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First Look Review - THE LAUGHING MASK

The husband of a murder victim teams up with a detective to take down a masked serial killer.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Michael Aguiar

Starring: Sheyenne Rivers, John Hardy, Gabriel Lee, Jeff Jenkins


"I’d always prefer a film with too many ideas to one that has barely any, but, boy, there’s a lot going on here; the plot is as messy as the body of one of the killer’s victims, and that’s pretty messy!"



In the pantheon of slasher film antagonists, the big hitters never donned a mask for its designated purpose of concealment. Your Jason, your Michael Myers, they were never in ‘disguise’, if anything, the masks which they chose (hockey goalie and inside out Shatner) simply served to make them more conspicuous. But those two were masters of the murderous art of slashering, and evidently understood the intimidating effect of a good mask; the pale veneer, the fathomless black hollows of the eye holes, the impenetrability of a ‘face’ rigid with an emotion as artificial as it is insincere; all facets used to add terror to trauma. Admittedly, it took Jason a couple of films before settling on his iconic look, but the fact that he stuck with hockey chic shows the guy’s savvy appreciation of his branding (so much for being a ‘mongoloid’, eh?). The killer in The Laughing Mask is one step ahead of old Vorhees in this respect: with his covering of mottled leather pulled tight over his head, slashed eyeholes and a huge gaping maw of a smile, his crude mask has instant menace, and gives Marvel’s Venom a run for its money in the stakes of maniacal cheer. In addition to the strikingly simplistic nastiness of his mask, the killer completes his image with some very incredible suits and a nice line in 1930s pop music, which he laughs along to as he brutalises and murders his victims in imaginatively horrible ways (could this retro bricolage be an acute comment on the conservative nature of the slasher killer, who are each and every one attached to the past?).
The opening sequence of The Laughing Mask, where the killer stabs some poor woman to death as Vera Lynn plays in the background, introduces us not only to the inventive brutality of the antagonist, but also writer/director Michael Aguiar’s careful, precise film making. The kill is authentically nasty, with the victim’s misery all too apparent as she is assaulted: at the end, following a final stab to the neck, a spurt of blood sprays across the killer’s face in close up, dripping aesthetically from the grin of his mask. It’s nasty little touches like this, here and throughout the film, that make The Laughing Mask a cut above most micro-budget slashers (which this most definitely is - the police precinct is essentially a tiny out of hours office, where no one wears uniforms or even badges, but the film earns your allowance of its cost cutting by being just so much guilty fun).
It is fortunate that Aguiar has a clear eye for composition and imagery then, because it just about covers The Laughing Mask’s acting - which is pretty stiff all told. Although a special mention must go to Sheyenne Rivers playing a veteran detective brought back on to the case, and who is actually really good. We first meet her character - O’Malley - post coital: slipping her glasses back on and lighting up a cigarette (from a case, not a packet - again with these little details) after having it away with some himbo. Purpose fulfilled, she tires of the younger guy and pulls a gun to get rid of him, all the while completely naked: my kind of post-feminist hard boiled gumshoe. The Laughing Mask serves up its horror up within a noirish mise-en-scene of backroom bars, strip joints and morally ambiguous characters who seem incapable of speaking to each other unless it’s in a series of caustic barbs, with the film evolving into a grimy whodunit as the murders pile up.
There’s a sense that Aguiar is using the noirish stylings to make some sort of point about gender relations. The men are all complete misogynists, there is this weird discussion of a victim’s body which is jaw droppingly crass, and the plot hinges upon an affair - but any actual point is lost under the sheer scope of The Laughing Man’s sleazy ambitions. I’d always prefer a film with too many ideas to one that has barely any, but, boy, there’s a lot going on here; the plot is as messy as the body of one of the killer’s victims, and that’s pretty messy; if he’s not stuffing corpses with toys, at one point, the killer seems to be one-upping the nutcase biologist in Kevin Smith’s maligned Tusk. It’s all utterly insane, and while, in fairness, never boring, Aguire still doesn’t quite make the landing, with The Laughing Mask’s final act a frustrating confusion. Ultimately, perhaps Aguire could have taken a cue from the sleek design of his antagonist’s mask: sometimes less is more.
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