Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Halloween Havoc: DEATH MASK (1998)

Wading through shot-on-video crap like DEATH ROW DINER or HILLBILLY MONSTER can have an adverse effect on your viewing habits (and mental health). Films that would normally drive you into fits of video rage suddenly seem positively glowing in comparison. They shot on film?  My God, these guys are amazing! They included some gore and nudity?  Genius!  It’s pretty simple – when you eat shit sandwiches for so long, even a McDonalds hamburger will start to look appealing after a while.

The benefiter of my cinemasochistic ways over the past two weeks is director Steve Latshaw.  The Florida-based Latshaw made two of the worst films I saw within the last few years in DARK UNIVERSE (1993) and BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE (1995). Both were so mind-numbingly boring and, in the case of BIOHAZARD, he squandered the talent of VJ fave Christopher Mitchum.  If you cast Chris in a movie, you damn well better make sure you give me some Lanky White Guy Fu! Despite hating these two films, I found Latshaw’s DEATH MASK (1998) in my Netflix queue and subsequently my mailbox.

The film centers on Wilbur (James Best), a carnival worker who runs an unpopular oddity attraction.  It is so out of favor that the prissy local newspaper art critic (see pic) laughs at him. Nooooooo!  To make matters worse, Wilbur isn’t popular with the ladies as his face was scarred by his clown father putting his face to a hot plate and his only friend is dancer Angel (Linnea Quigley).  She is dating carnival owner Guido (decidedly non-Italian John Nutten), who has just given Wilbur a week to pack his stuff and leave. When Angel pleads with Guido to keep her friend around, he gives Wilbur the humiliating job of The Geek (since the previous one just died of a heart attack on the job).

Because the script said so, Wilbur and Angel go to visit an old voodoo swamp woman and Wilbur asks for the ability to carve something really beautiful.  Wait a sec…you have this woman who can fulfill your any desire and that is what you ask for?  She grants him the wish and gives him a block of wood from a sacred tree where he grandmother was burned alive.  Nice.  In exchange, she requests her grandmother's skull, which Wilbur just happens to have on display in his collection. Can you guess what Guido is going to smash the next time we see him?  Anyway, Wilbur carves a white mask out of the log and everyone becomes enamored with it.  But this is a death mask carved from the darkest recesses of his mind, so the transfixed end up dying shortly after they see it.

This is bad news, right?  Well, not for Wilbur, who decides the best course of action with his new found power is to head to the local whorehouse while dressed like the Unabomber.  With great power comes great horniness, I guess?  When all the ladies refuse to make it with him and he is bounced from the place, he sneaks back in to kill his regular girl who mocked him.  Way to show them, pal!  The next night he heads to the local dive bar and sees the cheating Guido, who also mocks Wilbur.  You are so dead, son.  Wilbur is too far gone at this point, even killing a redneck in the parking lot after he calls him “waffle face.”  Wilbur follows the couple back to her place where he uses the mask to make her shoot Guido and then herself.  By this point, the cops are wise and they locate Wilbur – who can’t get the mask off his face – in a churchyard.  Angel is along for the ride and holds Wilbur as he lies dying.  “How did you get the mask off,” she asks.  “I prayed,” Wilbur says. The end.

Yes, I totally understand!
As I said before, this is a film that benefitted from following some hellacious viewings.  Had I watched this after something good, the carving knives would be out.  But it gets a pass this time, thanks to such trivial elements as nudity, bad acting and a cat fight.  Best, known mostly for his role as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, also provided the script for this and it is surprisingly decent.  I mean, would you have expected a morality play horror flick from him?  Me neither.  Best, Quigley and Nutten are all also good in their roles. Not so much for the rest of the cast.

Your humble reviewer, post-viewing
That is not to say this is some wonderful production as Latshaw offers flat work and some truly odd directorial choices.  For example, the pre-credits sequence inexplicably shows you everything that will happen in the movie.  Yes, you see the death of all the characters and major events.  I guess he wants it to be a tease to hook the viewer, but you are shooting yourself in the foot when you show a major character biting the dust. Of course, you can’t expect much from a filmmaker who shows a shot of an empty ride spinning but dubs in the sound of crowd screaming. Like I have said over and over in this review, this is not a good film by any means.  But somehow it manages to come off that way thanks to some real cinematic swill seen before it.  When you can make a Steve Latshaw movie look good, you know you are one sucky filmmaker.

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