sensitive.
The beautiful camerawork that zooms in on the analog technology and blurring of the lens after particular scenes helps show just how deeply this is affecting Gilderoy’s mind. The only thing that seems to help Gilderoy are his mother’s letters that fill him in on life back at home, as well as updates regarding his nature documentary Local Perspectives at Box Hill. That is, until they become disturbing themselves as he gets word about chicks getting killed. “It must have been the magpies,” his mother's words plague him. His nightmares become violent to the point he can't recognize himself anymore. In them, he speaks Italian and is even harming other human beings. As chaotic as the world behind The Equestrian Vortex gets, the more tarnished Gilderoy’s personality becomes as his internal state reflects the minds and attitudes of those in his external world.
Lastly, this film isn't a Hauntological film without the British psychedelic rock band Broadcast’s exquisite music. In 2009, Strickland asked the band to make the music for The Equestrian Vortex, which then expanded to creating the music for all of Berberian Sound Studio. James Cargill, a member of Broadcast, was inspired by music from other Italian horror films like Nicola Piovani’s score for Le Orme and the Czech new wave film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Like most hauntology music from England, the soundtrack is forlorn, filled with harpsichords, synthesizers, and looping tracks of sampled recordings. The music incorporates soundbites from the invisible film within a film, like the track “Malleus Maleficarum” and “Teresa’s Song (Sorrow)”. “A Goblin,” an obvious reference to the synth rock band responsible for many Gialli scores, is an unforgettable track from Vortex filled with gibberish you cannot help but smile to. The Broadcast also created music that speak to Gilderoy’s disillusionment with Italy as he misses home. The mournful song “It Must Have Been The Magpies” touches on this very clearly.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a fantastic hauntological film that will please vintage techno lovers and Giallo film fans alike. Rather than focusing on the film within a film, Strickland manages to examine the parts that make up the sounds of Giallo and forces the viewer to observe how they affect the mind. It's eerie, psychological horror that will make audiences appreciate the past and the weird.