When Michael Aguiar’s indie slasher The Laughing Mask was announced way back when, I was initially dismissive. Apart from the “serial killer wearing a mask” bit that the slasher genre has made itself known for time and time again, the film didn’t sound like it’d be doing anything that slasher fans haven’t already seen. But as things are wont to happen with film, open-mindedness is key. Turns out there’s more behind The Laughing Mask than what first appearances would allow.
The mysterious vigilante killer known only as The Laughing Mask has made it a habit to hand out their brand of brutal justice to those deemed guilty. After his wife and daughter were kidnapped and brutally murdered by The Laughing Mask, crime novelist Jake Johnson (John Hardy) has become consumed with his own desire for justice. While the police conduct their investigation, Johnson is deep in his own hunt for the killer. With clues leading to the possibility of his daughter still being alive, Johnson teams with hard-nosed detective Kate O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers) to find The Laughing Mask before it’s too late.
Aguiar must definitely have a thing for classic slasher films, as The Laughing Mask echoes many old-school trademarks, but at the same time, marries together elements of classic detective thrillers. Admittedly, the killer’s mask looks like a baseball that’s been stretched out and shaped into a mask, but it still evokes menace and intimidation that all masked killers should strive for in film. Plus, you have to love a killer in sharp suits. The way The Laughing Mask stalks his victims from the shadows, to the way he kills (set to 1940s music for added charm) is not only appropriately harsh and bloody, but also inventive at times. Things such as stuffing toys into a victim’s body don’t happen in other films, for sure. All the while, Aguiar shows his eye for composition in many of these shots with some great lighting and setup, which again shows a love of the genres.
It’s a pretty cool switch to see an actress in the role of what’s essentially a hard-boiled gumshoe, and Sheyenne Rivers definitely takes advantage of it. This is also part of that throwback to those pulpy detective stories. I loved the role reversal when we’re first introduced to O’Malley with her kicking the guy out of bed after sex. Rivers nailed the role. As for Johnson, he turns in a good performance as a man bordering on obsession and insanity in his attempts to not only find his daughter alive, but also to exact revenge. Jeffrey Jenkins as The Laughing Mask killer is another nice touch, as he has the presence and the laugh to go with the role, which is difficult when you’re acting behind a mask.
Aguiar’s mixing of the genres doesn’t quite work all the time, unfortunately. The film gets dragged down with some of the police procedural elements and a gang subplot that slows the pacing of the film. Indeed, there’s a good 10-minute chunk in the middle of the film that would’ve kept things tighter had it been left on the cutting room floor. Also, at a certain point, our antagonist resorts to using a gun, which flies in the face of the slasher side of things, but also kills the tension that had been building up to that moment. Also, some of the film’s dialogue, while obviously part of the whodunit mashup, tends to feel awkward. As does some of the expository dialogue. Adding insult are some technical limits that often hamper indie productions in the form of suspect ADR and inconsistent audio levels.
However, in spite of the minor technical missteps and the editing shortcomings, The Laughing Mask definitely deserves attention for the inventive melding of classic slashers and cop drama, as well as some brutal and inventive kills. Michael Aguiar’s attempt to stand out in the genre doesn’t quite break through all the way, but it’s a nice slice of indie horror that’s for the most part entertaining and has just the right amount of brutality to warrant a viewing.