BR: Masks (2011)

November 22, 2016 | By

Masks2011Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Real Gore Releasing

Region: All

Released:  September 13, 2016

Genre:  Giallo / Horror

Synopsis: A middling actress seeks higher learning at an isolated acting school where fellow students are abused or fall victim to a saber-wielding madman.

Special Features: Behind the Scenes Featurette (15:01) / 4 Deleted Scenes (4:15) / Music Video Clip (4:26) / Slideshow (2:25) / 2 Trailers / Bonus Soundtrack CD / DVD copy / 24-page colour booklet with director interview / 3-disc edition limited to 3000 copies.

 


 

Review:

Andreas Marschall’s open love letter to Dario Argento and the giallo is packed with numerous elements designed to tickle genre fans, and it manages to succeed for the most part in its first third, as Britt (Franziska Breite), a young student at an acting academy, is confronted by a gloved, masked, saber-wielding killer in her apartment. Instead of willingly accepting the blade, she proceeds to cut and sever her larynx before she’s dispatched to the heavens.

That sequence alone is loaded with Argento references to Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – specifically the moment scissor-wielding Suzy Kendall screams and cringes as the killer pokes and hacks his way through the door with a knife – whereas the plot in Masks is an obvious pastiche of assorted Argento hits.

Suspiria (1977) is the dominant source in Marschall’s affectionate homage: instead of a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany, our heroine ventures to an acting school in the isolated town of Britz, where she’s treated like a Barbie doll by her competitive-minded classmates. Both films have a headmistress – Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in Suspiria, Roza Janowska (eerie Magdalena Ritter) in Masks – acting as matron, disciplinarian, and teacher, and although the Britz school isn’t Art Nouveau nor bathed in primary colours, at one point Marschall does mimic the iconic tracking close-up of a woman’s clacking heels on the hardwood floor set to the film’s prog-rock theme (itself a hook-like tune paying homage to Goblin’s 1975 classic, Deep Red).

The acting school, founded by seventies experimental theatre nutbar Matteuzs Gdula (creepy Norbert Losch), has a secret or two buried in the grimy rooms and hallways of its shuttered wing (with its decrepit rooms connected by ‘breathing’ ducts and grills redolent of Suspiria, Inferno, and 1987’s Opera architecture), but unlike an Argento scenario, the film branches off into something more decisively Germanic, if not similar to Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Anatomie (2000), a Scream-styled German slasher where a med student discovers an elite class of Neo-Fascists who have fun vivisecting non-compliant, nosey, and C- graded students with a banned drug named Promidal that renders their victims inert but very much aware. Heroine Paula Henning (Franka Potente) eventually triumphs, but what’s unearthed is a class of Nazi-like fanatics with followers unknown and unnamed, and prepped for a ludicrous sequel that builds on the theme of robo-eugenics.

Marschall’s scenario is longer than Ruzowitzky’s, and it’s slightly convoluted by interpolating too many thematic homages that ultimately clutter the narrative. Unlike Suspiria’s Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), Masks‘ Stella (Susen Ermich) has a boyfriend who returns for a fleeting period to the narrative for a protracted rescue – a plot ingredient better crafted in Arthur Penn’s Grand Guignol, neo-giallo Dead of Winter (1987), in which struggling actress Julie Rose (Mary Steenburgen) is lured to perform in a non-existent film and become the ultimate stunt double.

An investigating detective has a handful of scenes that purport to add tension, but rather than reveal anything new to audiences, Marschall has him similarly poked to death (although his demise is viscously cruel, and has a novel gag of the victim hearing a horrific high pitch after his eardrum’s been poked).

Had scenes with the boyfriend and detective been dropped, along with a faux love affair between Stella’s beau and rival classmate Valeri (Sonali Wiedenhofer), Masks would’ve been a leaner work, much like Richard Ciupka’s original version of Curtains (1983) in which a masochistic, egomaniacal director lures actresses of differing ages and skill sets to compete for a role in his upcoming project, and in the process, bring out a wealth of rivalries and deep-rooted anger. (Ciupka’s film was ultimately hacked up and steered into a conventional slasher with mismatched reshoots.)

Without male fringe characters, Marschall’s scenario would’ve been tighter, and perhaps allowed for optimum moments to deepen his mythos in which the actors in Gdula’s original (and very doomed) class pushed performance art and life to cultish extremes, and like a tale penned by De Sade, went mad in feverish, orgiastic blood rituals.

