THE LAUGHING MASK (2014)
Directed by Michael Aguiar
Maybe it’s just me – but it’s felt like a long time since I saw a masked killer horror with a new face. This is unfortunate, as some of the genres most iconic villains have concealed themselves behind animals, paintings and sporting attire, leaving us to ponder what terrors lie beneath. In his low budget debut, director Michael Aguiar partially fills this gap in the market by introducing us to The Laughing Mask. A new slasher in town, this fiend stabs, chops and massacres to a signature soundtrack of cackles and glee.
Here the victims aren’t the usual band of reckless teens, looking to smoke pot, drink beers and have premarital sex. Yet the morality aspect is preserved, with the targets consisting of criminals that have escaped the justice system (an aspect that goes annoyingly underexplored); likely because the police are too busy discussing corpses’ breasts to build up a strong case. As the masked killer delivers his own brand of justice, crime writer Jake (Hardy) has written a book on him so as to get his attention. Teaming up with the hot-headed, but dedicated, detective Katherine (Rivers), he sets out find this tormenter and avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. As this goes on there’s some lashings of gang action, police corruption and bodies piling up in all directions.
The suitably scary looking killer’s MO is about the most satisfying aspect of the film. Building from a motif established during the opening, each death scene is accompanied by vintage 1930s music and decoration, with some very sinister locations and set-pieces. In particular, the killer’s attempt to turn one victim into a circus freak is a genuinely disturbing image that will likely stick with you long after the movie’s been turned off. The use of old-fashioned cartoons is also unnerving, with their violence being successfully juxtaposed with that of the killer. However, this is all somewhat dented by a late third act attempt to contextualise the slasher which leaves more questions than it answers. Along the way there’s some interesting turns in the tale (even if the ending is entirely predictable) and it moves at a reasonable pace, complete with some intrigue and a sense of foreboding.
Yet a real weakness is that the movie cannot decide on what it wants to be. Whilst Aguiar seems well versed in the rhythms of horror, the police procedural elements go some way towards reducing the impact. Throughout the vulgar cop banter and gang subplot fails to provide much more than a distraction. This strand relies far too much on tropes and ultimately fails to give us characters we can invest in aside from Rivers. Such a problem is not helped by a reliance on exposition dialogue during their scenes and actors speaking lines like they’re seeing them for the first time. The flirtations with thrillers also sees the movie break one of the chief horror rules by having the killer use a gun, severely undermining the tension that has been built up elsewhere. This is not helped by various tech issues, including poor audio, and some baffling editing decisions. Thus all in all The Laughing Mask is in that frustrating limbo where a mediocre film transitions into a good one. There’s enough here to warrant your attention, yet with the right budget and a few key tweaks to the script it may have been something special. Instead Aguiar has given us a passable but ultimately unrewarding film: a possible horror icon in need of a new vehicle. It’s a pity as whilst horror is as good as ever the slasher market seems to have all but diminished. And this really is no laughing matter.