Many love the cinematic experience of catching a film on the big screen. Since the start of the pandemic, we had to put any public movie watching on hold and unfortunately for too many people, the desire to return to theatres still continues. Movie houses provide a certain atmosphere directors keep in mind when developing their craft. They envision their film playing on a 50-foot-wide screen (or larger) with perfect surround sound, and a crowd who laughs, cheers, and screams at the appropriate moments. But what if movie makers pictured a different setting for the ideal experience? What if the best way to watch a particular film involved an audience of one sitting in the dark with headphones on? I know some people might scoff at this idea because quiet-at-home movies ruled our lives for so long, but when Johannes Grenzfurthner made MASKING THRESHOLD, he decided to embrace this solitary approach to horror movies and made a distributing and immersive experience best consumed with headphones.
Seen almost entirely through the perspective of the unnamed protagonist, MASKING THRESHOLD follows a man’s search to find the cause of his tinnitus. One day three years ago, an unexplained buzzing noise started and has yet to stop. He visits many doctors with numerous specialties, but his pain becomes dismissed due to the symptoms not matching previously diagnosed cases of the disorder. So, through basically 90 minutes of monologue and extreme zoom-ins, we follow the main character as he turns his life into an ongoing science experiment as he becomes obsessed with finding the source of the noise.
Presumably due to Covid restrictions, the cast stays very small and takes place entirely in one apartment. The writer/director Grenzfurthner places himself at the center of the whole experience by casting himself as the corporeal version of the protagonist with Ethan Haslam playing the voice of our tortured hero. At the beginning of the story, we hear the familiar tale about the failing health system, and we not only feel the disparity in the man’s voice, but we also see the frustration as we get such an intimate look at his day-to-day life. And even though we never see the face of the main character, most shots contain some portion of his body, so the audience develops an intimate portrait of the protagonist.
As for imagery, we see very common items which would appear in anyone’s apartment, but when the ordinary takes a turn for the unordinary, then we start to cross into the realm of abjection. The director creates abjection by zooming in on banal tasks, but the unusual perspective creates stomach-churning unease. Think of the opening of “Dexter” and how something as mundane as making breakfast appears disgusting and predatory. And these images help develop the disturbing tone seen throughout the film as well as let the director slowly increase the darkness of the protagonist’s mind. If we can stomach the viscosity of toothpaste, then we can handle the intense close-up of someone digging a toothpick under a fingernail. Which can then lead to watching an up-close view of someone squishing an ant, and then the progression of deviation as the narrator moves up the food chain.
The images and the intimate relationship we develop from being privy to the speaker’s every thought does not compare to the unsettling immersive experience which comes from the soundscape. Wearing headphones will help place the audience in the sound of silence which torments the protagonist. Some of the buzzing plays so subtly you might not realize the noise comes from the film. And as the intensity of the noise grows, we start to understand the madness which comes with the disruption of one of our most used senses.
Engrossing, captivating, and unapologetic, MASKING THRESHOLD presents a very controlled atmosphere that uses its purposeful pace and tight shots to guide the audience through madness. The sound design will continue to echo through your head and the next time your ears start to ring, you will fear the sound might never stop. And as you become the observer to a truly singular phenomenon, the immersive experience will make you realize you are now part of the experiment.
MASKING THRESHOLD played as a part of this year’s Panic Film Festival.