BIG SPOILER ALERT

 

The final twist that reveals the real culprits in the grand mystery isn’t a shock, but what befuddles viewers is a strange blood-cult element that’s one too many excesses in a mythos that otherwise works fine: we can accept Gdula’s practice of training actors to ‘dance on the tip of a knife’ and lose their sanity in the process, but not a very much alive Gdula vacuuming blood from an inverted victim – an image more typical of a Hostel entry (even though the blood-sucking is kind of tied to lunatic threatre professors feeding off the fear-stricken blood of students, metaphorically eating their young when they’re packed with prime nutrients).

The film’s final scene is kept dreamy – perhaps it’s derived from Stella’s last living moment when she literally faces off with yet another surprise figure – but Marschall mucks up the ending not because it’s incoherent, but by adding another homage wholly unrelated to the giallo. After stabbing wheelchair-bound Gluda in the hand, Stella bends towards the camera, and in a shot staged to match the shock revelation in Argento’s Tenebre (1982), stands a figure painted to resemble the toothy, white-faced devil in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Stella then turns to face Gdula’s protective assistant (seen fleetingly in an old online news piece), and as the two women scream and approach each other with their sharp weapons, their duel fades to black.

The film’s closing scene has Stella bowing to an audience packed with her dead (?) mother, peer matron Roza, classmate Cecile (Julita Witt), and finally herself, bloodied and bruised in what’s presumably her final moment alive, achieving performance ecstasy by living out a role that was ordained and orchestrated by the school’s professors from the very beginning.

 

END OF SPOILERS

Now, a giallo doesn’t have to make sense, but the more convoluted it becomes, the less it affects the viewer as unique blend of style, filmic artistry, and an assault of murder through music-scored montages. The big twist could literally be a villainous rhinoceros sitting behind an oak desk, but a giallo only works if it manages to walk that fine ‘sharp’ balance between emotion and generic conventions; to pack in excessive homages and protracted red herrings can muddy a tale and cause a film to meander, especially when the director fails to transcend those homages by crafting genuinely novel, musically orgiastic death montages – a dilemma Argento managed to avoid in his own self-referential, plot-heavy Hitchcockian homage Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)

The Masks music score by Sebastian Levermann and Nils Weise is fine, but it’s also inconsistent, drifting from prog-rock to more synthetic orchestral stabs that are surprisingly generic. (The Main Title sequence is quite clever, though, placing layered high-contrast red and black images that wipe each other out over the elliptical main theme – a title design typical of spaghetti westerns like The Big Gundown from 1966.)

It is easy to dismiss Masks as a borderline neo-giallo, but if viewed as a uniquely Germanic endeavour, it has a few strengths. Masks in fact shares with Anatomie a constant Protestant work ethic that’s absent from the Italian template: in an Argento scenario, the heroines are pretty, often vacuous, and never piece together the mystery until the absolute end; they mostly wander and stumble upon horrors room by room, hallway by hallway, until there’s a full-frontal assault. Knowledge comes by accident and happenstance instead of reasoning or instinct.

The Germanic variant features more astute, ambitious heroines hungry to transcend their physical ‘Barbie’ or sexpot stereotypes and become skilled artisans in their desired, male-dominated fields. They don’t cower in corners awaiting the tip of a sword, but fight back with whatever strengths they can muster, and while Stella is largely kept in the dark, her Protestant ethic – to work hard and earn respect, a career, and credibility as a master thespian – is responsible for her predicament and ultimate success, because the reason she isn’t killed is due to her malleability, and the past traumas with her mother that are exploited by Roza.

(Stella’s professors also take note of her inner rage in both her initial audition for the school, and in her first class where she engages in a Sanford Meisner exercise in which two seated actors strip away each other’s facades and pretenses.)

Stella is repeatedly allowed to live because she survives each increasingly exhausting test, and is directed to further trial-by-fire ‘exercises’ by Roza who thoroughly believes in Stella’s ability to become a new protégé in the Gdula school of thespian excess.

As for the ongoing motif of victims being poked and prodded, one can draw a fleeting parallel to hackmeister Ulli Lommel, and his fixation on mouth trauma in his cult films The Boogey Man (1980) – a lovers’ kiss resulting in the couple being orally shish kebabed to death – and Olivia (1983) – death by electric toothbrush. Or maybe not.

New Label Reel Gore Reelasing (co-founded by Cult Epics’ Nico B) sports a fine special edition package that includes deleted scenes (none of which add anything new to the film); a CD of the film score (featuring longer versions of main themes); and a booklet sporting a review of the film by author Kier-La Janisse, and an interview with Marschall who sketches the inspiration of the film, and some of the themes he worked into the script.

In many ways, the Q&A clarifies some of the film’s muddier elements, but in spite of its flaws, Masks is a sometimes refreshing Germanic take on an iconic genre which in recent years has been reinterpreted with mediocrity, transposed to clever variants, and broken down into feature-length works that rely on pure style and abstract plot.

 

 

© 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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