The giallo subgenre that emerged from Italy in the 1960s and ‘70s has several distinct characteristics: gory, sexualized murders, staged as operatic spectacle; baroque titles (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key); and lurid soundtracks featuring bands like Goblin. Berberian Sound Studio delves obsessively into the latter. Summoned to the titular facility for his gig on a gothic horror film called The Equestrian Vortex, meek audio engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) hacks the flesh of watermelons, flinches beneath an imperious producer, writes letters to his mother back in England, and gradually loses any faint acquaintance with reality.
The Equestrian Vortex itself never appears onscreen, one of many sly elisions here. Peter Strickland’s thriller is a hypnotically formalist nightmare, eschewing blood or viscera to explore the creepier milieu of flickering studio lights and discarded aural props. (My favourite recurring joke: a faceless black-gloved figure, the murderous culprit in dozens of giallo movies, can be seen operating the studio projector.) As shattered glass piles up underfoot and witchy wails echo beyond the isolated booth, Jones’ huge, forlorn head seems almost to swell with anguish. The accretion of sonic tension subtly disturbs familiar horror schema: stabbings tend to be unambiguous, after all. Berberian Sound Studio makes the fragments of noise that anticipate them feel infinitely more ominous.