If Skull: The Mask has anything going for it, it’s that the schlocky slasher knows exactly what it wants to be. Writer/directors Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman pour on the mythology, plotting and psychedelic imagery as generously as the goopy blood, but at the end of the day, it was always going to be about an ancient, evil skull mask causing folks to die. Very, very messily. While the Brazilian horror film may have clarity of purpose and a welcome sense of fun, it—like its central killer—is sloppy in its execution.
The skull itself is a freaky, warped artifact—the enticing prop embodying a violent death many lifetimes ago—with four horn-like nubs that all but scream “Watch out for us.” Said to still contain the spirit of Anhangá, a sacrifice-happy servant to an old god, its powers obliterate some pseudo-Nazis in its pulpy origin story—shot like a super-saturated mid-century men’s adventure cover became a short film—before we move into the more grounded (which is not saying much) here and now.
The mask is back. It’s being tracked by both corrupt cops (like Natallia Rodrigues’ Beatriz)—working for what is implied to be those pseudo-Nazis’ corporate heir, run by the excellently named Tack Waelder (Ivo Müller)—and those familially invested in the religious/magical powers of the artifact in question (Wilton Andrade’s Manco). When it latches onto a forensics guy played by Brazilian wrestler Rurik Jr., it gets legs, arms and all the killing abilities those handy limbs bring.
The hyper-retro weirdness that defines its early aesthetic sadly doesn’t continue through the rest of the exploitation, though Fonseca and Furman sometimes still morph their influences into amusingly over-the-top imagery that nears the psychedelic blood-red visual mania of Mandy. Between those extradimensional visions, though, the vibe is utterly inconsistent: Sleazy, with a sultry sax score and sweaty cinematography; Cold, washed-out and hopeless; Slickly modern, corporate. This stylistic mélange could enhance the diverse feel of its São Paulo setting if handled well, but it’s jarring every time—partially because of its narrative and partially because it only ever feels like its filmmakers give a damn about one of the film’s many hats.
Yet even though there are some brief and bloody money shots, satisfying in their physical grossness, Skull: The Mask just isn’t shot in a way to fully appreciate the nastiness its creators so clearly enjoy. There’s certainly creativity in prop design (What if God of War’s Kratos whipped his chain-blades around with links of intestines instead?) if not in monster design (Skull mostly wears a jumpsuit and rubber gloves), and Skull’s penchant for cutting out hearts means lots of bare chests. It goes through the midnight movie checklist, but Skull logs its items haphazardly. Kills are nearly over before they begin, and ineffective action choreography (I’ve never seen a horror movie with so many fireman’s carries) and staging undermines any physical skill Rurik Jr. brings to the role. It’s all a visual mess until a quick, fun glimpse at a partially skinned face, smashed head or exposed rib cage. Even a late-in-the-game flamethrower barely connects. A flamethrower!
The links between these segments sap so much of the film’s energy that it’s hard to build any momentum. Fonseca and Furman aren’t much for storytelling, and that’s ok. The problem is that they continue to try instead of giving wholeheartedly into their pulpiest instincts. The overwritten script and touch-and-go cast attempt to touch on religion, class, crime, drugs, police corruption, global cultural collision complicated by politics and capitalism. It’s all over the place and none of it ever feels like more than a dull bit of connective tissue—a screenwriting cheat like a televised news report, brought to the forefront as the filmmakers scramble trying to get us and their killer from points A to B. It’s all far too slow and far too near reality for a film like this. Wooden dialogue or a disposable plot would be just two more items on the throwback checklist for Skull, but they’re overwhelming. A mystical Skull-God is running amok, cracking people open like juicy pistachios using guts that he controls like Doc Ock—spare us the office meetings.
Skull still scares up some music video silliness and overt visual ornaments—the screen digitally bulging when someone does a bump, for example—that tide us over until one of its rare satisfying montages (and that’s what most of the good scenes feel like, montages) that overcome expectations: A swordfight backlit by stained glass; a “masked bad guy at a costume party” scene, but done up to the bloody nines. Don’t be surprised if those inspired sequences pop up more if they get more money for the sequel. But as a standalone splatter flick, there’s so much shoddily constructed, dry material stuffed into Skull that not even its lavish vats of blood can cover it all.
Directors: Armando Fonseca, Kapel Furman
Writers: Armando Fonseca, Kapel Furman
Stars: Natallia Rodrigues, Wilton Andrade, Ricardo Gelli, Guta Ruiz, Greta Antoine, Tristan Aronovich, Ivo Müller
Release Date: May 27, 2021 (Shudder)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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