Fans of horror films know a thing or two about obsession. It tends to be a genre that you either love or you don’t, and if you do (and if you’re not careful), you could find yourself completely immersed. You could be chased down poorly lit alleyways by your own knife-wielding desire for the latest cinema releases, or tied up in a basement of your own obsession with collecting Blu-rays and horror memorabilia.
My own obsession began with watching George Romero’s zombie films, The Evil Dead (1981), and, going further, perhaps the horror in films like Watership Down (1978) and Jurassic Park (1993). There was a rush in experiencing terror in the safety of my own home or in the cinema, a rush I still get today.
Apart from horror films, my other main obsession growing up was music, partly for joy and partly to escape. Some of my favorite music is completely immersive and almost physically tactile — albums, where it doesn’t sound like individual musicians playing instruments but rather a wall of intermingling sounds, played loud enough to drown out both the outside world and my own inner thoughts.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I was drawn to Peter Strickland’s film Berberian Sound Studio (2012).
The film follows a sound engineer, Gilderoy (played by the elastic-faced Toby Jones), as he works for an Italian horror film studio. The soundtrack is by the English band Broadcast who use the same kind of library and field recordings that the protagonist of the film might use in his work. It’s not clear when the film is set but it strongly evokes Italian Giallo films of the 1970s. As the film progresses, it becomes less and less clear what’s real and what’s fantasy as life starts imitating art and Gilderoy becomes lost in his own film.
Apart from the opening credits, we never see any of the film-within-the-film ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ that they are working on. Instead, we focus on the mechanics of Gilderoy’s work as a sound engineer including the ripping of radishes and macheting of melons to imitate the crunching of bones and squelching of flesh. Gilderoy himself is not a horror fan and starts to become disturbed by what he sees on screen and by what bleeds out from the screen into the production.
There are clearly gendered power dynamics at play, and eventually, it becomes clear that the female voice actor Silvia (played by Fatma Mohamed) has been molested by the director. At first, it seems that Gilderoy is a powerless bystander who is completely swept up in a world he doesn’t understand. However, even if he doesn’t realize it, Gilderoy does have a significant amount of power. He is a well-respected academic sound engineer specifically sought out by the director. Gilderoy could use his influence to challenge the power dynamics and violence in the film’s production, but instead, he sinks further into his obsession with sound, becoming more and more immersed in his work. Eventually, even he becomes directly complicit in the violence through his use of sound to torture another voice actor Elisa (wonderfully played by Chiara D’Anna) to try and elicit a ‘real’ scream. It’s a genuinely horrible moment partly because of the close-ups of Elisa’s tortured face and partly because of the overwhelming use of sound. The film doesn’t judge Gilderoy for his complicity in this violence as throughout we see him struggling with his own demons: being separated from his mother, suppressing his own sexual desires, and becoming more and more uncomfortable with his involvement in the film.
Berberian Sound Studio is somewhat about the mechanics of sound design in films. In shining a spotlight on the ‘guts’ of filmmaking, we as the audience feel a sense of danger as we become more aware of the nature of film rather than being enraptured by it. Through the focus on sound design, something we may not normally notice when watching a film, our attention is drawn to which sounds might be a “real” part of the film and which sounds are the soundtrack. Yet because Gilderoy is also questioning what is real and what is not, this dynamic works in the film’s favor, and we become even more immersed in the film instead of being taken out of it. Is he in Italy or is he just in his garden shed living out a twisted fantasy? Are those field recordings of his home in the English countryside or is it the sound of reality knocking against his mind? If none of this is real, and the violence we see is entirely born from his own imagination, is it therefore inconsequential? If it isn’t real, what is the state of Gilderoy’s mind? We get hints from his mother’s letters that something is not right in his garden shed, that decay and death are creeping in. What effect is his obsession with sound having on his mind, body, and those around him?
The film raises more questions than it answers. Watching it again makes me wonder where the line is between passion and obsession and how focusing on a passion like horror films or sound design can become so immersive that you become distanced from reality. In doing so, there is a danger in losing oneself.
Gilderoy is an academic who is trapped in his own head and suppressing his own sexual desires. While we may sympathize with him, I wonder if getting lost in fantasy can be a violent act. It can be damaging for ourselves and others when we are inherently tangled up with the world and attempting to cut ourselves off. Of course, sometimes we all need to escape from the world into a good film, to our garden shed, or to a fictionalized 1970s Italy. This escape can be a reaction to a difficult and violent world that seems out of control. Concentrating on small details can be a way of feeling we’ve regained some semblance of control and power over our lives. Ironically though, if we don’t eventually unplug our earphones and reconnect with the world, we may end up reinforcing the power structures and participating in the very violence we are trying to escape.
Luke Beale is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He’s a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.
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