Horror has a rich history of movies revolving around cursed masks that spell doom for the wearer—and usually anyone in the wearer’s vicinity. Halloween III: Season of the Witch is one example; Demons is another. Brazilian slasher Skull: The Mask now adds itself to the list, with extra-squishy flair.
Skull: The Mask is written and directed by Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman, who tap into indigenous Brazilian culture to flesh out their backstory. In a prologue set in 1944, we witness a spectacularly bloody fight (appendages are lost, and so is at least one guy’s head) leading up to the theft of the title object: a pre-Columbian artifact that looks like a horned skull, said to hold the spirit of Anhangá, executioner of the god Tahawantinsupay. We soon see that the mask is, indeed, infused with horrifying powers that cause a guy’s head to explode while he’s wearing the mask. But the mask is so full of black magic that doesn’t even matter; years later, it turns up again thanks to a massive construction project in the Amazon forest. It’s promptly brought to São Paulo at the behest of sinister businessman Tack Waelder (Ivo Müller), who’s well aware of the legend surrounding it, namely that with the right ritual it has the ability to bestow godlike powers.
However, he’s not the only one interested in the mask—and for what it’s worth, the mask itself doesn’t actually need a random rich guy around to start flexing its grisly enchantments. Bodies start dropping (horribly; we’re talking chests ripped open, guts torn out, hearts removed, etc.) as soon as it reaches the city and finds an appropriate vessel in a random crime-scene cleanup guy (played by Brazilian wrestling star Rurik Jr.). That soon attracts the attention of Beatriz (Natallia Rodrigues), a cop with a checkered past whose moral compass isn’t quite on track in the present day either, as well as a priest (Ricardo Gelli) and a former guerrilla fighter named Manco (Wilton Andrade) who’re both linked to a secret order dedicated to protecting the world from the mask’s apocalyptic capabilities.
If that sounds like a lot of plot to take in, it kind of is—but it doesn’t detract much from the movie’s enjoyability. Skull: The Mask is sort of three films in one. It’s got a conflicted, trigger-happy cop who reads case files while crushing pills into her whisky glass, and it’s got a priest and a civilian who are at odds over how to handle a long-dreaded supernatural foe. But mostly, it’s got a hulking man-mountain—possessed by an ancient force hellbent on racking up as many human sacrifices as possible, with the goal of resurrecting an evil Inca god—dressed in blood-drenched coveralls, wearing an absolutely petrifying skull mask, roaming the city and applying his machete blade to anyone he happens to encounter. There’s a little bit of Jason Voorhees in this guy, if Jason’s hockey mask had the ability to transfer his kill-crazy urges and super-strength into whoever happened to put it on. The local media is understandably abuzz about the sudden outbreak of mass murders, and all Waelder can do is fume that “the mask is being wasted on a random killing spree.”
Not everything in Skull: The Mask works—when the Beatriz subplot gets the movie’s focus, you feel like you’re being pulled into a different, gloomier story that doesn’t have enough time to get into details that would either make you sympathize with her or decide she’s actually a full-on villain. It does make sense that there’d be a detective character among the main roles, it’s just that Manco, who assembles an arsenal of weapons and ritual totems—some made from human body parts (including a shriveled severed hand that acts as a compass, pointing toward the mask), others just big guns, knives, and flame throwers—to save the world, all while bleeding from a gunshot wound with a tampon jammed into it, is just so much more interesting. It should be noted that the movie’s special effects, which appear to be mostly practical, are lovingly crafted, ensuring that every expertly torn-off face or hacked-open torso gets the screen time it deserves. For that reason alone you want the entire movie to just be skull-mask guy handling his business, at least until the inevitable Manco showdown.
Without giving anything away, and in the tradition of most slasher films that came before, Skull: The Mask leaves its ending tantalizingly open for a sequel. If there’s some kind of ritual we can perform to ensure that happens, I am all for it.
Skull: The Mask arrives on Shudder May 27.
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