In times of need, in times of stress and anxiety, there are platitudes that we use to give each other, the Hallmark-like one-liners that we keep loaded in the chamber just in case we don’t have the right words. In case we don’t know what to say. In case we truly don’t give a shit. Platitudes like, “Every person has an untold story.” Most of the time we could care less about someone’s untold story. The less we know, the more comfortable we are. The safer we feel. A.R. Hilton’s Anonymous Killers threatens the idea of what happens when you stop giving a shit about someone’s untold story. A unique marriage between serial killer puzzler plots like the ones found in the Saw franchise and the raw pulp shoot ‘em up action bloody thematics reminiscent of the Smokin Aces series, Hilton’s flick tries to walk the line between both, giving the viewer a taste of what makes a killer kill. The plot is delivered simply, but with a little flair, with action right out of the gate, five hard-boiled murderers are caught by an anonymous playboy-type, fitted in shock-inducing electric chairs and made to regale one another with the reasons they do that voodoo that they each do so well. At the end of their night of torture, they will vote as to which amongst them should be allowed to live, and which will meet a gruesome, yet perhaps fitting, end at the hands of their demented, cultured host. Not unlike the tried and true narrative formula for an HBO original series show, Anonymous Killers lures in the viewer with some flashy heart-pumping action scenes and scintillating shots of sexual stimulation, and once they are hooked, Hilton slows the tempo to a crawl. The truth of the second act becomes apparent at this point that we are to begin the string of narratives and reveal what the movie truly is—a pantheon of Death, a character analysis of horror archetypes reminiscent of a class reunion of Tales From the Crypt. Ultimately, as each killer gives their origin story, we begin to see less weight to the characters as before, when we were introduced to them as these brooding, dark, and contemptuously scary idols. They instead become caricatures rather than Jungian archetypes, but as someone pointed out to me, is that not what reality television is? Is not our favorite voyeuristic multi-million dollar making guilty pleasures not a look at ourselves in our most simplistic terms? We hear each tale of horror, revenge, carnal pleasures, and sadistic glee, and somehow along the way actually care, maybe even empathize, with each of the characters’ untold stories. This leads to the true key to unlocking the puzzling trap of Anonymous Killers. It isn’t in the gruesome stories of horror and mayhem that Hilton weaves for each of his malicious murdering marauders of malcontent, but the thrill of adding one additional killer to the mix, one that is in the film, but doesn’t even know that he, or she, is even aware of it themselves—you. Almost as if in a gruesome homage to the Master of Suspense himself, in a singular scene at the end of the film, Hilton pays tribute to the audience of the whole horrible recalling of acts of gore and terror with a simple bow by the film’s host and mastermind after fulfilling his role as executioner and emcee. But he is not bowing to a captive audience in a viewing room, watching the final judgement of those that did not escape the inevitable and deadly grip of Fate. Like Hitchcock’s infamous Rear Window moment of 4th wall breaking suspense, we realize we are among the Anonymous Killers, listening to their untold stories, making our own judgements based on the evidence presented, and finding twisted pleasure in seeing their sentence carried out. But, we’re safe to be a killer, because no one will judge us. This was all a work of fiction, so that means our killer instinct is not real to, right? So, we’re safe, right? …right?!
Looking Beyond the Face in The Faceless Man. There are voices within all of us. The quintessential angels and demons. Dissonant whispers making our lives harder to confront because they cause us to wage a war on two fronts. One external. One internal. This psychological duality rears its ugly two-headedness in the horror film The Faceless Man. Borrowing from the classic slasher thriller setups of a group of young adults planning a trip to a rental condo in the country for a weekend of the “Big Three:” Drinking, Drugs, and Debauchery. This is where the The Faceless Man (written and directed by James Di Martino) ceases to borrow from the atypical tropes of horror weekend slashers. From the opening scene, prior to the weekend getaway setup, we find out that main character Emily (played by Sophie Thurling) is recovering from a battle with cancer. She has struggled with the horrors of chemotherapy treatment, as well as the realization during a visit from her unscrupulous father that he has used her unfortunate condition as a means to further his own political gain. Three years later, Emily has made a full recovery from the cancer infecting her body, but we begin glimpse that the trauma of both fighting the horrible ailment coupled with the mental abuse of her father’s ambition has begun to unleash something much darker within Emily’s psyche. Or, is her manifestations real? This theme of ambiguity is echoed throughout the film. Who is the real Faceless Man? The true monster of the film seems to be the surprisingly large cast of morally corrupt characters packed into this film. Di Martino breaks standard tropes of not establishing clear lines in the sand of good versus evil. The show’s assumed protagonist seems to be struggling with her own morals, and sanity from the beginning of the film. The moral compass of every character in the film spins uncontrollably, giving further rise to the psychological fluidity and general paranoia that overlays all the scenes in the movie. Sexually depraved friend-zoned companions to overly sexualized Casanova movie stars segue to seemingly harmless cancer survivors and ruthless Mafia bosses and biker gangbangers. Then, add in drug-fueled hallucinations of women wearing featureless masks in a orgy scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and a creeping infectious lack of control over reality in every scene with the supposed main protagonist, you have a recipe for slasher bedlam. No one is safe in a world of mental mayhem, and this film creates an aura of anxiety from beginning to end. Once the second act has been established, it felt as if I was watching a demented game of Clue being played out, but Professor Plum roofied everyone, Colonel Mustard pissed off a bunch of rapey country bumpkins, and Miss Scarlet was caught huffing bath salts. Di Martino ensures that the most “morally sound” characters hide the biggest surprises, but admittedly, the wait to see what they are hiding can be a little long-winded. In a nearly fourth-wall-breaking rant by the leader of the biker gang, King Dougie (played by Roger Ward of Mad Max and Quigley Down Under fame,) the viewers and critics of the film itself are called into question as to whether they can truly perceive who is what side of the fluid lines Di Martino draws out in this film, and even goes so far as to dare them to critique the narrative harshly. The trifecta of paranoia in the movie culminates in Di Martino’s vision of creating an atmosphere of questioning one’s perceptions of what is reality in the core characters and the supporting casts. As the viewer of the film, we realize it is supposed to be completely unclear if any of what we are seeing is real or imagined at any given moment. In that discovery, we find the true horror of The Faceless Man. Several times within the film, beyond the obvious post-credit monologue by King Dougie, nods are given to other inspirations for its colorful cast of hoodlums and miscreants. Guy Ritchie stylized criminal intros, a possibly real/possibly imagined monster with a manicure and mannerisms reminiscent of Freddy Krueger, and even a beach scene that would have brought a tear to Planet of the Apes’ Charlton Heston’s eye all add to the wonder whose viewpoint is Di Martino really trying to show us. We are left with an idea that the narrative plays second fiddle to what The Faceless Man truly is, an introspection of every character, and more importantly, a deep, troubling, and fearful look into ourselves and the human condition. Along the way, we are taken on a gory, fun, and disturbing ride into the darkness that nests waiting within us all.