We’ve all been there: your job is boring, it drains the lifeforce from any responsive brain activity, and you would kill to be anywhere else. Well, what happens if your job is killing people and you’re sick of it? This is the conundrum put forth by Unmasked Part 25 (1988), a British horror film that asks the question, “Can Jason Vorhees settle down, find true love, and change his ways?” An interesting posit, and one presented with some dry humor and gore galore.
This one sat for many years on unsuspecting video shelves, its artwork of a mangled face in bandages and tagline of “It’s a cold, cruel world – but Jackson can hack it!” along with the spoofy title suggesting an Airplane! style take on slashers. It may start out that way, but in short order turns into something completely different. Afforded theatrical distribution in its homeland but hitting the video market everywhere else, I honestly have no idea how they marketed it beyond the ZAZ angle; looks like they couldn’t, so they didn’t.
It’s just another night in London, and a group of friends including blind Shelly (Fiona Evans), are gathered at someone’s flat for a party with Shelly awaiting her yes, blind date to arrive. This group has an unwelcome visitor though, as a hockey masked killer by the name of Jackson picks them off one by one – knife, shovel, fist- and is about to end with Shelly when he realizes that she cannot see him, and is therefore not afraid.
Disarmed (and acting mute at first), Jackson befriends Shelly and he finds himself navigating a relationship with the fairer sex for the first time ever. Experiencing love instead of hate with a woman who can’t see his scarred and horrible visage behind the mask, Jackson starts to question his life choices and decides to quit murdering and settle down. But how long can he resist the call of the blade?
Unmasked Part 25 (aka Hand of Death, Part 25: Jackson’s Back, or Hand of Death) starts off as an efficient and gory clone of a typical slasher; this is to say that the characters are forgettable and obnoxious, and all eyes are on the effects, which are pretty solid. The first 15 minutes are energetic and splashy, and then the film slams on the brakes and makes a very wide left turn into a domestic dramedy, where the two lovebirds get to know each other as Jackson contemplates the life he’s leaving behind.
Unmasked is acutely self-aware. A long-running horror film franchise called Hand of Death apparently houses Jackson in killer form, as patrons at pubs recognize him from the films; as he wanders around, he’s greeted as just another git cosplaying before that was even really a thing. But director Anders Palm (Murder Blues) treats these moments as throwaways, instead focusing on the relationship between the ill-advised lovers. Jackson’s connection to the films is never delved into, which is interesting as the finale is buttoned with a reference to them; perhaps Palm was making a comment on self-reverence itself?
But like it or lump it, this is Palm’s modus operandi throughout the film; the occasional quip is delivered, feeding the ‘spoof’ narrative and the bloodshed keeps the horror card on the table – but the through line is the couple, who manage to be oblivious to everything around them. (As young couples are wont to do.) So, it’s an odd duck, Unmasked Part 25; a lot of disparate elements that somehow manage to cohere into a film that is by turn amusing and melancholy, all poured with a wit so dry it needs vermouth.
Understatement is the key; Unmasked’s actors are enthusiastic, but with the exception of Jackson’s dad (an acerbic Edward Brayshaw), the roles are underplayed, and played straight. (This would be the only evidence of a ZAZ connection.) Evans plays blind well, and brings a sympathetic shoulder for Jackson to bemoan the state of his existence. This leaves the weight of the film on Cox’s own shoulders, and his Jackson is almost endearing whether he’s waging emotional war with his alcoholic dad or trying to keep up with Shelly’s sexual kinks. Cox plays Jackson as mild mannered; that is when he’s not slaying people or thinking that Shelly is taking the piss. (I’m using all my British slang today. Jog on!)
Perhaps the big theme proposed by Palm and writer Mark Cutforth is nurture versus nature as it applies to our antihero. The filmmakers seem to be making a case for the former with Jackson’s abusive dad prominently featured in the mix, and since he can’t use his appearance (think Winslow from Phantom of the Paradise but symmetrical – spread that love around) as a crutch to push Shelly away, he has to confront himself for his deeds. And what about the 25 Hand of Death films? Has Jackson stepped out from film to flesh, or is it his ego eating away at him?
Now, Palm doesn’t go that deep with all this, filtered as it is through discussions with Shelly and Jackson while both are dressed in dominatrix gear. Unmasked Part 25 is the kind of ‘so close’ film – with similar content that Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) fleshes out to greater effect – that you end up admiring just for trying. That it still manages to offer a larf or two is enough, innit?
Unmasked Part 25 is available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EDGE OF THE AXE (1988)