This year’s Nightmares Film Festival continues in its tradition of bringing together exceptional examples of genre filmmaking, but one film in particular, Masking Threshold, stood out from the crowd, ultimately winning the prestigious Film From Hell honor. The latest from Austrian filmmaker Johannes Grenzfurthner, founder of monochrom—an art and theory group—Masking Threshold follows an intense and obsessive man battling an overwhelming case of tinnitus with homemade experiments that have horrific consequences.
We were excited to have Johannes answer some questions for us where he discusses his film, his studies, and a few of the movies that inspired him to create his own.
“It is not important what we want to know, but why we want to know it.” — Michel Foucault
PopHorror: Many would be comfortable classifying you as a Renaissance Man. You are a filmmaker, artist, thespian, and author to list just a few of your achievements. You clearly are driven to create, express, and expand awareness. Who were the writers, thinkers, and artists who inspired you to blaze your own trail?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: Oh, thank you. I like to manipulate people to positively respond to my lies and made-up realities, and I feed off these emotions. I also get easily bored and like to try out things, but making films has always been a true passion. It is such a great medium to educate and entertain people.
Concerning who influenced me: that’s pretty hard. I grew up in the boondocks of Austria with only two TV channels, and I was very happy that my dad obtained a VHS recorder as early as 1980. It opened up a whole new telematic—how it was called back then—reality for me. I could record TV on a tape and watch it later! Or RENT a movie! Woah! I wasn’t really allowed to go to the cinema, but I had a great variety of films I could pick from on tape. Close Encounters of the Third Kind mesmerized me, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension gave me my first “WTF?” moment, and Poltergeist terrified the living scrape-your-face-off shit out of me. I remember when I first saw Alien. All the fans had watched the chestburster scene so many times that the tape was completely fucked up. Still, I had night terrors for days.
I was always interested in obscure crap. I loved science fact—Carl Sagan is still my only media idol—and science fiction, especially folks like John Brunner and William Gibson, and movies like Robocop. Cyberpunk politicized me, and when I was 16, I turned into a punk.
PopHorror: Masking Threshold is a feature-length trip down a dizzying rabbit hole. This is such a unique and impressive piece of storytelling. Did you or [story contributor] Samantha Lienhard have a personal connection to the plight had by your protagonist? How was the idea for this conceived?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: Yeah, the first idea was to tell the story of a sick person who locks himself up in a room and looks at the world only through the magnifying lens. A nerd that loses the ability to embrace the world and open up, but does the exact opposite: he, quite literally, sinks into his desk, delves deep into his obsession. The hyper-magnification is as close as reality can get to the metaphorical rabbit hole. And I am very happy that my brilliant DOP Florian Hofer shared my enthusiasm for macro lenses.
Although the protagonist is a scientifically literate man, his dark, regressive fears and hubris overwhelm him. He is a know-it-all who rants and raves in his improvised laboratory, some kind of strange womb, and yet he knows nothing. He fears and avoids the world in its multi-layered reality. He has a well-manicured and privileged ignorance.
First, it wasn’t clear what should drive him crazy. It needed to be something in his head… and then it hit me: tinnitus. I only had it for 10 minutes when I was in my 20s, and that was terrifying enough that I can still remember it. So I did a lot of interviews with people suffering from hearing deficiencies. It was very important to me to be as close as possible to the real thing.
PopHorror: The amount of information presented to the audience is astounding. How did you prepare to write Masking Threshold?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: It was pretty easy. Many of the things the protagonist refers to or talks about are things that I am actually really interested in. So it was a bit of sifting through my own interests, combined with my own dark thoughts, to conjure it all up. I always had the feeling that the things he talks about can’t be total bullshit. He isn’t a pleasant person, for sure, but in terms of content, I would subscribe to almost everything he says. The important part is that knowledge is always shaped by context, by social dimensions. Michel Foucault nails it when he says, “It is not important what we want to know, but why we want to know it.”
PopHorror: I saw in a previous interview that you wished to create a salute to Lovecraft with Masking Threshold. What is it about H.P. Lovecraft’s writing that you find appealing?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: I wouldn’t call it a salute—although I leave the supernatural dimension open—but Masking Threshold is clearly in the tradition of Cosmicism. Lovecraft preferably placed the source of horror in the past or in the depths of space. Cosmic forces rise from these two bottomless abysses of time and space and invade the everyday lives of people who are completely insignificant in comparison with them. These narratives are carefully constructed and usually follow a similar pattern. Conceived as confessions, letters, or diaries, they depict with many portents the Kafkaesque intrusion of the overpowering stranger into the lives of ordinary people, often triggered by investigations or expeditions that would be better to have never taken place. Masking Threshold can and should be seen in this tradition. But you could also call the film a critique of Lovecraft himself and the privileged nerddom he was celebrating. We shall not forget that Lovecraft was a perpetrator and victim at the same time.
PopHorror: Now that Masking Threshold is completed and currently enjoying a successful run on the festival circuit, what are you most proud of when it comes to making this film?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: I am very very happy that people seem to get my film. The film is not really a classic horror film, but it’s also not a real arthouse film. I was afraid that everyone would hate it. The horror scene is a difficult place anyway. Even the great horror films in cinema history always have much worse ratings on IMDb than their sci-fi equivalents. And arthouse films and their clientele can be so incredibly pretentious.
Oh, and on a different level: I cured myself of my phobia of slugs. That’s quite something.
PopHorror: If you could program a double feature at any venue in the world, what two films make your bill and where are they playing?
Johannes Grenzfurthner: What a damn good question! I would probably host Phase IV and Altered States at the Field Museum in Chicago. Or a screening of Capricorn One and Dark Star at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, right next to the Saturn V.
We would like to thank Johannes for his time and remind you to keep a look out for Masking Threshold, currently on its international festival run.