LIFF 2011: MASKS review

Contributor; Derby, England
LIFF 2011: MASKS review
So Andreas Marschall really likes his giallo? Masks, the director's second film, is so breathlessly earnest it could be a YouTube viral hit blown up to feature length. Virtually every scene is a hymn to lurid Italian psychodramas where a black-gloved killer steps out of the shadows to slaughter nubile young innocents by the score (and then the comic relief, natch). To be fair to Marschall, taken as an affectionate tribute Masks is frequently very, very good - clever use of a micro-budget, some inventively sadistic kills and solid production values mean its enthusiasm comes off as genuine artistry rather than an awkward fan stammering on about how Mario Bava deserves a posthumous Oscar. At the same time, if you don't share the man's taste for the genre Masks probably isn't going to change your mind; taken as a horror movie, it's still shallow, sensational and exploitative, trading on empty pop psychology presented as earth-shaking wisdom.

Heroine Stella (Susan Ermich) is a theatre student who's run up against a brick wall; she's convinced she has talent but she just can't get it across at auditions, no matter how fervently she reels off speeches from the classics. After her latest attempt ends in failure, one of the judges lets slip he knows an exclusive class run at a secluded boarding school that promises results for anyone with enough dedication to suffer through their rigorous training. Would Stella be interested? Of course she would. But it turns out this rigorous training is in homage to the work of Matteusz Gdula, a disgraced professor from decades past, who put his charges through psychological and physical stress designed to drive them headlong over the edge. Gdula is long dead, but Stella's classmates whisper that somewhere in the building the staff still hold 'special' training for the most promising students, where those not up to the strain won't be talking to anyone about it, ever.

Marschall wastes no time in showing his hand, which is probably going to put more than a few people off. First the opening flashback, shot in the dusty, thrift-store colour palette of some forgotten 1970s cult classic; then the titles, thick, blocky fonts, fuzzy crimson stills, and a theme tune so wildly over-the-top Goblin would be slowly backing away from it. None of the cast has much depth, much less the presence of mind to see the school's credo as the ravings of a lunatic, and the only character arc most of them get is precisely how they end up dead. The script seems to imply we ought to care whether or not there's something nasty in the abandoned wing where trespassers aren't allowed, but it never seems as if there's any doubt about this. Anyone seriously wondering what's going to happen to the reporter trying to work all of this into a sensationalist expose probably hasn't seen very many movies.

On the other hand, Marschall directs all this with a frantic, nervous energy and an eye for memorably trashy pulp imagery that goes a long way towards covering up the film's shortcomings. The introduction might have you rolling your eyes, sure, but it's instantly captivating at the same time, clearly crafted by someone who knows precisely what makes the genre tick over (though maybe not what makes it sing). Ermich is the only principal who ever gets the chance to do much acting of note, appropriately enough, and she manages a capable performance - nothing awards-worthy, but she gives Stella's rise and fall a touch of pathos and is game for the lurid excess. Marschall sets up the gory kills with just the right amount of overeager camera moves, drunken framing and grand guignol you can gloss over the nastier or just plain ridiculous aspects to some extent (the director seems to have picked the killer's weapon of choice largely for the hell of it, for example).

Again, though, Masks wants to tick off all the boxes so badly it doesn't seem that bothered what's in them. There's the lesbian relationship, the hothouse atmosphere, the sadistic violence, the gratuitous nudity, the lofty pop-psychology, the baroque insanity of it all, none of which bears any enduring relationship to reality. It's a rough-hewn fairytale with the glossy, theatrical ambience of cheap 1970s soft porn, viewed at a Dutch angle from start to finish. Obviously that's part of the appeal, which is fine for anyone who's a fan, but for anyone who's not completely sold on the genre seeing the way the camera lingers on a terrified girl degraded and humiliated as the killer advances implacably through her house probably won't change their mind. Masks is so slavish a tribute that in places it seems as though it's just charging forwards to the next moment the audience can stand up and cheer, and it feels a little empty for it.

All the same, this is a solid little genre entry, with plenty for cinephiles as well as straight-up horror devotees to enjoy. Masks is certainly problematic - a definite case of style over substance, to the point when Andreas Marschall throws yet another cliché in the pot it can feel unpleasantly like pandering. But there is some real meat here, thanks to a dedicated cast and crew. Clichéd or not the seedy, cloying sense of dread works surprisingly well, and though you might not care what happens as such Stella's ultimate fate is a surprisingly elegant little coda, for all the daft bloodletting that precedes it. While Marschall could have done more than just riff on the films he loves so much, his second feature is still an entertaining homage, for all its flaws. Doubtless long-time fans will be all over this, but anyone else with the stomach for some gory self-indulgence should still consider Masks recommended.

(Masks was screened at the 25th Leeds International Film Festival, which ran from 3rd-20th November 2011.)
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