The intersection between pleasure and pain is fundamental to the experience of watching horror films...
...On a basic level, in some part of ourselves, we as horror fans are delighting in the pain of others playing out onscreen. Yes, it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we know ultimately everything we’re watching isn’t real and actually everyone involved is fine, but that doesn’t erase the fact that we enjoy it while it happens. For many of us it’s a cathartic experience, for others just plain fun to see. We channel all of our complex emotions into the thing and face our anxieties in a relatively controlled environment. For all that, horror films themselves are not often about experiencing joy. There are maniacal killers who get a kind of release of the pressure valve, but we don’t often see them necessarily happy to be doing it. If they are, we can’t tell, because usually their faces are covered. Unless, of course, the killer is a woman. In that case not only can you (usually) see her face, you often also see her sheer delight in the act. In most frameworks this could be chalked up either to evil motivation or catharsis, but for writer-director Alex Noyer’s Sound of Violence, which just World Premiered at SXSW Film Festival, the joy comes from the high of the act itself. Sort of, anyway.
Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown) lost her hearing in an accident as a child, and gained it following the brutal murder of her father when she was ten years old. More than that, she gained synesthetic abilities that manifest more or less only when she commits an act of extreme violence. Now teaching at a college while conducting her own series of music experiments to try and recapture the high of the experience, she tumbles down a rabbit hole of increasingly more depraved methods of murder in pursuit of an intensified connection. No victim is too random or too close to her to be safe, no method too outlandish to accomplish her goal. No one and nothing matters in this game of hers except herself. Every new experiment is about finding the newest level of high. In fact, when she plays the music she makes from her murders for other people, they become visibly ill. To her, it’s music. To everyone else, it’s depraved recordings of torture and death.
There is a kind of under-layer at work in Sound of Violence that feels almost like Alexis is working through the trauma of witnessing her mother’s death and then killing her father, but it could just as well be that she focuses there to try and remember what that was like to do and feel. When she commits murder, she can see the sounds of it manifesting as colors, and for her it’s so intensely beautiful that the obsession with recapturing it consumes her work entirely. Even when she tries to DJ with ordinary music, the memory of her first experience crashes into her, destabilizing her entirely. But there is no denying the delight that spreads across her face when she has her headphones on while she controls her ever-more-sinister traps for her largely unsuspecting victims. It seems to be freedom and high all wrapped into one. She may be one of the coldest female villains out there, sort of akin to Bliss’ Dezzy Donahue in that she thinks only of what can be gained for herself.
While it is, usually, a rather mean-spirited film, it is fascinating in its execution. Synesthesia is not often explored in horror, or film in general, and Noyer’s efforts prove it can be used to impressive effect. Alexis’ traps are increasingly complex and intricate. So much so that it takes spectators some time to register exactly what is happening. The resulting gore from her efforts is striking. From exploding heads to a harpist who plays until she bleeds, to an end kill that really is a work of performance art all on its own, Alexis brings the intensity of her internal experience to us onscreen (thanks to special effects by Robert Bravo) and promptly, for the most part, leaves her mess behind to be found by the cops. Aided by her trusty murder-theremin, she plays with the frequencies of sound to deadly results, escalating in boldness. What begins as hiding a homeless man in her garage ends with disrupting a crowd on the beach.
Her emotional reactions—or lack thereof—are just as interesting to note as she progresses. Largely, she comes across cold and calculating, focused only on the resulting high of the synesthetic experience. As the film goes on, however, her grip begins to slip the tiniest bit until we’re not sure if she’s enjoying it anymore at all.
Sound of Violence is a visually vibrant, strange beast of a film. I’m not altogether sure there is anyone here to root for, more like we’re watching one woman’s descent into something she can neither harness nor control. Nevertheless, its creative kills are enough to make it worth the watch. The final kill, at any rate, won’t soon be forgotten.
By Katelyn Nelson
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