Director Brad Anderson, who delivered credible budget thrills with Session 9 and The Machinist, takes the “Masters of Horror” franchise for a spin with Sounds Like, an effectively creepy tale of swallowed grief’s slow transmutation into insanity.
Chris Bauer (The Wire, The Devil’s Advocate) stars as Larry Pearce, a family man and call center supervisor for whom careful listening is a way of life. His days are spent monitoring hundreds of tech support phone conversations, his ultra-sensitive ears attuned to every nuance of voice and sound. When he loses his young son, however, Larry is shattered. Slowly, his sense of hearing becomes even further intensified, to the point of teeth-grinding distraction; even simple noises are magnified into a cacophony of torment. As Larry’s grasp on reality begins to loosen, he grows even more surly and resentful of his wife Brenda (Laura Margolis), who’s been dealing with their son’s death differently. Eventually the deafening clamor is all too much, and Larry slides headlong into shocking acts of violence.
Obviously the big narrative touchstones here are Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Gene Hackman’s The Conversation, and Anderson summons comparisons to these works favorably from a point of actual execution as well. His skill with sound design — roundly evidenced in particularly Session 9, but also on his episodic work on HBO’s The Wire — comes into play, and makes Larry’s dizzying predicament searingly real. There’s also a smart sense of when to parcel out the moments of shock or air-quote gore (squirmy maggots get some nice play), and when to merely let Bauer sell the distracted, slow-rising distress of this character. Sounds Like isn’t nearly as gory as many other entries in the “Masters of Horror” series, but it works very well within the established parameters of the anthology, and even on its own, if one isn’t familiar with the other hour-long movies. If the ending doesn’t pack a huge twist or reversal, it’s still well acted, well constructed and persuasively moody, auguring a successful return to theatrical feature films when/if Anderson gets the opportunity.
Housed in a regular Amray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, Sounds Like is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with superlative Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 surround sound audio tracks. Anderson submits to an audio commentary track in which he amply demonstrates his thoughtfulness and preparedness. He has all sorts of anecdotes about the movie’s purposefully ambiguous production design, composer Anton Sanko’s chamber quartet, non-contemporary score and the mad-dash, one week location scouting that preceded the film’s Vancouver shoot.
Thirteen minutes of cast and crew interviews are wisely preceded by a spoiler warning advising those who haven’t yet watched the movie to turn back, and it’s here that series producer Mick Garris shrewdly assays Sounds Like as the story of “what happens when repressed sadness becomes madness,” and one of the best in the “Masters of Horror” series. There’s also a five-and-a-half-minute featurette on the sound effects work in the movie; here, effects supervisor Howard Berger has some interesting insights and cinematographer Attila Szalay offers up some important new advice he learned firsthand on the production: “Backlight maggots!” Rounding things out are a photo gallery and a DVD-ROM copy of the movie’s screenplay. A- (Movie) B+ (Disc)