My generation has grown up with a variety of films which have sought to deconstruct or reinvent the horror genre, ranging from spoofs like Shaun of the Dead and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil to more meta-based efforts like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. The best of both kinds of films are able to highlight or send-up the clichés of the genre while still managing to genuinely scare us. But perhaps none of these films is quite so abstractly terrifying as Berberian Sound Studio, one of the very best films of 2012.
Like the other films I've listed, Berberian Sound Studio spends much of its time attempting to deconstruct the horror genre - in other words, to explain how a horror film is assembled, and to offer a mechanical or sociological explanation as to why we are scared by them. But while Peter Strickland's intentions may be similar to Joss Whedon in spirit, in practice they amount to something which is arguably more audacious. Strickland's intention is not just to show how a horror movie works, or send up an individual trope therein: he wants to show us how much of being scared lies in our imagination, as much in as the mechanics of cinema itself.
Berberian Sound Studio follows a timid sound engineer and Foley artist (a person who creates sound effects), who is hired by an enigmatic Italian director to provide the sound effects on his equally enigmatic film, The Equestrian Vortex. He doesn't like the engineer (called Gilderoy) referring to it as a horror film, and save for a brief glimpse of its opening credits, we never see the film on which Gilderoy is working. All we have to go on are the screams, the effects being created, and the technology which is being used to capture them.
The first thing to praise about the film is its extraordinary sound design. We're all familiar with how changes in sound can be used for easy scares, but you will struggle to find another film in recent memory whose sound is so effective in creating and sustaining unease. Strickland's choice of music is superb, including a series of synthesiser pieces which eerily resemble A Clockwork Orange. But the real score is the clicking and whirring of the projectors and tape machines, the flicking of switches and the scrape of record players, all of which are mixed to perfection to keep us constantly on edge.
It is fairly easy to view Berberian Sound Studio as the latest in a series of recent films which pay tribute to cinema itself. From this perspective Strickland is focussing his tribute on two different aspects. The first of those is low-budget horror, particularly the Italian giallo horrors of Dario Argento. The plot of the film-within-a-film incorporates elements of witchcraft and supposedly involves female protagonists being beautifully and brutally murdered. Both of these are hallmarks of Argento's classic works like Suspiria, Inferno and Terror at the Opera, though the film avoids dropping in any clumsy references, in order that its exact nature remains a secret.
This tribute to low-budget horror is conveyed primarily through the effects that Gilderoy creates. Whole sections of the film feature Tobey Jones smashing various fruits and vegetables to a pulp, repeatedly trying to replicate the sound of a head being smashed open, or a body hitting the ground after a long fall. Sometimes Strickland shows us his craft, to show the unglamorous nature of the horror business, but other times he refrains, and lets us picture the effect as it would appear in the film. We are simultaneously grossed out by the practical means of achieving the effect, and creeped out by its eventual purpose, a feeling made worse (or better) by how realistic the effects turn out to be.
The other object of Strickland's affections is that of analogue sound. In an interview with Mark Kermode for his 60th birthday, Steven Spielberg waxed lyrical about the benefits of editing and mixing with celluloid and analogue tapes, arguing that: "the films we love the most were made by this process. If it was good enough for [our forefathers], why isn't it still good enough for us?". Whatever your feelings on digital filmmaking, there's no denying that Strickland shares Spielberg's love. He takes something as seemingly dull as a spool of tape, and shoots it like he's looking at a flawless diamond. Even the shot of ruined tape scattered all over the control booth has a strange, chaotic beauty to it.
But it is in this second point of homage that Berberian Sound Studio reveals its darker centre. What appears on the surface to be just another affection-fest is in fact a darker, stranger and more brooding piece. If Martin Scorsese's Hugo is our generation's 8 1/2, focussing on the joy inherent in the creation of cinema, then Berberian Sound Studio is our Peeping Tom. It celebrates and revels in the dark mystique of celluloid, emphasising the ritualistic nature of filmmaking and the psychosis of the director. It characterises Gilderoy as a high priest behind an extremely powerful altar, in which every switch, cable, tape and microphone has a part to play, like the sacraments in some macabre religious ceremony.
The film is driven by the brilliant central performance of Tobey Jones. Drawing on his work as Percy Alleline in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jones captures the essence of a man who is utterly out of his depth and may be losing his mind. Having learnt his craft on nature documentaries, Gilderoy is constantly intimidated by the subject matter he is working with day-in, day-out, and speaking next to no Italian he frequently feels like the world is against him. Jones chooses carefully when to repress his frustrations and when to bring him to the fore, and at times he is as genuinely disturbing as Carl Boehm was in Peeping Tom.
As Gilderoy grows seemingly more and more detached from the world around him, the film transforms from being merely uneasy into something truly terrifying. The more reasons we are given, however small, for doubting Gilderoy's version of events, the more we fear for him, his colleagues and by connection ourselves. We are implicated in his madness because we have seen so much about how it is come about, in the endless screaming and creation of effects. We start to entertain thoughts that Gilderoy will die, and that the whole scheme was some kind of Wicker Man¬-like plot to lure him here - a place where his worldview clashes with a darker, more primal force, and both are ultimately annihilated.
In Strickland's hands, Berberian Sound Studio takes on a deeply surreal quality until it becomes downright Lynchian. You could liken the film to Eraserhead, since both films feature troubled male protagonists and both are essentially built from the soundtrack upwards. You could equally describe it as a leaner, more disciplined version of Inland Empire, if we go along with the idea that the film-within-a-film is somehow cursed. But perhaps the closest comparison is with Mulholland Drive, exploring as it does the dark corruption of the film business, the destruction of innocence, and the way that dreams subtly shift into nightmares. There are visual reflections of this too, with the recurring flashing red lights and message of 'Silenzio' standing in for the blue lights at Lynch's Club Silencio.
Unfortunately, the flaw with Berberian Sound Studio is to be found in this Lynchian progression. It's not the case, as some have claimed, that embracing Lynch's style or imagery has become an excuse for the film not to make any sense. The problem is that the film's execution of Mulholland Drive's dream-reality shift isn't anything like as convincing or fulfilling. When Diane opens the blue box and falls through into the 'real' world, the resulting shifts make perfect sense and the ending gains greater meaning for it. Here when Gilderoy walks through the wardrobe, the film loses its own thread and we are left to wonder what the ending means without any clues, in dream logic or anything else.
Berberian Sound Studio is one of the very best films of the year which at its best rivals David Lynch for sheer and terrifying mesmerism. It falls at the final hurdle thanks to its clumsy ending, which keeps it as a great film rather than a perfect one. But this final stumble takes nothing away from everything that went before it, resulting in a deeply unnerving and unsettling work with Tobey Jones at the top of his game. It comes with the highest recommendations, and no apologies for any resulting nightmares.