Fiends Without Faces
A Fever Dream Double Feature
Without any conscious planning, we watched George A. Romero’s BRUISER and Robert Florey’s THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK in quick succession, two films feature blank-faced masks transfiguring criminal heroes. Both heroes also spend a bit of time standing around the docks of New York too, but that’s less significant than the thematic idea, expressed most articulately in Paul Verhoeven’s otherwise inane HOLLOW MAN: “It’s amazing what you’re capable of when you no longer have to look at yourself in the mirror.”
BRUISER was Romero’s comeback film, in a way, a small-scale and simple project that got him back in the game and led to the enjoyable and political LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD. He’s making another zombie film now! So the film is a success purely in terms of delivering a valuable filmmaker back to productivity. But is it an artistic success?
BRUISER, which takes its name from the glamour magazine the hero (Jason Flemyng) works for (and that DOES seem rather an improbable name for a mag), as befits its style-mag subject, is possibly Romero’s mostly slickly handsome film. Lots of macro closeups of the hero’s appliances, like product shots in TV ads. Attractive, but also apt.
Flemyng, sporting a transatlantic accent that doesn’t quite gel, but suits his nonentity character, plays a put-upon shmoe who fantasises about killing his rivals and enemies (a repeat of the homicidal Walter Mitty motif from CREEPSHOW), then one day wakes up to find his face replaced by a white, blank mask. A lovely bit of acting from Flemyng — on discovering this facial erasure, he paws and tugs at his new white visage, then attempts to brush his hair. Cause that’ll fix things, yeah.
Going on a killing spree, as any of us might under such circs, our hero eventually wins back his identity by destroying everybody who’s made his life miserable (plus his Mexican maid, who’s stolen a few bills from his wallet). The whole theme seems somewhat corrupt and sinister.
Flemying’s house struck Fiona: “It’s like the house Petrocelli was building. It’s got that horrible ‘new house’ feeling. It’s like HIM! All characterless facade.” Especially after Flemyng’s metamorphosis moment. Trying to “blend in”, he applies his cheating wife’s makeup (he will kill her), which still looks weird. Then he puts on a cap.
And turns into Ron Howard.
The movie survives the transmogrification for a little while, but soon the paucity of plot becomes painfully apparent. All the movie has left to do is to kill the obnoxious supporting cast, led by the super-obnoxious Peter Stormare. I mean, he’s meant to be vile, like the psycho military leader in DAY OF THE DEAD. We’re meant to crave his destruction. Not the noblest of emotions to encourage in your audience. But Stormare is so full-on that he’s impossible to enjoy on any level — he’s been giving persistently horrible perfs since FARGO. Remember THE BROTHERS GRIMM? I could not believe he was still alive at the end of that one, I assumed the only excuse for his performance would be to gratify the audience by giving his character a lingering demise.
Weirdly, BRUISER also lacks memorable mayhem — the characters build up to their deaths by acting spectacularly vile, then pfff. Nothing. A little hole in the head. Is it hypocritical of me to decry the film’s viciousness and then complain it’s not violent enough? I think I’m just trying to judge it on its own level.
Another layer of obnoxiousness is added by the gratuitous nudity, which almost manages to be embarrassing in Romero’s films. He has a very glam bitch-goddess in Nina Garbiras, whose body is worth celebrating in song and skin-flick, but he ruins things with self-consciousness and a sense that flesh is being SERVED UP to a moronic public (this means us, and we resent it).
Much more fun, and much more honorable, was THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK. Perhaps not on the same level of ecstatic delirium as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, the other great Florey-Lorre collaboration, but fun. Peter Lorre plays a cheerful immigrant in New York (yes, Lorre can be cute) who is disfigured in an Improbable Hotel Fire of the kind which once plagued the metropolis, this one caused by a roomer stashing his illicit cooking in a chest of drawers. This is the film that dares to say “Don’t stash your illicit cooking in a chest of drawers! What are you, nuts?”
His face a hideous, convincing burns makeup, which Florey withholds from view apart from a few glimpses, Lorre turns to crime so he can afford surgery (which later proves hopeless), Lorre buys a fancy rubber mask for four hundred bucks. When worn, it gives a remarkable impression of being Peter Lorre’s real face with a little makeup on it. With this new persona, the embittered Lorre joins a gang of hoodlums, turning his mechanical skills to safe-cracking.
This being a 1941 movie, Crime Must Not Pay, and Lorre pays a terrible price, losing the impossibly chirpy blind girl (Evelyn Keyes, startlingly perky) whose heart he has won — this was in the days when Hollywood matrimonial agencies did storming business pairing lugubrious mutants with visually-impaired optimists — when his former cronies try to off him with a car bomb. Unlike Jason Flemyng’s wimpy Jacobean antics, Lorre’s revenge is dramatically satisfying and achieved at the cost of his own life, so nobody profits from the criminous misdeeds on view, except the audience.
Worth seeing because it’s a better version of DARKMAN than DARKMAN, because Florey is a suave director, especially paired with a glossy cameraman like Franz Planer, and because Lorre is never less than insanely compelling. In his rubber mask he’s just BEAUTIFUL.
Screenwriter Paul Jarrico was run out of town by the blacklist, and had an itinerant writing career in Europe for some time. His credits have now been restored to films he wrote pseudonymously during the McCarthy era.