Masters of Horror: S2E04 “Sounds Like”

In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. This weekly anthology horror series invited established and emerging horror directors to create an original hour long horror film. While they were originally told there were no restrictions on what they could create, the censorship of season one finale Imprint pushed the series to far darker, violent places in season two.

Sounds Like is the story of Larry. Larry’s job is to monitor phone calls at a tech support center. It’s a perfect match, as his unnaturally sensitive hearing allows him to pick up on nuances in the human voice that might otherwise go unheard. It’s a curse, as well, as he can hear distant sounds as if they are blaring from speakers pointed directly at his ears. His wife and him lost a child a few months ago, changing their worlds forever.

Brad Anderson is one of the more interesting choices to work on Masters of Horror. He started his career with popular indie romantic comedies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents that did very well on the festival circuit. His first horror film, Session 9, was well regarded by critics but did not garner much of an audience on initial release. The Machinist, however, did get a lot of attention (it’s that film where Christian Bale lost all that weight for), heralding Anderson as a promising new voice in psychological horror/thrillers. His career is largely in episodic television now (including episodes of Fringe, Boardwalk Empire, and Treadstone) and his newer films (The Call, Stonehearst Asylum, Fractured) play with unreliable narrators and skepticism about the ability of societal institutions to actually protect us.

Sounds Like is an incredibly loud film by design. Every small noise has the potential to become a jump scare. Anderson wants you to be trapped in the mindset of Larry and the exaggerated sound design is the perfect tool for it. Frankly, I’d call it a weapon, which is pretty on brand for Anderson’s direction style. He finds a way to put his audience on edge and pushes that device until you’re afraid that someone might chew on a pencil offscreen.

Chris Bauer’s performance as Larry is one of the best in the entire Masters of Horror series. There are so many levels to what he is doing onscreen. He’s constantly on edge from something that no one else could understand, reacting to daily noise like a personal attack against him. He’s also still struggling with the loss of a child. There is a profound sadness to everything he does. He tries to hide everything he’s going through but can literally hear everyone around him discuss the various ways he’s awful.

The horror comes from Larry’s inability to accept help. His world is frozen in a trauma response exaggerated by a hypersensitivity to sound. Anytime he comes close to making a move forward, he’s shocked back into his suffering by the tap of a foot or the beep of a distant alarm. The suspense is knowing that this anger you see barely hiding under the surface will inevitably come out in a big way.

Sounds Like is a character study horror. Anderson concerns himself with a lost soul unable to recover from a traumatic event. This can be the stuff of tragedy, but not in this context. This is a harsh view of response to trauma, arguably cynical. What starts as a sympathetic portrait of grief slowly unravels. Larry deserves sympathy for what he’s gone through, but he might not have been as perfect as he pretends to be even before the death of his child.

If there is a downside to the episode, it is the pacing. An hour is not a lot of time for a deep dive psychological portrait. These films tend to have a shape like a spiral, cycling between highs and lows, hope and despair. The time limit on the episode forces the pattern to start spinning much sooner than you would expect in this style of horror. It’s not as disorienting as it is increasingly predictable in what will come next. The plot elements are unexpected, but when they will hit becomes a bit too obvious near the end.

***

content warning: mental wellness, gore, violence against women, sexual content


Up next: S2E04, “Pro-Life” from director John Carpenter.