A very strange proposition indeed, Berberian Sound Studio is not the sort of film you expect from a British director. But Peter Strickland is not your normal British director. His first feature, Katalin Varga, was a Carpathian-set revenge drama that could have been made by some Hungarian auteur of the 1960s. His follow-up is entirely different: neither a horror film, although it is about that genre, nor what you would normally think of as an art film. Instead, it's a singular hybrid – perplexing, bracingly creepy, entirely its own thing.
This very claustrophobic, one-location story is set in early-Seventies Italy, in a sound studio where shy English recording engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been engaged to put the screams, creaks and crunches on a horror film about revenant witches haunting a riding school – a blood-soaked orgy of torture and misogyny in the vein of such giallo auteurs as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. We never see anything of this grisly opus, entitled "The Equestrian Vortex", except its lurid red, high-Gothic opening titles. Even so, we get a good sense of what's happening on screen – dismemberment, abuse of red-hot pokers and a moment in which (as a matter-of-fact voice announces on tape) "the dangerously aroused goblin prowls the dormitory".
The second we see Gilderoy anxiously treading the studio corridors in his sensible overcoat, we know he's out of his depth. Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) seems to welcome him with open arms but Gilderoy, for all his sonic skills, is an odd choice for this gig. His previous work has been in nature documentary, recording the changing seasons in Dorking, and in children's TV, where he can evoke a passing UFO using only a lightbulb and a record rack. (The scene in which he demonstrates this, in candlelit chiaroscuro, is quite magical.)
Not surprisingly, Gilderoy blanches at the on-screen atrocities, then makes the mistake of using the term "horror film" to suave, pretentious director Santini (Antonio Mancino) who cautions him, "This is not a horror film – this is a Santini film."
On one level, Berberian Sound Studio is a comedy of cultural misunderstanding about a sheltered Englishman lost among glamorous and tyrannical Italians. It's never quite clear how much Strickland is poking fun at British stereotypes of Italy: the altogether loathsome film-makers are forever leching after the actresses, proclaiming their artistry or bursting in to announce impromptu celebrations with prosecco. But it sometimes feels as if the film has a genuine xenophobic streak, in which case you wonder whether Strickland is channelling his own bad experiences in Europe. (Before Katalin Varga, he was an EFL teacher.)
But above all, this is a sour and extremely black comedy about film-making – and specifically about sight and its overlooked cousin, sound (echoes of Brian De Palma's sonic thriller Blow Out). Strickland juxtaposes the mystique of the screen image with the mundanity of studio work – those hacked limbs are cabbages being chopped, defenestrations really courgettes splattered on the studio floor, and that dangerously aroused goblin merely a middle-aged, sports-jacketed man making weird gurgling noises.
The troubling twist Strickland gives all this is to suggest that by partaking in the film-making process, Gilderoy becomes complicit with the horror depicted. Mechanically yanking the leaves off radishes (to suggest hair pulled out by the roots), Gilderoy is committing an act of violence whether he likes it or not. The Gothic extremity of Santini's film is displaced into cinematographer Nic Knowland's eerily textured close-ups of discarded fruit and veg. (You'd be amazed how an overripe marrow suggests zombie flesh.)
There's a fascinating abstract streak to the film too: the action is punctuated by close-ups of antique sound equipment and glimpses of Gilderoy's sound charts, which resemble minimalist paintings. (I was reminded of an earlier gem of British conceptual cinema: Peter Greenaway short A Walk Through H, a film entirely made of maps.)
Rarefied as all this may sound, Berberian Sound System is also very funny, as well as dramatic. The Italian actors send themselves up very dryly, and Toby Jones is wonderfully fragile as the man who strays like a child into this world of adult violence, at the risk of his sanity. It's because Jones is so good at getting us into the head of the hapless, parochial engineer that Gilderoy's descent into his own vortex is so unsettling.
But Berberian Sound Studio doesn't deliver all it promises. There's an extraordinary turning point when the film we're watching suddenly turns itself inside out: a barely describable self-reflexive moment in which reality and nightmare fuse, and it's suggested that even Gilderoy's bucolic England has been corrupted by the satanic shenanigans he's got involved with. After that, however, the film's actual ending seems an oddly frustrating afterthought.
Still, this is a film guaranteed to perplex, and to divide audiences. But if you're open to films that fearlessly twist the conventions, and that mine the language of sound and image for their own strange potential, you'll get a kick from this rivetingly inventive, abrasively un-British piece of nightmare cinema.