Smashing Pumpkins (and other fruit and veg): Peter Strickland on Berberian Sound Studio
The central character in Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s 1970s-set sophomore feature, is Gilderoy, a crumpled English sound engineer played by Toby Jones, who is invited to the fictitious Italian post-production house of the title to add the soundtrack to a grizzly horror film, preposterously titled Equestrian Vortex. The tools of his trade: enough fruit and veg to open a Covent Garden market stall.
When a scene requires a nubile young woman’s head to be smashed in, Gilderoy reaches for a watermelon and a sledge hammer. You need a torture sequence where a witch has chunks of hair ripped from her scalp? A clutch of radishes and a quick twist of the wrist will do the trick. We, the audience, never see the film to which Gilderoy is adding sound, although the hilarious scene descriptions his colleagues read out ('a dangerously aroused goblin wanders the tunnel') give clues to its debauched content.
Berberian Sound Studio is both a tribute and a sendup of giallo films, those violent whodunit thrillers that were the staple of Italian cinema in the 60s and 70s. It’s a period in filmmaking that Strickland has an affinity with. “I guess it was unique in cinema. There's this combination of these incredibly advanced, melodic soundtracks with very exploitative cinema,” Strickland told me at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Berbarian Sound Studio had its world premiere. “Usually with exploitation they don’t take too much care with things, they just thrash it out, but you could feel that so much love went into these films, especially the sound.”
Playing with genre is nothing new for Strickland. Katalin Varga, his Silver Bear-winning first film, was an austere, eerily beautiful rape-revenge fantasy set in Transylvania, which upended every cliché the sub-genre has to offer, stripping it of its lurid brutality and blood lust. Violence and its consequences are clearly themes that intrigue the Reading-born filmmaker. “I’m definitely interested in exploring the way filmmakers use violence and their attitude towards it. The question is, Can you responsibly show violence? You can have your film’s protagonist hate it, like Toby’s character does, but how can you control how an audience perceives your film?”
A visual motif that runs through Berberian Sound Studio seems to hint at Strickland's preoccupation with this dilemma. Prior to each scene in which Gilderoy is subjected to the violent images, which appear to be slowly turning him insane, we cut to the projection booth to see the film being switched on. We never see the projectionist's face, only his hands, which are clad in black leather gloves. It’s a neat in-joke: a black gloved killer is a recurring image in gialli, particularly the films of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Tenebrae). By giving his projectionist character a giallo murderer's getup, Strickland is inviting us to question the responsibility of those who deliver the violent images. Is this why he never shows the onscreen violence that Gilderoy is witnessing?
“I think that if you show the violence you end up being guilty of what you want to explore. I’m not trying to be didactic, I’m not trying to criticise, but I am being a bit satirical. As soon as you show violence you’re the butt of that satire in a sense." What’s so impressive is that while taking these pot shots at horror cinema he’s also drawing us into Gilderoy’s nightmare and chilling us to our bones.
The curtains are pulled back on the dark art of sound design. Like the opening of Brian De Palma’s masterful Blow Out, we’re shown how ridiculous movie making can be. “I wanted to demystify the process and reveal the mechanics of it all,” explains Strickland. “It just seemed very weird to me that behind all these terrifying films there’s this ridiculous image of grown men hacking vegetables.” Strickland reveals what’s up the magician’s sleeve and invites us to giggle at his crude methods, only to use these same cheap tricks to make our hairs curl a few scenes later. “As ridiculous as it might be, you’re still confronted with what the images are because you hear the announcements, which are quite extreme, so you’re dealing with those two opposites. You’re having a laugh but at the same time the most horrific things are happening. So, hopefully, it kind of screws with people a little bit.”