MASKS takes "the method" to the extreme in Andreas Marschall's mostly SUSPIRIA-focused giallo homage on Blu-ray/DVD/CD combo from Cult Epics offshoot Reel Gore Releasing.
After aspiring actress Stella (Susen Ermich) blows her big audition with a mediocre reading of "Electra," one of the judges Kaspar (Dieter Rita Scholl) suggests that she try out the summer program at the Matteusz Gdula Stage School. He warns her that the training is a little unorthodox along the lines of fellow Polish acting teacher Jerzy Grotowski's soul-baring theatre laboratory methods. As she arrives at the academy, former student Britt (Franziska Breite) nearly flees right into the path of her boyfriend Florian's (Michael Siller) car. The catty current student body treat her with as much contempt as the creepy faculty – Janowska (Magdalena Ritter, NOSTRADAMUS), Dr. Braun (Michael Balaun, THE TEARS OF KALI), and principal Yolanda (Teresa Nawrot) – but Janowska sees potential when Stella momentarily loses her temper; indeed, the academy's acting exercises seem aimed at unleashing the emotions behind the mask of civility and self-image, with the faculty and competitive student body eager to get under her skin for different reasons. Stella is roundly criticized and ridiculed for her inability to let loose and react to her scene partners until she meets the beautiful Cecile (Julita Witt) who takes private lessons in the academy after dark. Finding herself inexplicably attracted to Cecile, she also becomes concerned with the cuts and bruises she sees on the girl which Cecile reveals are related to her intense training in "the method." When Cecile subsequently disappears after revealing too much about "the method," Stella is devastated but does not begin to get suspicious until the police and nosy reporter Mike (Marcel Trunsch) show up at the academy investigating the brutal slaying of Britt and her roommate Lydia (Katja Lawrenz). Looking into the background of school founder Matteusz Gdula (Norbert Losch), Stella discovers a documentary online that reveals that he committed suicide after a tragic incident involving his students back in 1973. After Stella strikes bitchy classmate Valeri (Sonali Wiedenhöfer, who looks a little like SUSPIRIA's Barbara Magnolfi aka Olga) for needling her about Cecile, Janowska expels Stella but offers her private lessons in Gdula method, unearthing traumatic repressed memories while someone starts slashing their way through nosy and concerned parties who stray into the closed-off section of the academy.
Stylish without falling into the masturbatory editing games of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS) as far as neo-gialli go, MASKS possesses an intriguing central idea (or at least a novel variation on suffering for your art) but is ultimately too slavish in its borrowings from SUSPIRIA to do anything with substantial with it. In an age where Argento's own style has become a barely recognizable shadow of its former self, Marschall's color-coded mise-en-scene and occasionally elegant handheld tracking shots might seem more inspired and elegantly executed than that of the maestro but nothing else feels original or diverting. The gore effects are admirably executed by students of a theater make-up school and the violence is photographed and edited with some flourish unlike the increasingly ugly set-pieces of the maestro's recent works but never quite achieve the same operative verve of Argento in his prime. What suspense there is comes from pondering how Marschall will work in the next homage. In the interview included in the disc's enclosed booklet, Marschall expresses a preference for SUSPIRIA's "beautiful naïtivity of its storytelling" but then proceeds in the climax to follow up the tantalizing question "Why are doors open that should be locked?" with a visual montage explaining it all away. To be flip, the film is dedicated to Argento, Mario Bava, and Sergio Martino but, if anything, the film is more Lamberto Bava's THE TORTURER than SUSPIRIA but less Cattet and Forzani than perhaps akin to the film-within-a-film "The Equestrian Vortex" of Peter Strickland's BERBARIAN STOUND STUDIO. As far as the "fame has a price" moral, MASKS ends up being really no more substantive than the hellishly stylish yet empty STARRY EYES.
Released mostly to film festival audiences and on Blu-ray in Germany in 2011 by Sony, MASKS is the second release of Reel Gore Releasing (following VIOLENT SHIT: THE MOVIE). A limited edition Blu-ray/DVD/CD combo of 3000 copies, it is difficult to assess how much of the softness MASKS' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen presentation of this Canon EOS7D DSLR production lensed in 2K is part of the format and how much has been added in post-production filtering and color correction for a specific dreamy look. Close-ups fare well, with the inserts of the prosthetic effects holding up better than Sergio Stivaletti's recent work on MOTHER OF TEARS. The German DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 gives breadth to the score and directional effects, but (to sound like a broken record) it is more of a modern, restrained mix than the bracing surround sound of SUSPIRIA (a 2.0 mix is also included). English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Extras are of variable quality with the "behind the scenes" featurette (15:02) being an unstructured montage of the shoot with a look at the camera rigs, the make-up effects, and gives an impression of how the film looked on set before the color grading. The deleted scenes (4:15) are largely superfluous, including a sequence where a little girl sees the masked killer before the deaths of Britt and Lydia, Stella overhearing a conversation by her classmates about the murdered girl, and some additional bits of Stella's delirium during the third act. Also included are a "Music Video Clip" (4:26), original and 2016 trailers (1:47 and 1:59, respectively), and a slideshow (2:28). As with Cult Epics' Jorg Buttgereit Collection, the film's soundtrack by Sebastian Levermann with additional music by Nils Weise (21 tracks) comes in a separate cardboard sleeve housed with the disc case in a cardboard slipcase with a twenty-four page booklet featuring a biography for Marschall, a reprint of Kier-La Janisse's review of the film from her book "House of Psychotic Women" – in which she makes the case that the film is wholly derivative of SUSPIRIA yet "does it much better than Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN" – and a new interview with Marshall conducted by Nando Rohner. The latter is more informative than any of the other extras, revealing that the director knows his stuff (he notes the film's inspirations as Sergio Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and Pupi Avati's HOUSE OF THE LAUGHING WINDOWS and that the acoustic guitar parts of the score were inspired by Trans Europa Express' music for Antonio Bido's WATCH ME WHEN I KILL) and does indeed possess an affection for the genre. (Eric Cotenas)
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