The Laughing Mask (Review)

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THE LAUGHING MASK

THE SETUP

Firstly, I’d just like to say thanks to my good friend Michael Aguiar, Writer and Director of the Horror/Crime/Thriller, “The Laughing Mask” for allowing me access to an online screener. The Laughing Mask is about Jake Johnson (played by John Hardy), a man looking for revenge after losing his wife and daughter at the hands of the deranged Laughing Mask killer. As the murders continue, Officer Katherine O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers) looks for clues about the killer’s potential connection to a gang known as “The Rancors” and a club called “The Barn”. The film also stars Gabriel Lee, Fran Rafferty, Terence Van Auken, Inge Uys and Jeff Jenkins as “The Laughing Mask Killer”.

THE GOOD

It was a couple of years ago that I originally saw a brief teaser trailer for The Laughing Mask. In it, a woman was being slowly tortured by a methodical killer wearing a creepy mask with a wide smile etched into it. I kept tabs on the film for the better part of 18 months before finally seeing an early screener late last year. At its core, The Laughing Mask is a crime/murder mystery film that happens to be masquerading as a slasher. Other than an impressive and potentially iconic villain, there’s no core element linking it to your conventional slasher flick. Aguiar has ticked the first box of Horror 101, fashioning an interesting and unique looking “big bad”. The outfit is great, the killer dresses like he works on Wall Street or as a Maitre D. The vests, the jacket and the varying colors of tie look great and offset the films dark color palette nicely. The mask (which can be seen above) looks fantastic and let’s face it, anytime you can’t see facial expressions it’s unnerving. In the opening of the film there’s a number of really smart and diverse shot choices and almost all the framing is perfect. Bill Schweikert, the DP (director of photography), is a guy with plenty of credits to his name, having worked on such films as “Chainsaw Cheerleaders” and “The Hospital 2”, as well as shorts like “Maniac” and “Straight”. A lot of the close up shots are used to great effect, usually focusing on the killer’s array of weapons or finer details of his lair. Given this is a low-budget independent film, I was surprised with the inclusion of a helicopter shot, in addition to a smooth aerial shot from the ceiling of a hospital.

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The audio levels in the original cut I watched back in August (I think it was) were very inconsistent and a lot of it unusable without large amounts of ADR (additional dialogue recording). Due to budget limitations, things like perfecting audio are incredibly difficult but like any good filmmaker, Aguiar went back to the drawing board and meticulously addressed each issue and it paid dividends. The audio is rich and full and most importantly consistent with each location change throughout the film. The lighting quality is another technical aspect which appears to be a cut above what it was in the original version. On a modest budget, Aguiar was able to put into action some wonderful smoke and fog effects to blend in with impressive set design. All of it enhanced of course by the use of an iconic museum known as “The Wolf’s Museum Of Mystery”. There’s plenty of attention to detail in the distinctive looking museum and the old black and white cartoons dispersed within the narrative add something original. There’s an old-fashioned score that utilizes Jazz, Blues and Folk, going hand in hand with the stylized design of the killer and the plot in general. It’s not usually the type of music I like but it definitely had a sort of charm to it. During the investigative scenes, the soundtrack plays more like something you’d hear in an Argento “Giallo” (Inferno or Tenebre).

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Sheyenne Rivers was cast in the lead role of Katherine O’Malley or “Kate”, she’s investigating the murders and trying to piece together the connections. Rivers seems genuinely nice and it goes without saying (even though I’m going to haha) that she’s easy on the eyes. O’Malley is easily the most likable character in Aguiar’s film. From the moment we meet her, post fornication, she’s sassy and confident and isn’t going to take anyone’s shit. It should come as no surprise that Rivers turns in the most consistent performance, which is crucial given she’s got as much screen time as Actor, John Hardy. Minus a couple of slightly forced lines, Sheyenne does a top-notch job. Hardy is one of those types that falls in an out of character a bit, I’ll give him some credit though because this is his first film and he will only continue to improve. He authentically conveys the emptyness Jake is feeling and carries his general dialogue pretty well. The letdown is that his angry emotional flashes don’t hit their mark enough times to really be believed. Gabriel Lee plays Detective Cordova, whose taken over the Laughing Mask case while Kate’s been on leave. The character is pretty cocky and all to sure of himself but he’s not just a stereotype, there are layers that are peeled back during the course of the film. Lee does have his moments, albeit in patches, doing his best work with Rivers but letting himself down in a crucial bar room scene that underwhelmed. Fran Rafferty as Brock, is another actor that’s just inconsistent. His early interactions are good but the writing sees him oddly jovial as the film progresses. As far as action goes, there’s an early montage of kill sequences cut together and some decent practical effects scattered throughout. The highlight from the kills is The Laughing Mask killer using a chainsaw. It was a nice touch but the chainsaw sound needed to be amplified and larger than life. I was hoping for some more on-screen kills but there are usually limits due to budgetary constraints.

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THE BAD

I think The Laughing Mask may have just simply played better as a straight up slasher film. With such a vintage exterior and some original elements added, the crime sub-plot wasn’t an absolute necessity and does become a distraction at times. There’s some wonky, side to side camera movements during an altercation between members of “The Rancors” and the LMK at the back of “The Barn’s” loading dock. Most of the lighting is atmospheric and works well but in several scenes there’s an over exposure of natural light, that pierces into frame and is quite hard on the eyes. It might just be a creative decision but during the apartment scene with Cordova and O’Malley its harsh. Most of the music does fit the tone of the film but one particular double bass track, during a graveyard scene, appears out-of-place and more suited to something in film noir or even David Lynch’s, “Twin Peaks”. While I’m on sound, a fair share of the foley isn’t quite right either. It’s a combination of sounds that don’t really match with their impact, as well as too much silence during the fight choreography and action sequences. I happen to know that’s something Aguiar wasn’t completely happy with but such is independent film making. Chunks of the film lack suspense, particularly where the score starts to build toward something but then abruptly ends with an establishing shot or fading transition.

