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Fantastic Fest 2021 Review: 'Masking Threshold'

Ever hear a sound that drove you crazy?

An ant in Masking Threshold
(Image: © Fantastic Fest)

Our Verdict

An ambitious, remarkably constructed take on the "protagonist loses their sanity" genre film.

For

  • - Unique approach to the material
  • - Gruesome events are not telegraphed
  • - Laudable vocal performance from its lead actor

Against

  • - Presentation may turn viewers off
  • - Science jargon may be hard to follow
  • - Ant activists will be outraged

Watching a character's descent into psychotic madness is nothing new for the horror genre; we've seen it in avowed classics (Repulsion), older indie fare (Combat Shock), even newer films (Censor), and it's proven to be a fine backdrop for very different movies. But I have never seen one done like Masking Threshold, which tells its story almost entirely through a man's rambling thoughts laid over macro closeup images of the work he is doing. You never get a complete look at his face and only a few brief seconds occur outside of the makeshift lab he has set up in his home, making the film both incredibly ambitious and remarkably confined at the same time.

Our unnamed protagonist (the credits list him as just Protagonist) is an IT guy who has taken a few days off of work in order to understand and hopefully cure his hearing impairment, supposedly an advanced form of tinnitus. Anyone who has ever become obsessed with any aspect of their own health can probably identify with the character as he tests theories, makes charts to track changes, etc., though hopefully your own journey won't end in bloodshed and tragedy. 

As he becomes more and more determined to figure out his ailment, he becomes closed off from the world, soundproofing the walls and ignoring calls from his mother and increasingly irate boss (you'll figure out he's gone long past his vacation time before he is finally fired). Eventually he goes too far, of course; you can't really see any of it, but by the end, there's a body count.

If lensed traditionally, the film would likely resemble something along the lines of William Friedkin's Bug (or, coincidentally enough, the third act of the unrelated Bug from Jeannot Szwarc), with the lead character's amount of allowed personal space shrinking along with their grip on reality, and perhaps wouldn't be as compelling. But when everything consists of what amounts to POV shots or selfies (framed from the neck down) alongside a non-stop voiceover (the body in the film is actually that of director/co-writer Johannes Grenzfurthner, but the voice belongs to actor Ethan Haslam), the viewer is given a first person perspective on the character's mental decline. When he actually murders someone, it feels inevitable because you've been privy and perhaps sympathetic to every little thing that led to that moment, removing the shock element that might have accompanied the action in a more conventionally told version of these events.

But this approach also lets it really get under your skin. There are a few laughs sprinkled throughout (look for the word "shrapnel" and a delightful Weird Al rendition) but it can start unnerving you pretty early on and basically never let go, as you're sort of "trapped" with the presentation and, in turn, basically in his head for 90 minutes. 

When a neighbor comes over to check on him, you might be uncomfortable with the realization that you too are annoyed at the interruption. Anyone who has been working from home for the past year and a half can probably identify with the idea of a housemate or neighbor breaking your train of thought, but it's rare to see someone pull off that exact form of frustration in a fictional film. 

As for the violence, I guess I should note that a pet is offed along the way, as well as a handful of humans and some insects. One ant was killed for real for a scene, but the other bits of insecticide were faked with CGI or other trickery (at the Q&A, the filmmaker told a story about asking around to find something that looked like salt but would not actually harm a slug when poured on it). For what was probably a very low budget production, they certainly did not skimp when it came to the prosthetic effects; as you might have guessed by now given the description of the film's photography, you see these things up close, so they had to be top notch and the makeup/FX team certainly delivered. There's a severed ... let's just call it a sensitive body part, that I hope I wasn't the only one trying hard not to inspect it too closely. 

Naturally, this will be a tough sell to audiences; even some folks at Fantastic Fest, which is basically catered to audiences that aren't much interested in conventionally told tales, lost interest when I told them how it was filmed (given this year's stripped down/under populated fest, I have actually been unable to talk to anyone else who saw it, as I didn't recognize anyone else in the theater during my screening). 

The science talk might also be a hurdle. I admit I didn't fully understand some of the jargon, and while it's not actually necessary to follow it to the letter (as long as you understand the gist of it, i.e. he's testing sounds) that might be an issue for viewers. Oddly, it reminded me of Primer, which similarly had lots of physics talk that one didn't necessarily need to comprehend but can still make you feel somewhat dumb for long stretches (funnily enough, I made this mental comparison and then later in the film, the protagonist offered the same "Russian pencil" anecdote that is present in Primer). 

Hopefully, folks can look past this minor "blemish" and just focus on the bigger picture. The teaser is out there for anyone curious if they can deal with the presentation, and I would say the 30 seconds it shows is more or less what the entire movie is like, albeit with a 15 second gap in the narration that I don't think exists in the film (I wondered more than once what Haslam's lozenge budget was). 

For me, I can't even think of another moviegoing experience like it. Grenzfurthner deserves some kind of award for how well he fully committed to what seems like a nightmarish set of limitations for a filmmaker and used them to his advantage. Not my favorite movie of the fest, but likely the one that will stick in my head the longest.

There are currently no available release details for Masking Threshold.