FrightFest 2020: Skull: The Mask review

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Messing around with ancient skulls and masks? Well, that never goes wrong – here’s our review of Skull: The Mask.

Look, people shouldn’t mess around with ancient skull mask things. They’re creepy and, so posits Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman’s Skull: The Mask, can lead to extremely violent and bloody heart-stealing massacres from demon-headed beasts. It seems to me that we should all know things like this, yet this story of people messing around with an ancient skull mask feels like an extremely ‘of course, in 2020’ thing to happen. I hope it doesn’t.

The mask of Anhanga is the ancient artefact at the heart of Skull: The Mask. Brought to Sao Paolo for warped businessman Tack, a poorly considered ritual is conducted with it before it can make its way to him to display in a museum. It results in a gruesome, crimson-splattered crime scene, with disgraced detective Beatriz hunting down the missing mask, aiming to solve the case and make amends for past mistakes. Meanwhile, local worker Manco and a local priest disagree over what should happen to Manco’s deceased father’s possessions, many of them ancient artefacts, but are soon drawn into Anhanga’s bloody rampage.

Skull: The Mask is a film that benefits from its setting. Sao Paolo looks, for this reviewer at least, so unfamiliar and visually interesting. For the most part, it really is very well shot and visually striking film. While we’ve seen countless horror movies of people trudging through the woods and old English mansions and suburban American towns, this is the first I recall seeing set in an urban Brazilian city. I think we’ve all found ourselves numbly scrolling through Netflix feeling like everything looks the same, and it can be revitalizing to realise that there is a Brazilian horror scene, that there are pockets of cinema going on all around the world that are just waiting for us to discover them.

Within Skull: The Mask, there seems to be a battle between two films. One is a somber, eerie horror thriller, with tense drama and trippy, demonic imagery. The other is a trashy, scrappy horror with clumsy action sequences and kills that completely lack atmosphere. The former is excellent but has to lug the latter around like a layer of heavy, suffocating prosthetics encasing the head of a put-upon stunt performer.

This is never clearer than in the actual Anhanga killings. There is a total absence of both atmosphere and event to the actual acts of murder. The killings are flat, if occasionally graced with some impressively gruesome gore. However, they are usually followed by the most brilliant and disturbing trippy visuals. They strike something of a karmic balance.

Less easy to forgive are the actions sequences; an odd inclusion, ill-fitting with the more effective moments of the movie. The fights aren’t just unnecessary, they’re unsophisticated and clunky. It’s just hard to understand quite why so much hand-to-hand combat has been included.

As far as the main characters go, Manco is probably a little underdeveloped, while Beatriz is written as having done something so bleak that once you know she’s done it she becomes a difficult character to stomach.

Yet, the central narrative is compelling and really drives the film forward. It’s murky, gloomy and well-paced. It’s a film with lots going on, from different narrative strands to a couple of sub-textual themes. More than anything, though, it’s a film that thrives when presenting us with black magic imagery of bloody rituals and otherworldly hellscapes. There’s also a swordfight in there that is so interesting to look at that this writer scrolled back to watch it again.

So, uneven though it may be, Skull: The Mask is different enough and impactful enough that it’s worth trying on and seeing how well it fits you. At the very least it’s an interesting curio, although I suspect that there are a few viewers out there who will really take to this one.

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