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For each decent performance there’s a complimentary bad one, usually from a secondary player. When you have limited time and funding, you have to work with what you’ve got and in Aguiar’s case it wasn’t a lot. He made a smart decision in limiting the amount of screen time for these actors/actresses and their characters, so as to avoid taking you out of the film for too long. I can deal with that bit of inconsistency our leads are probably guilty of, however, almost every supporting performance is just plain bad. From the opening female victim’s complete lack of struggle and fight, through to the police chief’s uneven line delivery, its sub-par. Manny Dortanieves, as the groundskeeper, offers up very little in terms of fear or exerting energy to escape and given that he’s probably going to suffer a horrible death, that’s weak. Mark, Jake’s publicist (played by Van Auken) is the opposite. He hits his mark when the action is called for but misses beats in his insecure dialogue delivery and general interaction. He can be forgiven somewhat, with this being his first role in a feature film. Unfortunately, Matt Ganey as “Floyd”, Kate’s ex-husband, turns in the worst performance. It’s painfully flat with each line of dialogue sounding trite, on the upside he’s only in a couple of scenes. Jeff Jenkins does a solid job of portraying the laughing mask killer, although I would’ve preferred to see a similar body type when you take into consideration the reveal. The laugh doesn’t really sound like I thought it would and I think the film would have worked as well without it.

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On top of the acting, there’s plenty of specifics with the writing and its vague details that I didn’t really like. In the beginning it’s clearly established that Jake Johnson is our protagonist, this is ultimately his story. Yet after the first five minutes, it’s a long period of time before the story actually revisits him, by this time we’ve been introduced to several detectives and secondary characters. We come back to him talking book ideas with his agent, hoping to draw out the Laughing Mask Killer. The most important relationship in the film seems to be between Kate and Jake but I never found it completely clear what their relationship was, not until the very end of the film. It’s a plot point made confusing by the fact that they both have daughters around the same age (played by Aguiar’s real life daughters) who also happen to look very similar. In a flashback, it appears as though O’Malley is babysitting her daughter as well as Jake’s daughter so maybe they’re brother and sister. Then there’s also a photo of Jake’s daughter that’s seen a couple of times at his house but a screen saver on his cell phone that’s of his daughter (I think?? even though it looks like O’Malley’s daughter), appears when Kate’s number comes up, it’s all very confusing. There’s another muddled plot point about units that Johnson’s family owns that have tenants in them. There’s a copy of a key that comes into play and O’Malley goes to one of the apartments to investigate but it all unfolds a little improbably.

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There’s a rather large amount of rhetorical dialogue when characters are on their own and some incredibly inappropriate joking during the crime scenes. It’s only so obvious and an issue because some of the more important dialogue that needed to be conveyed wasn’t. Particularly the twist surrounding one character in the final act of the film. O’Malley finds out something extremely important yet fails to tell anybody else about it. Instead, we get scenes with Lee’s “Cordova”, discussing whether a certain victim’s breasts are real or not and during a later body analysis there’s laughing and joking that’s in poor taste. Not only is it highly unprofessional but it’s very hard to believe people would act that way. During the “chainsaw” sequence, the killer stuffs something in the groundskeepers mouth to stop him from yelling out (not sure why because he never tries to call out anyway). I’m still waiting for someone to realize unless you tape something into or over someone’s mouth, they can actually spit it out because there’s nothing holding it in! How many times do we see people gagged who aren’t really gagged? Someone please get some gaffer tape it’s not that hard. I’m not just picking on Aguiar’s film, just film in general when it comes to that hostage type situation. There’s probably a couple of scenes you could say didn’t add anything and could have been omitted. One at a children’s birthday party, where some odd flashing camera work was used and the other involving Jake at his house mentally losing it and Brock coming in out of nowhere to help him. There’s an element involving drugs, which feels tagged on as well because it’s never alluded to throughout the film.

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Like I said, its been close to a year since I watched The Laughing Mask and I wanted to revisit it upon completion and I’m glad I did. I actually enjoyed it more the second time around and after extensive talks with Michael, found out a little bit more about what goes into independent film making. With his first screenplay, Aguiar was able to develop a stylish and disturbing killer with a macabre M.O. Schweikert’s cinematography is crisp and the shot choices diverse, a credit to Aguiar’s direction. I particularly respect those who try for something a little bigger, such as the aerial shots and some of the other unique placement. The audio is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in the original cut and the set design is impressive, taking into account the budget of course. There’s some visual effects but some decent practical stuff as well and when the action comes, most of it’s well conceived. The vintage style music from the 1940’s, mixed with the European suspense score, make this one of the best indie scores in the genre. The highlight for me was Rivers performance and her likeable character. The main supporting cast do a decent enough job as well and will all improve with more time and experience. While all the technical aspects are much improved, there’s still some issues with lighting, foley and parts of the editing but that’s usually to be expected. There are stages where the story lacks clarity and cohesion and some plot points feel tacked on. The core relationship needed to be clear from the very start and just spend that little bit of extra time establishing your leads arc. The biggest thing hurting The Laughing Mask is the flat reactions during the film’s climax and all around poor performances from the minor actors/actresses. Amanda Millar (I think it was), playing the coroner, being one of the few exceptions. If you’re looking for a gore fest probably look elsewhere but if you prefer your Horror films with some murder mystery in the mix then check out and rate “The Laughing Mask”, it’s currently playing on iTunes.

My rating for “The Laughing Mask” is 5.5/10

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