Masking Threshold is one of the best films ever conceived about what it means to be terminally online, though its final act turn toward more traditional genre territory isn’t quite as successful.
Johannes Grenzfurthner’s Masking Threshold is a remarkable bit of DIY lunacy, a hand-crafted nightmare that combines elements of a diary film, a first-person, found-footage pseudo-documentary, a YouTube tutorial, and the Screenlife desktop aesthetic a la Unfriended and its ilk. There’s an almost epistolary quality to it, as Grenzfurthner (also co-writer, editor, props master, and even the on-screen stand-in for the film’s otherwise mostly unseen protagonist) constructs his movie almost entirely out of a never-ending montage of discrete images. There’s a narrative, but it’s presented as a series of fastidiously constructed tableaux. It’s a flurry of digital information — extreme close-ups of screens, graphs, charts, fluids, and recording equipment, almost all of which is diegetic, presented as being filmed by the protagonist himself (although Grenzfurthner isn’t beholden to this at all times).
What the film is beholden to is Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, with similarly rhythmic editing set to the beat of the film’s score. But Masking Threshold isn’t as aggressive as that almost 25-year-old film; Grenzfurthner wants to lull his audience, at least at first. It’s a deceptively simple setup that unfolds into a bizarre journey down a rabbit hole of narcissistic delusions. We are first introduced to an unnamed man (voiced by Ethan Haslam) who suffers from a rare form of tinnitus. As he describes his condition to us, he reveals that it has cost him both a long-term relationship and caused him to drop out of school, taking on a crummy IT desk job to make ends meet. Convinced that doctors cannot help him, he decides to embark on a series of experiments to diagnose and hopefully cure his ailment. This man’s stream-of-consciousness narration fills virtually every moment of the film, a barrage of verbal information that presents (at first) what seems to be an intelligent, if perhaps egotistical, everyman. Fancying himself a scientist of sorts, he’s determined to chart and otherwise document his entire process, periodically uploading information online and even emailing some data to doctors who he thinks might find his tinkering of interest.
The constant chatter presents a bevy of concepts, ideas bleeding into each other, as Haslam’s even, steady tone accumulates and relays more and more data. Initially, he’s interested in which frequencies set off his affliction more than others, carefully cataloguing everything in his makeshift home laboratory. This leads to a steady escalation of experiments — first on fabrics, then molds, and eventually insects and small mammals. Grenzfurthner, along with co-writer Samantha Lienhard, gradually ups the ante on the protagonist’s ramblings as well. What seems at first a curious exploration by a clever dilettante becomes more distressing as online commentators and even doctors begin suggesting he seek psychological help. The constant aural onslaught at first masks how unreliable this narrator is, but eventually the film enters mad-scientist territory. There’s a neighbor named Dana (Katharina Rose) who occasionally stops by to check in on the protagonist, and we occasionally hear his mother’s voice via voicemails or on text messages. But this is a one-man show, the audience tethered entirely to this man’s subjective POV.
Working with Cinematographer Florian Hofer and sound designer Lenja Gathmann, Grenzfurthner has unleashed possibly the best film ever conceived about what it means to be terminally online. After two years of a global pandemic beset by disinformation and outright “fake news,” Grenzfurthner has illustrated what it must be like inside the mind of a person gradually disintegrating as they fall into an abyss of psychosis and “doing their own research.” Formally audacious, beautifully constructed, and distressingly topical, it’s almost a shame when Masking Threshold enters full-blown genre territory. It makes a certain kind of sense — this way of seeing the world can only lead inevitably to violence. But it also seems like Grenzfurthner and company decided they were obligated to deliver horror fans some gore. It’s undeniable that this pivot saps the film of some of its unique elegance, but in either case, Masking Threshold remains a singular film, well worth a look from viewers who don’t mind being stuck inside the head of a deeply disturbing individual.