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The Black Mass (2023) Review

The Black Mass, the title of actress (Camp Pleasant Lake, Where the Dead Go to Die) Devanny Pinn’s directorial debut is not, as one might guess, a reference to a Satanic ritual. It’s the description one of the survivors gave of the man who, across one long night in 1978, attacked four of her sorority sisters, killing two of them as well as attacking a random woman he encountered nearby.

That man was Ted Bundy (Andrew Sykes, Bikini-Blitzkrieg, Part One: Dance Domination, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect). That doesn’t mean that The Black Mass is a typical true-crime film or even a straightforward slasher film. Pinn and co-writers Eric Pereira (American Girls, The Locals) and Brandon Slagle (3 Days in Malay, Attack of the Unknown) keep the killer in the background figuratively and literally for much of the film.

While he is in almost every scene, or the scenes are shot from his perspective, for the first hour the film is concerned much more with the women who will become his victims and the lives they’re leading. For example, early in the film, he drives around campus and all we see of him is a hand holding a beer can. The camera is focused on the rearview mirror and windshield, we never see his face in this scene, just an odd shot of his eyes in the mirror.

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Indeed, his full face is rarely throughout the film. But Jim, I hear you say, I thought this wasn’t a typical slasher film? That sounds like the typical killer’s POV shots we see in every slasher. For one, if this was a slasher you would get several shots of their mask, reminding you that Jason, Michael Myers, etc was out there and about to strike.

The real difference, however, is that we don’t simply see a bunch of disposable victims making out, smoking weed, getting naked, etc. The women he stalks are a somewhat more realistic bunch, as likely to talk about affording text books as who they’re hoping to bed. In effect, The Black Mass is using his viewpoint not to reveal these potential victim’s bodies, but their lives and personalities. It makes the scenes of him voyeuristically peeping through windows disturbing, rather than a tired trope designed to put skin on the screen.

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When The Black Mass does deliver a sequence of a woman undressing, it very quickly turns from a potential turn on for the viewer to a turn on for the killer. We see not what he sees but his fantasies as she tears her own body apart for his enjoyment, ending with shots of her fisting one of her wounds. It’s graphic and genuinely hard to watch in its brutality. It’s also a preview of what to expect in the final act when he attacks his victims.

Pinn stages these attacks in an unflinching and brutal manner that concentrates as much on making the viewer feel the victim’s pain as much as it does showing bloody effects. It’s meant to disturb as much as it is to gross out or shock. It’s raw and rough in a way that the scenes of violence in few genre films are.

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It doesn’t hurt that The Black Mass has a cast that includes several talented performers and familiar faces to horror fans. Among them are the director herself, Lew Temple (Night Caller, Pig Killer), Jeremy London (Hunt Club, Alien Opponent), Lisa Wilcox (A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Don’t Suck), Eileen Dietz (The Exorcist, Final Caller) and Nicky Whelan (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, The Flood).

The film ends with news footage of the real Ted Bundy and information on his arrest, trial and execution. I found this, while potentially interesting to those not familiar with the man and his crimes, took some of the edge off of the scenes that precede it. That however is one of the very few complaints I had with The Black Mass. Pinn has made a strong and disturbing debut film. One that takes several chances, including a first hour that easily could have bored viewers rather than drawn them in, and staging scenes of violence that’s more realistic and nasty than many of those watching will expect.

Cleopatra Entertainment has released The Black Mass on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as to Digital Platforms.

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