Skull: The Mask, the latest original from Shudder, is a throwback to classic slasher movies through and through. A huge, hulking, unstoppable killer is on the loose, tearing people limb from limb and chopping off faces with a machete, and the carnage is painstakingly brought to life by good ol’ practical effects. In true slasher fashion, there’s even the obligatory scene of a young couple having sex only to be brutally murdered by the killer.
But the film sets itself apart in a few interesting ways. For one, it takes place in the city of São Paulo, and takes strong influence from indigenous Brazilian culture. And while there’s no shortage of random victims to satisfy audience bloodlust, the core cast of characters are able to be much more than mere lambs to the slaughter - they actually take it upon themselves to fight back.
Written and directed by Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman, Skull: The Mask is centered around an ancient artifact that resembles a creepy skull adorned with horns. It holds a dark curse - the skull (or mask, or helmet, or whatever you prefer) is possessed by the spirit of Anhagá, who acts as executioner for the god Tahawantinsupay. Anhagá is in the business of offering sacrifices to his almighty master, and he wants tons of ‘em. Whoever wears the mask has their body taken over and driven into a bloody rampage, at least those who can handle the sheer power of it (one poor guy has his head just straight up explode when he puts it on).
The mask is unearthed in the Amazon rainforest by the request of a conniving businessman named Tack Waelder (Ivo Müller), who wants its power for his own sinister purposes. But as one might expect, he’s bit off more than he can chew, and once the mask arrives in the city it immediately begins its killing spree. It eventually settles on a suitable, sturdy vessel for its slaughter - a crime-scene cleaning technician who’s built like a football lineman (played by wrestling star Rurik Jr.) and tosses around bodies with ease.
As the murders continue to mount, the investigation falls to a morally gray detective named Beatriz (Natallia Rodrigues, who oddly enough looks and sounds like a Brazilian Scarlett Johansson). Beatriz comes from the school of “shoot first ask questions later”, which has led to a life of dark regrets. But her coldness might just be what’s needed to take on the ancient killing machine that’s tearing through the city, and she’s not alone in wanting to bring the rampage to an end.
There’s a secret society tasked with battling the evil forces contained within the mask, and two of its members thankfully live in São Paulo - a priest named Padre (Ricardo Gelli) and his friend Manco (Wilton Andrade). The two are well aware of the power they’re up against and have apparently been training for it, but as the news of the killings begins making headlines, Padre is reluctant to believe that it’s the work of Anhagá. It’s Manco who takes it upon himself to prepare for war, armed only with an array of makeshift weapons and a magical severed hand that points towards the unholy mask.
Those looking for a blood-soaked gorefest certainly won’t be disappointed. Skull: The Mask is at its best when it sits back and just lets the possessed behemoth go about ripping people apart, strangling them with their own guts, and just generally partaking in brutal disembowelment. The film is excessively violent, but all of its grisly sequences of mayhem have obviously been made with the utmost care by the effects team, and make for some seriously memorable thrills. Rurik Jr., clad in white coveralls that are increasingly soiled by gore and grime, is a fantastically imposing physical presence. With his bloodied and matted tufts of hair poking out beneath the sides of the terrifying skull mask, he’s every bit as scary as any Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.
By the film’s end, you’re only left wishing that it gave in more to its fun side. It takes itself a little too seriously for the most part, attempting to give its characters a proper amount of personal drama in between the horror scenes, but it’s when the movie lets loose and allows itself to be a bit silly that it’s at its best. A notable sequence set in a crowded nightclub has the monster awkwardly standing around taking in the sights before wreaking havoc, all while strobes flash and music bumps. Another has the priest hilariously whip out a sword to fight the demented killer, with the two in silhouette and the church’s stained glass window serving as the backdrop to their battle.
Those moments feel truly inspired, but it makes the rest pale in comparison. The film’s tedious setup is slow, and it takes Skull: The Mask awhile to really find its groove. But once it does, it’s one hell of a gruesome bloodfest.
'Skull: The Mask' is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.