Seemingly equal parts villain and vigilante, the titular killer known as The Laughing Mask terrorizes a criminal gang while also haunting the waking hours of a man whose wife he had killed and whose young daughter remains missing. Writer/director/executive producer/co-editor Michael Aguiar has crafted an interesting tale with a fair bit of atmosphere on a shoestring budget, but unfortunately the film also shows its weak spots quite often.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit up front that I am neither a big fan of nor well versed in microbudget movies of any kind, and that I have been burnt out on slasher horror fare for many years. Therefore, Grue Believers who gravitate toward those two cinematic styles may enjoy this effort more than I did – or at least may be more forgiving of its shortcomings than I am.
John Hardy portrays Jake Johnson, the aforementioned character whose wife was The Laughing Mask’s first victim. Their daughter disappeared around the same time and Johnson fears that the killer may still have his daughter. Despite the advice of detective Katherine O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers), who is also his friend, he publicly taunts the murderer during a television interview, basically daring the killer to come and get him at his home. Meanwhile, a criminal gang finds its members being killed at an increasingly high rate by The Laughing Mask.
The Laughing Mask has a sort of throwback feel to the regional film days from the heyday of the drive-in movie era. It is a warts-and-all presentation from filmmakers who want to make a movie that they themselves would enjoy watching and it is meant for entertaining like-minded fans.
The highlights of the film for me are the scenes involving the Laughing Mask, whose mask looks like an old baseball, but by gosh, it works here. Each time he is shown in his lair, preparing for or participating in his next kill, or tending to some disturbing, handmade human oddities, the movie is at its best as these scenes drip with atmosphere. Songs from the early part of the 20th century play, or sometimes Peter Pan storybook records from the 1960s, and the villain’s home decor and lighting shows an affinity for the first half of the 1900s, as well. His presence is usually heralded by his echoing laugh, reminiscent of The Shadow radio series. Why his laugh would echo is a puzzle, though, as we hear it in many different locations with varying acoustics. In any case, these characteristics – along with other touches such as editing in cartoons from yesteryear – give The Laughing Mask a unique aura that reminds me of old-time pulp fiction and movie serials.
A problem with some of the killer’s set pieces are that they seem to be in the film as an afterthought or as padding to make the film more of a horror film than a crime thriller – something that this film doesn’t need, as it feels like every minute of its 101-minute running time. We barely get to know some of the victims and several of them suddenly appear with no backstory at all, save for newspaper headlines shown after their predicaments. I had no emotional investment in many of the deaths or mutilation victims, which took me out of the movie at times.
Jeff Jenkins inhabits the title character with a sense of flair and panache. The Laughing Mask taunts his victims through body language and nearly silent threats, as Jenkins gives a performance without words, using the echoing laugh as the slasher’s only verbal communication.
A big problem with The Laughing Mask is that all of the cast members are “Acting” (capital A intended), with Jeff Jenkins being the least guilty party. For example, John Hardy and Sheyenne Rivers often go from normal conversation to enraged or outraged in the space of one sentence, and then stay at that escalated level for the rest of the scene. Amanda Millar, who plays the coroner Amada, smiles seemingly nervously throughout the film, like she is trying to hold in her laughter about being on camera. Of course, this could be in part because of the bad jokes in the dialogue with and around which she must work.
At times I felt that perhaps the some members of the cast might be local stage actors who haven’t learned to tone things down for the screen or weren’t reeled in by director Michael Aguiar. I felt as though most of the emotions on display from virtually all of the characters except the title one are frustration, some form of rage or anger, and cockiness, with some smart-assed insults thrown into the mix. Very few characters truly like or care for each other, so why should I as a viewer bond with anyone?
Of course, those limited emotions are a product of Michael Aguiar’s screenplay, as well. The dialogue is not very engaging and is often saddled down with genre tropes and cliches. Arguing and bickering are a far cry from snappy patter. Sexist jokes are used to try to easily sway viewers to dislike certain characters. Another glaring foible is that the same detective shows up just in the the nick of time to save someone — twice! Both times, the Laughing Mask escapes without even putting up a fight, which may make him seem more of a phantom but at the same time makes him seem less of a butt-kicking super slasher. In professional wrestling parlance, this is the equivalent of a cowardly heel taking a powder; the classic horror film slashers were anything but cowardly, and it does not fit with the killer’s behavior in the rest of this movie.
This being a microbudget film, viewers can expect some technical glitches. Most of the kills are off-screen, for which I appreciated the old-school feel. Some bloodletting is shown, though, and the case against using CGI blood in films is furthered here. Another unfortunate effect is one in which a severed head sits in a jar with CGI pickles floating around it. First off, why are the pickles floating? It seems that this effect might have been more realistically pulled off with a real jar and pickles for less cost than the animated effect, but that’s just a guess on my part. Sound editing issues are on display throughout the movie, as well, such as dead spaces that sometimes feel like early talkies where there is no noise unless someone is talking or a sound effect is used and there are some ADR and synchronization hitches, as well. Finally, three editors including Michael Aguiar cut The Laughing Mask, and that shows. It wasn’t cut enough, however, and I do not mean that to sound mean-spirited or sarcastic. For an independent microbudget movie, it just feels too long. Tightening things up a bit might have eliminated some of the issues that I have discussed.
Ultimately, for all its flaws, The Laughing Mask is a success. Why? Because Michael Aguiar took his concept of creating a movie with a new slasher character and developed it into a finished product with the help of a cast and crew, all of whom seems to have approached their tasks with whatever gusto and experience they could bring to the project. Kudos to everyone involved for that. The titular character is a novel, interesting challenger to the slasher pantheon, and who knows? Maybe someday Aguiar will have the opportunity to realize this character even further.
The Laughing Mask: (2 / 5) for those less interested in microbudget horror movies: because of the heart and dedication that went into getting this movie made, and for creating an intriguing villain
(2.5 / 5) for those seeking original slasher fare from independent, microbudget filmmakers