Here is an insanely gory, rough-hewn slasher from the old school. If there is one outstanding benefit of the current ’80s revival in horror, it’s in the new crop of filmmakers’ warm embrace of that decade’s maximalist approach to violence. The standard PG-13 template from the turn of the millennium has been obliterated by the return of excess and a nostalgic appreciation for tactile, gruesome practical effects. Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman‘s Skull: The Mask drops right into this recidivist tradition with a satisfying splat. What this ultra-brutal throwback lacks in coherent storytelling, it more than compensates in inventive blood-letting.
In a prologue reminiscent of the opening of Guillermo del Toro‘s Hellboy, a creepy wartime organisation with Nazi-esque regalia unleashes the power of a pre-Columbian mask. Any wearer becomes possessed by the spirit of Anhangá, an executioner for the god Tahawantinsupay and is driven to commit sacrifices in order to resurrect its master. Skip forward to contemporary São Paulo, and the mask latches on to the face of a hulking crime-scene cleaner (Brazilian wrestler Rurik Jr.), who proceeds to go on a time-honoured rampage à la Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers). Pitched against this killing machine is corrupt police officer Beatriz Obdias (Natallia Rodrigues), and a mysterious group dedicated to stopping the mask bringing about the apocalyptic return of the bloodthirsty deity.
Skull: The Mask is as steeped in the classics of the ’80s as much as in the pre-modern culture of Brazil. While the story veers wildly through its three different strands, the effects are of a standard with the best the innovative gurus of the genre created at the time. There are moments reminiscent of the The Thing, Lamberto Bava‘s Demons, and of course, the wildest kills from the Friday the 13th series. It’s almost a shame that the mask is the actual menace, as Rurik Jr.’s imposing frame and wrestling prowess makes for an impressing antagonist; not least in his genuinely disturbing mask and increasingly gore-streaked overalls. As he goes about removing hearts, intestines and faces with implacable style, you get the sense that a cult icon was being born. Yet, while the surface-level thrills are myriad, Skull: The Mask still feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.
It may seem foolish to criticise one of the bloodiest slashers in modern memory for failing to go deep enough into its subtext. But the moral murkiness of its ostensible heroine sets up an interesting dichotomy between notions of of historical and modern evil on which it never really follows through. At the very least, Beatriz’s past involvement in a child murder and its cover up should be the basis for a redemptive character arc, or a doomed collision course with the mask itself. As it fails to lean into this, there is a fair argument that the procedural aspect of the film is completely extraneous, useful as nothing else beyond exposition and bloating the trim 90 minutes like an overstuffed sausage skin. It is also interesting that the victims of the pre-Columbian executioner are those you may expect in more conservative-minded slashers; drug dealers, pilled-up ravers, and the evergreen trope of a couple getting amorous in their car. There feels like some very Catholic finger-wagging at play there, from this supposedly pre-Christian god.
Missed opportunities and inconsistent morality aside, Skull: The Mask is a highly watchable and gleefully nasty entry in the grindhouse revival. There is some exceptional imagery conjured on a very small budget, such as Skull himself, and the hallucinatory detours to the world of Tahawantinsupay himself. Oh, and it also has the most badass priest since Braindead, whose sword fight with Skull is a ridiculous highlight. A frequently silly, but very entertaining gorefest.
Available on Shudder from Thu 27 May 2021