Dir. Richard Rowntree (2022)
A teenaged girl, looking for work, finds it as an assistant on a porn set. Unfortunately, this brings her face-to-face with an ancient tribal mask possessed by an evil spirit.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Director Richard Rowntree is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie directors, with this being the third feature film of his that I’ve been able to watch. His movies are interesting and unique, generally shot incredibly well and with a cast that acts far beyond the film’s budget. I got the chance to watch his new film, Mask of the Devil, and there’s a lot to love about this upcoming film. It’s a film that really shows his range, stepping straight into the grindhouse-style slasher film with ridiculous characters and a plot out of an adults-only R. L. Stine book. It’s the closest to horror comedy that Rowntree has come thus far, and it uses understated humor about as well as possible for a film like this.
In colonial Africa, an explorer seeks a mask with a terrifying curse attached. He murders his way through the jungle, finally reaching his goal. Two hundred-ish years later, we join Mary (Nicole Katherine Riddell) as a young adult in England, dealing with the standard teenage stuff of wanting to move out of her parent’s house, dealing with an overbearing father, and finding a job as a fluffer in a porn studio (which I don’t think is a job that still exists, actually). When attempting to gather props for the upcoming shoot, the set designer buys some tribal African pieces from a local antique store, accidentally bringing the cursed mask into Mary’s life.
The film carries Rowntree’s trademark flair for cinematography while leaning a bit heavier into the gore than he did even in Nefarious. The scene where an actor peels his own face off after encountering the mask is brutal and unflinching, gross-out horror like Troma in the 80’s (if they had Savini doing the makeup). The comedy is more tongue-in-cheek than it is slapstick, sidestepping that fatal horror comedy mistake of focusing entirely on the comedy and ignoring the horror. It’s situational humor, more of a “doesn’t take itself too seriously” than a “make you laugh every five minutes” kinda thing. Riddell does an excellent job as Mary, the girl who is in over her head in her first job, and the cast in general are believable victims for the tribal-masked maniac.
The one area that I feel could use a little work is in the pacing of the film, which does tend to drag a bit at times. The film did progress throughout its plot fairly well, but there wasn’t enough action to get from one scene to the next more often than not. The kills were few and far between, and a lot of time was spent around the porn set discussing what could be happening instead of letting the audience actually watch it happen. Once the blood did flow, though, the gore was good, the direction excellent, and the masked maniac was a decent little slasher villain.
All in all, while there are a few issues with the film, you’ve definitely seen worse slashers. There’s enough humor to keep the audience interested and enough gore to please. This seemed like it was a blast to make, and I think that all of the players involved will continue to grow in popularity within the industry. There are some gnarly scenes, and the killer is more than creepy enough to get the job done. Slasher fans will delight in this one, and it’s going to blow a lot of people away in the indie horror scene.
Who this film is for: Indie horror fans; Gory comedy lovers; Porn aficionados
Bottom line: A bit slower than it perhaps should be but with some decent gore, Mask of the Devil is a nice little humorous throwback to grindhouse cinema and is a pretty decent effort into the indie horror genre. Rowntree is an excellent director who is just starting to make his impact on the scene, and he’s delivering solid films on a limited budget. He’s clearly got a lot of film behind the camera, providing some beautiful shots and excellent cinematography throughout the film. The acting was solid enough as well, but the pacing of the film could’ve been better to hold the audience’s interest throughout. Solid film though, and will probably tear through the festival circuit.