★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Skull: The Mask is a Brazilian explosion of gore and action, the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite a while, featuring fine acting and character development that belies its pedigree. This gonzo film is pure sweet bloody syrup for fans of exploitation fare, and could very well end up being a cult favorite.
Directed by Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman
The Chattanooga Film Festival unveiled two Brazilian horror movies, and they had completely different effects on me. One was a teen-angsty exposition-heavy melodrama that was sparse in scares and tension. The other was non-stop balls-to-the-walls splatter festival that rippled with energy. Skull: The Mask is the latter film, and by far the more enjoyable film.
Brazil does not have a deep bench of notable horror films, but this one has the chance to be a breakout cult favorite, and will hopefully get a big American distribution like the Argentinian ghost tale Terrified which got a huge boost from SHUDDER. The directors Fonseca and Furman got an introduction to western audiences with a short film Pyronia in the Lloyd Kaufman produced Grindsploitation anthology. And though Skull: The Mask has some Toxic Avengers vibe to it, this movie is superior in almost all ways to Kaufman’s Troma productions.
The movie opens with a flashback to the Amazon jungle during WWII, where a Nazi archaeology team performing a blood ritual on a pre-Colombian Incan artifact: a skull mask, but the ritual backfires in a bloody mess. As the Nazis try and safeguard the artifact deep in an Amazonian bunker, there is a brawl for possession of the artifact between the Nazis and two mysterious strangers each with their own hidden motivations. The mask has been reclaimed, leaving one of the combatants disarmed (literally) and the Nazis all dead in their jungle.
Flashing forward to the current day, the mask has been found in a modern archaeology expedition, and a business executive claims it for a private collector. She brings the mask home to her estate in Sao Paolo, where her young girlfriend asks to see the mask. When she is denied the opportunity, the goth girl waits until her lover has gone to bed, to open the crate, and recreate the ritual seen in the prologue, summoning the Incan Diety Anhangá, with candles and runes. Bad idea! This awakens the mask, unleashing bloody devastation on both of the women.
We then meet officer Beatriz Obdias (Natallia Rodrigues), a weary and cynical homicide detective, called to review the bloody mess. The private collector, the blatantly sinister Tack Waelder (Ivo Müller) barges into the crime scene, demanding that the now-missing priceless artifact be the pressing need and not the discovery of who caused the heinous murders. (Cue bad-guy fanfare.)
Our third major character is down-on-his-luck Manco Ramirez (Wilton Andrade), who is revealed to be something of a modern Knight Templar, a Catholic protector, and guardian of the skull mask, sworn to ensure that it does not unleash its untold evil upon the world. He is the inheritor of the legacy of the man who lost his hand in combat at the beginning of the film, and that hand is a totem of warning that has informed Manco that the mask has awakened. Waelder is aware of Manco and tries to frame him as the prime suspect for stealing the artifact.
The artifact, however, has not been stolen. It was hiding, waiting for a victim to bond with and do its bidding. It animates and possesses one of the forensic cleanup crew, a big man (Rurik Jr.), who becomes The Skull, a gore-covered demon bent on tearing the hearts out of humans as a blood sacrifice to Anhangá and uses the entrails of his victims as ropey animated appendages. Nice!
The movie then moves into non-stop action mode, with Beatriz hunting Manco, Manco hunting the Skull, and the Skull tearing his way through Sao Paolo, eviscerating anyone he sees. The movie has the feel of the first Terminator, with an unstoppable killing machine on the loose, but utilizing gore that would make Tom Savini proud. Kapel Furman is a makeup effects wizard and it really shows, with some absolutely fantastic gore effects.
I really appreciate foreign horror movies that immerse you into the local environment, and The Skull seems uniquely Brazilian. The shanties of Sao Paolo are used to great effect, and it shows off the gritty and exotic underbelly of the city. There are very strong overtones of the haves and the have not of Brazil. Obdias bridges that gap, and you see her life in her tiny apartment, only one step away from being in the slums that she patrols.
Rodrigues was suitably steely as Obdias, the beleaguered cop with a difficult past. This type of role almost always goes to a man like Bruce Willis or Kiefer Sutherland, and I think this movie would pass the Bechdel Test. Granted there aren’t many other prominent female characters to interact with, but keep in mind that this is a female lead who is given a complex back-story and actual character development in an exploitation movie. Though she is athletic and attractive, there are no lame romantic sub-plots, and she is never a damsel in distress. Beatriz was a wonderfully realized character, in a sub-genre typically not known for character development.
Andrade also does a fine job as a vagabond/paladin. A dour holy warrior, living a legacy of duty, bound to keep the world safe from the horrors of ancient Incan evil. There are elements of a battling monk from kung-fu movies or even Connor MacLeod from Highlander. Many of the supporting cast also perform well, particularly Ricardo Gelli as Padre Magno, who gets an awesome fight scene with the Skull, and Guta Ruiz, who plays Galvani Volta, the unfortunate executive. The supporting villains, though, are pretty cartoony. Müller plays Waelder as a pure mustache twirler, and his lackey is similarly over-the-top. But, for a movie of this type, again, think kung-fu villain, and you’ll have a good idea what you’re getting.
The movie belies its exploitation pedigree. It looks terrific. The production values are much higher than one would ordinarily think a foreign grindhouse film would offer. The sets look great. The make-up effects are splatter-tastic. And the cinematography, though not pristine, is much better than one would normally associate with a movie like this. The plot may have been a touch over-complicated, as there is an unnecessary child abduction ring component to the story that seems like a completely tacked on element, and there is one ridiculously unnecessary sex scene involving unimportant characters who are sacrificial grist for the Skull, but given that the whole movie is in Portuguese, I never had any difficulties understanding the plot. (Unlike the OTHER Brazilian film I saw from CFF.)
You could describe this movie as comic-booky. There are some proud precedents, from Red Skull to Black Mask to The Mask, there is a long tradition of villains who put on possessed masks that bond to their faces, and drive them insane. The Skull takes it to the next level, as he is a monster of brute force rather than cunning, but the events that lead to his creation seem ripped from the comic page. This story would be perfectly at home as an EC comic, from something like Vault of Horror.
The Skull is something that could conceivably come back as a recurring villain, as the mask, if not destroyed, can keep on possessing people if the ritual is successfully performed. Don’t be surprised if you see this become a sequel. The hindrance for this film doing well is how gory it is, and whether there is an appetite for this type of movie in Brazil. If this were an American release, you can bet this would become franchise fodder.
This film is Unrated. It might be gory enough to be an NC-17 film. It is a very hard R for over-the-top violence. But, the violence is borderline comic book. Think Evil Dead as a reference. Though gory, this never comes off like torture porn. However, strong cautions for younger viewers on this one. It’s pretty gross. It just finished its world premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival and I would expect that it will continue on in the film festival circuit for a while, and odds are that it will be streaming sometime next year. (Hopefully with Shudder, who will know how to market this film.)