Despite its title, Masking Threshold has nothing to do with preventing the spread of COVID. The term actually refers to a process where one sound is rendered inaudible because of the presence of another sound. It’s a title that, while certainly relevant to the plot, in no way prepares the viewer for what’s to come.
Masking Threshold revolves around an unnamed and mostly unseen IT worker referred to in the credits only as Protagonist. He has been suffering from tinnitus for three years and, at his sanity’s end, has decided to find a cure on his own. He takes a leave of absence from work and constructs a lab in his basement to work on his theories. All of which he, of course, records to post on YouTube.
That work however quickly goes from measuring the effects of various substances on the ambient sound levels of the lab to much darker research as his sanity continues to disintegrate.
Director Johannes Grenzfurthner (Glossary of Broken Dreams, Traceroute) and co-writer Samantha Lienhard have created a film that is superficially about one man’s descent into madness. With its lead being someone who considers himself smarter than his doctors and rejects the findings of experts in order to “do his own research” Masking Threshold could have been a very timely variation on that theme as well.
Unfortunately, they left Protagonist, voiced by Ethan Haslam (White Devil) while Grenzfurthner provides the few body parts we see, mostly a void. He does reveal bits of his past in his ramblings, but since he is clearly an unreliable narrator the audience has no way of knowing if they are true. Did his condition destroy his relatively normal social life, or was he always a loner and an outsider recalling it through a lens of delusion? Some of the things Grenzfurthner has said in interviews provide an answer to that question, but Masking Threshold itself doesn’t.
Similarly, Masking Threshold’s only other characters, his mother, body of Bronwynn Mertz-Penzinger (Another One Opens), voice of Caroline St. Clair and his neighbour Dana (Katharina Rose) are undeveloped as well. His mother believes in various New Age and herbal therapies. Dana seems to be a masochist based on how she keeps coming back no matter how badly Protagonist treats her.
For a psychological thriller to work, it needs strong characters especially the central one. Masking Threshold has three blanks, in the case of Protagonist an almost literal one. Grenzfurthner seems to have been much more interested in shoving any and all manner of unpleasant images at the viewer than creating a coherent narrative however.
Not just the kind of images we expect from a horror film either, things like a Q Tip covered in ear wax, a used enema, the results of Protagonist masturbating. We see a closeup of his mouth as he spoons in Soylent meal replacement. That’s unpleasant enough as is, but the knowledge that he’s gay evokes another image that will probably be equally unpleasant to some viewers.
It’s meant to be confrontational and shocking, but without the anchor of characters that I cared about Masking Threshold was just dull and ugly. I didn’t care when he announced he was constipated, and I wasn’t grossed out when I saw the used Fleet’s. It’s the intellectual equivalent of extreme horror films like Maleficia or Chaos that are too concerned with shocking gore and violence to put any effort into the plot and characters.
On a technical level, Masking Threshold does feature some impressive macro and close-up photography, but that isn’t nearly enough to save the film. Neither is the film’s excursion into Lovecraftian territory when it reaches its inevitable bloody climax.
Masking Threshold is currently on the festival circuit. It recently played this year’s Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival and you can get updates on future screenings on the director’s website.