'Deadwax' Review: A Sinister Series With Killer Sound [Fantastic Fest]

"If there is no one there to hear the falling rain in the garden, what sound does it make?"  "If there's nothing, it could be anything."  This is Etta's response to a philosophical question pertaining to the manipulation and dangers experienced from sound– a concept that is deviantly explored in Shudder's upcoming series, Deadwax. Inspired by the Satanic Panic of the '70s where people demonized backmasking, a technique for playing the record backwards to reveal hidden messages, Shudder provides its own spin that will make audiences want to turn the volume way up.

Creator Graham Reznick is a music maven in the sound department, having worked on numerous films including In the Valley of Violence and House of the Devil. Intrigued by the manner in which auditory noises can invisibly influence an audience, he created an eight-episode series set within the world of vinyl collectors. Reznick wisely chose to capture each segment in fifteen-minute intervals allowing the storyline to never drag on, instead maintaining a consistent pace of intrigue and suspense.

The story follows Etta (Mindhunter's Hannah Gross), an underground vinyl collector and hunter who is hired by die-hard waxheads to track down the rarest records ever pressed. Sneaking into people's homes at night and accessing confidential files, she has no limits to the lengths she'll go to in order to snag what she wants. On her most recent heist, she comes across an exceptionally unique vinyl that is notorious within collector circles. Part of the key series by sound engineer maestro Lyle M. Litton, it is one of only three pressings in existence and leads to a record that is said to have not only captured the sound of Litton's soul leaving his body as he died, but also kills anyone who listens to it. Identified by strange markings etched into the record's deadwax–the space between the label and the grooves–the vinyl contains a mythic reputation until police connect it to a series of deaths. Etta is subsequently entangled in the investigative hunt for the blood-red record responsible for carnage, as she unfolds the mysterious history of its creator.

Deadwax Review

The deeper scientific concepts behind the plot of Deadwax are quite fascinating. There are mentions of frequency resonance manipulation; and the notion of how the human body reacts to various sound waves can be painful and ultimately deadly. References to the Cuban use of sound warfare serve as a realistic inspiration within the plot as instances of infrasound (low frequency below the threshold of human hearing) can trigger feelings of nausea and dizziness, while bursts of high frequency, or ultrasound, can cause a person to drop to their knees in pain or lose control of various bodily functions. This grounded realism removes any notion of the series just being a concept ripped off from The Ring and extracts heavy emphasis on folklore as well.

The kill scenes in Deadwax aren't always shown on camera and are instead occasionally implied, but the practical effects are rad regardless. Mummified bodies, exploding heads, and blood splatter all over the walls in a decorative manner reminiscent to the technique used on real vinyl variants from record companies like Deathwaltz, which had a small contribution the series, will surely delight horror fans. The style of gore is straight out of the '80s (along with the cameos by Ted Raimi), while heavy influences of giallo are at play as well. On top of horror, there are certain scenes that utilize lighting and camera techniques to enhance an element of sci-fi reminiscent of Twin Peaks: The Return, further suggesting the characters in the story are not what they seem.

Despite the intriguing narrative and absorbing practical effects, there is a lack of engaging character development. While I appreciate the musical nods of potentially naming the protagonist after Etta James, there is a disconnect in the delivery of emotional impact leading up to the final scenes of the series. However, as a vinyl collector, it is cool to check out the different record player set-ups each character has in the show, although some of them admittedly make me quite envious. Like the tunes of an ominous film score, the series utilizes a sick sound design to drive a gory and gripping storyline that will hold you hostage until the credits roll. A horror thriller with just enough disquieting scientific backing, Deadwax is a wicked series that is warped in the best way.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10