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.

13 Responses to “Fiends Without Faces”

  1. I tried watching Bruiser on cable once but was astounded at how crap it was. A friend came over at one point to say that his girlfriend had dumped him, and a half hour later he got hysterical yelling “WHY are you showing me this AWFUL movie when I’m feeling bad enough already?!” So I think I missed the ending.

    I think Peter Stormare’s “best” acting was as the cable guy in LOGJAMMIN’, the porno flick Dude watches in The Big Lebowski. And to bring it back around to horror films, last night I was watching Twilight Zone: The Movie, a movie which, like Lebowski, makes a big deal of listening to Creedence tapes on a car ride.

  2. I seem to recall liking the George Miller episode of Twilight Zone best, although the Joe Dante is the smartest. But that happy ending is yuck. The Spielberg is possibly his most dishonest bit of sentimentality, and the Landis… best draw a veil over that. But it’s better than Bruiser.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t care to watch Bruiser while emotionally traumatised. Not because it’s scary or shocking…it’s just kind of depressingly weak, and the problem is at the idea level, so style or performance can’t redeem it.

    You’re right about Stormare in Lebowski, I’d forgotten. His actual character is another shouty stereotype, but easier to take than most. But his version of porno acting has merit. (But Julianne Moore’s porno acting in Boogie Nights is AWESOME — the complete absence of talent is impressively rendered).

  3. A glance at IMDb also tells me that Jarrico co-wrote a Karl May western for Robert Siodmak in the ’60s called, variously, “Treasure of the Aztecs” and “I Violenti di Rio Bravo.” Male lead was Lex Barker, and the cast included Jeff Corey as Abraham Lincoln.

  4. I met Jarrico back in 1987 when we both taught Summer film course at UC Santa Barbara. Interesting guy.

    Salt of the Earth anyone?

  5. Jarrico sounds fascinating. It’s a good little script, Face Behind the Mask. I want to see all those late Siodmaks, but they’re pretty hard to get, at least with subtitles.

    Would like to see Salt of the Earth (I just got my hands on Tender Comrade, so I’m a bit behind with that era).

  6. Methinks you misremember the “happy” ending of the Joe Dante segment. The new girl escapes the cartoon house with the omnipotent young boy, claiming she’ll be his teacher and help him use his powers. She never says she’ll help use them for GOOD. It’s a very creepy, ambiguous ending, taking the small, contained horror from the boy’s house out into the larger world.

    As for Landis, if you open with the eight-minute intro of Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks listening to Creedence, then skip straight to Spielberg (or better, Dante) after the title song, you’ve got a shorter, better movie. That’s the power of DVD.

  7. OK, I’ve noticed that the Zone Horror channel will be showing Bruiser this weekend and after the prescient write up I might give it a (cautious) look!

    I remember feeling similar feelings to those you describe when watching The Dark Half, and I loved that book, so perhaps Bruiser may not be such a disappointment as that.

  8. Yes, I’d definitely skip the Spielberg too, Brandon. I love Scatman Crothers, but there are limits.

    I never saw the Dante ending as ambiguous, due to the way Kathleen Quinlan plays the part, but your reading certainly improves the film, so I’ll try it out next time I watch!

    The Dark Half has a similar nasty and contrived approach to Bruiser, where the supporting cast is primed for justifiable homicide. And similarly too, it starts with a degree of promise before going off the rails. Probably TDH throws too many underdeveloped notions at the screen, while B doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve at all, so the structural problems are kind of the opposite.

  9. The Face Behind the Mask looks great. I’ve previously checked out the guy who stashes his cooking in his chest of drawers (the fool!), as I reckon he’ll make a fine Unsung Joe, once I’ve got a critical mass of stills together. He’s called Al Hill, and he used to be a professional pickpocket. He wrote a book about his larcenous career, which I’m trying to get on ebay, but I’ve been too rubbish at bidding to snag it, so far.

    The nurse who walks in and is shocked at the sight of Lorre’s face is sort of interesting too. She’s Claire Rochelle, and she quit acting a few years after this film, when she was in her late 30s, to open an agency on Sunset Boulevard handling fan mail for movie stars.

    Anyway, will you be at the film quiz on Sunday? If you are, it would be great if you could bring along those Charlie Chans that you mentioned before…

  10. I wonder if the pickpocket guy was cast because he’d be good with handling props, or just because he looked disreputable?

    Will bring a couple of Chans along, although I do wish you’d try Mr Moto in preference. If you think of anything I might like to borrow, do bring it along on the off-chance!

    For anyone wondering what this is all about, Diarmid runs an amazing blog on Hollywood bit-part players:

  11. I’d be glad to try the Motos instead, of course. I’ll bring along a couple of illicitly sourced DVDs, just in case they appeal to you.

    Oh, and thanks for the plug!

  12. Evelyn Keyes is particularly lovely as the blind girl in Face Behind the Mask, her part echoes that of Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground, both are gentle souls in love with damaged men.

  13. It’s quite atypical casting for EK — nice to see her being sweet. But I actually prefer her as femme fatale, she’s so good at being bad.

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