With its leering Nazi occultists and dieselpunk stylings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the opening scene of Skull: The Mask had leapt straight from the pages of a Mike Mignola comic. While it can’t boast anything like the budget of Hellboy’s big-screen adventures, this Brazilian horror occasionally captures some of the same anarchic, irreverent sense of fun.
In 1944, a skull-like artifact is used in a military experiment. It is the Mask of Anhangá, the executioner of Tahawantinsupay, a pre-Columbian god. Flashing forward to the modern day, the mask arrives in São Paulo, under the care of an archaeologist. It isn’t long before it possesses a body (Rurik Jr.) and begins roving around the city, committing obscene acts of violence. It’s up to Beatriz Obdias (Natallia Rodrigues), a cop with a sketchy past, to track the demon down and bring it under control.
The film plays out in two distinct modes: on the one hand, it’s a slasher movie, with a keen understanding of its audience’s expectations and a willingness to throw them the reddest of red meat when needed. On the other hand, it’s a noir-ish crime thriller, with a surly detective tracking down clues on the mean streets of São Paulo. Switching between these two modes provides variety and some refreshing contrasts of pace. However, it must be said that the slasher sequences are a lot more satisfying than the crime narrative.
At times, It’s a gloriously grungy offering. This is a world populated by people whose limbs are all made of papier-mâché and filled with butcher’s slop. Throats, arms and legs constantly yearn to leap apart and spray their surroundings with gallons of sticky gore. The practical effects by Kapel Furman and Michelle Rodrigues may not be the most realistic, but they are always entertainingly gross.
The machete-wielding Skull is a clear homage to Jason Vorhees, but with a couple of entertaining twists. For one thing, he appears to be able to shoot his machete out towards his victims, using his own guts as a rope. Rurik Jr. is best known in Brazil as a professional wrestler, and amongst the slicing and dicing he sprinkles in a few suplexes and piledrivers, which keep the action scenes kinetic and varied.
The most memorable moments are the pulpiest, with the filmmakers displaying a great understanding of the kind of blood-streaked daftness that is sure to appeal to their target audience. These include a revisit of the ‘unexpected badass priest’ trope that is sure to put viewers in mind of Braindead”s iconic “I kick arse for the lord!” moment.
Slightly less satisfying is the noir detective story that runs parallel. It’s occasionally a bit whiplash-inducing to flick between the bloody carnage of the Skull’s rampage to the po-faced detectives muttering over clues. That said, these sections go a long way towards crafting an interesting mythology for our masked killer. The cinematography by Andre Sigwalt really infuses the unfamiliar urban environments of São Paulo with a sense of mystery and drama. However, these sections are more convoluted, with some narrative threads left dangling.
Skull: The Mask is an ambitious offering from writer/director duo Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman. Where it succeeds, it embraces some of its budgetary limitations, delivering some really energetic scenes of janky, grindhouse gore, along with some genuinely intriguing world-building. Where it falls down, it aspires more towards being a gritty, cerebral police procedural, and perhaps ends up tripping over itself a little. On the whole though, it’s a genuinely enjoyable bloody romp with a backstory engaging enough to make us look forward to the possibility of a sequel.