FANTASTIC FEST 2021 REVIEW! Masking Threshold from Austrian director/co-writer Johannes Grenzfurthner explores the dark territory around a complete loss of control. Found footage-style diary entries make up the horror-thriller in which an unnamed and faceless protagonist (Grenzfurthner is the physical presence, and Ethan Haslam is the voice) has suffered from tinnitus for three years. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and the constant phantom sounds he hears make life unbearable, so he sets out to explore the details of his situation using something like the scientific method to isolate stimulus and responses. Ultimately, he means to find a way to control the sounds.
The log entries begin rationally, as he configures a makeshift lab in the basement, records audio and video, and takes extensive notes on the experimental parameters and results. He is meticulous about documenting initial conditions and changes to the environment and recording perceived changes to the sounds in his head. As an IT engineer, this rigor is the natural approach to solving the problem. As the tests go on, the sound continues drilling into his brain, and his sanity begins to slip. He’s further enraged when he submits his work for scholarly review, only to be rebuffed as a conspiracy theorist and nutcase.
At the outset, our man decides to tolerate the sound as a baseline, calling it the sound of silence. Soon, he throws this over in a desperate attempt to find any way to stop the effects of the growing cacophony that only he hears. As his lively mind chews on this unwanted, inexplicable input, he enters a waking dream state where his agony and slow mental deterioration lead him to begin to take his experiments into nonsensical and then, ultimately, into horrifying directions.
“…the constant phantom sounds he hears make life unbearable, so he sets out to explore the details of his situation…”
The protagonist of Masking Threshold has plenty stacked against him even before the tinnitus. He’s a tech nerd and queer, both of which have left him at odds with much of society, causing him to cocoon in a safe bubble of his creation. This universe without peers provides no framework for morality, immersing the protagonist in a narcissistic hell he created and from which he cannot escape. The sound may well be the background of the wider world impinging on his solitude. As his mind begins to erode, the visuals also become more grisly and disgusting, reminiscent of the time-lapse film of a dead animal decaying. The veneer of civilization melts off like rotting skin, revealing the bones of despair and urgent necessity underneath.
The title comes from an audio concept: the volume at which a sound just becomes audible in the presence of another noise called a “masker.” In this case, the demented sufferer finds his “masking threshold” rising as he becomes increasingly unable to tune out the racket of the tinnitus (if it’s real) and find any focus for sane thought. Grenzfurthner describes it as cinema that “combines a chamber play, a scientific procedural, an unpacking video, and a DIY YouTube channel while suggesting endless vistas of existential pain and decay.” It will test your sanity and your tolerance for stomach-churning imagery. Despite, or perhaps because of, the graphic imagery, this feature is a brilliant look at obsession and the possible grisly endpoint of reductio ad absurdum.
Grenzfurthner is a renaissance man when it comes to low-budget films that provoke and entertain. His brilliant documentary Traceroute is the ultimate road movie for nerds and kinksters, while Glossary of Broken Dreams is a fever-dream takedown of capitalism, and he has more films in the works. He is the founder and artistic director of monochrom, an internationally acting art and theory group and film-production company. Boing Boing referred to him as a leitnerd, the very archetype of the modern obsessed enthusiast. If you’re not aware of the filmmaker, it’s time to remedy that and take your brain on a grim vacation from sanity. Time to find your own Masking Threshold.
Masking Threshold screened at the 2021 Fantastic Fest.
"…reminiscent of the time-lapse film of a dead animal decaying. The veneer of civilization melts off like rotting skin..."