Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a sound engineer with many years experience working in sound effects and recording, but he has mostly been concentrating on nature documentaries and the like. For his latest job, however, he has been hired to as sound editor on an Italian feature film though alarm bells should have been ringing from the moment he arrived in the studio and cannot find anyone to help out in paying for his flight expenses. The producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), seems friendly enough, but tends to bat away any awkward questions - like what the hell is this film about?
Something certain viewers of Berberian Sound Studio were asking themselves after watching this, but writer and director Peter Strickland was never one for spelling out his themes, and the very ambiguity of the work was enough to make it an instant cult hit among those who liked to feel their way around a movie rather than be fed an A to B to C plotline. It held interest for fans of vintage horror at least, for the production poor old Gilderoy has been assigned to is far outside his comfort zone: it's one of those ultraviolent Italian shockers which proliferated in the nineteen-seventies, except the director, Santini (Antonio Mancino) is a man with pretensions.
He believes he is bringing the very real scandal of historical witch hunts to the modern era, pushing it in the audience's faces to force them to confront the atrocities of the past. Not what a man who would prefer to be recording the sound of chiffchaffs would have chosen to be working on, but while he's here he may as well make the best of it. This was a very low budget movie with barely three indoor locations throughout its hour and a half running time, creating a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere where you could well see why the proximity of all this torture and sadism that Gilderoy had to apply himself to would be enough to warp his sensitive mind. As he clings on to the letters from home his mother writes, being an Englishman abroad, alienated and far from his creature comforts, simply isn't healthy for him.
This may have been set in the seventies, but it had relevancy to other eras as well, most notably the eighties video nasty panic in the United Kingdom where the easy access to many extremely disreputable movies brought about much self-righteous rhetoric in the media and an eventual cracking down on the material as corrupting. Gilderoy was exactly the sort of person who would have been vociferously complaining during that furore, but plonking him down in the middle of making one of those movies sets him against all sorts of behaviour he would normally take for granted: that people are usually polite and well-mannered, that nobody he knows considers watching horror films entertainment, and women are treated with respect.
The attitude to women in Italian giallo and more general fright flicks of this era is one its fans can be reluctant to face up to, and while it was true many of them placed heroines in positions of narrative privilege, just as many were keen to set about them with sharp knives and blunt instruments. Strickland questions the ethics of representing such plot twists and whether their depiction of females reflected poorly on their audience or their filmmakers; Francesco is an unreconstructed male of his decade, but Santini is, inevitably with this, more ambiguous, so as Gilderoy begins to break down mentally as if the film was infecting him Videodrome style, we are asked to question how much what we bring to such over the top footage says about us, and if it elicits the best or the worst, noting how personal that will be in the very act of seeing. This wouldn't be half as stimulating if Jones were not up to the task, but his character was both pitiable and worrying thanks to his excellent grasp on a film many might not find so accessible without him. Music by Broadcast.