The Black Mass

The Black Mass (2023)

The Black Mass had its international première on Sun 27 Aug at FrightFest

“I’ve got big plans to have the best day of my life,” says a man (Andy Sykes) designated in the closing credits of The Black Mass merely as ‘Me’, but who regularly introduces himself to others as ‘Ted’ – and whose real-life identity, which will be obvious to true-crime obsessives from the start, is made explicit only at the end of the film itself. Right from the opening prologue, though, in which a tape recording of his distorted voice (in fact that of co-writer Brandon Slagle) is heard from an interview declaring the absence of anything in his background, appearance or behaviour “which would lead people to believe that I was capable of committing murder”, it seems clear that criminal things are coming in the 24 hours of this man’s life which the film covers. Indeed, just before he promises his ‘best day’ to the guy behind the counter of a Tallahassee supermarket, we have already seen Me deftly picking various shoppers’ pockets, and he is about to pay for his items using somebody else’s credit card. 

It might appear from this introduction, in a film time-coded very precisely with text indicating it is the 14th January, 1978, in Florida, that what is unfolding is not just a criminal history, but his story – a version of events told exclusively from Me’s very singular male perspective. Sure enough, it will include an abundance of point-of-view shots which have become a staple of the heavy-breathing slasher film, arguably reaching the zenith (or is it nadir?) of psychopathic subjectivity in Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 Maniac remake. There is even here the odd fantasy sequence, in which bloody women are shown either grotesquely skinning and decapitating themselves and rhythmically fisting the hole between their shoulders, or just plain lying dead, as a vivid display of Me’s deeply misogynistic interiority. 

Yet as Me circles a sorority house and a nearby bar, clearly prowling for women to entice with his glib conversation, something else is taking place. For while, with his sometimes charming, sometimes creepy pickup act, he may only be looking for opportunity, and otherwise not seeing his interlocutors as anything other than objectified targets for his malicious desires, we get to see the same women, through him, as rounded, interesting, messy people, with complex lives, relationships and aspirations beyond his narrow worldview.

Me may be the centre of his narcissistic, egotistic narrative and the driver of its focalisation, but as the camera of cinematographer Noah Luke variously clings close to Me’s back or side, or shows his POV, or catches the merest glimpse of his unfocused face in a mirror, it also, at least until the very end, both effaces and anonymises him, making him less a protagonist than an absence in his own story. The gaze here may be male – and toxically so – but this film, far from inviting us to identify with Me and this errant, abhorrent predator’s perspective, reduces him to an empty nothingness. He is the cipher-like ‘black mass’ of the title whose malign barrelling trajectory through other people’s lives leaves behind only trauma and death.    

The Black Mass is the directorial debut of Devanny Pinn, better known until now as a prolific horror actress, and also appearing here as student ‘Kelly King’ (although Me’s real name is eventually revealed, the names of his victims have all been changed). With its Seventies period details and its highly sensitive subject matter, this is a challenging choice of topic for a first-timer – but Pinn displays both accomplishment and responsibility in her handling of such materials. Where Me never thinks of anyone but himself and anything but his own pernicious impulses, Pinn shows compassion, solidarity and sisterhood (the original meaning of ‘sorority’) with all the female characters whose lives Me is so determined to ruin, much as they also look out for each other – and she exposes the voyeuristic male, around whose actions her story is organised, as a negative force, always beneath contempt.

Pinn refuses to fall into the typical true-crime trap of lionising the perpetrator, or ghoulishly sexing him up. Here, we see Me, ironically as he himself had promised in the prologue, for what he is: a snivelling, smirking sociopath and pathetic panty sniffer, flying into a childish rage whenever he does not get his way and cravenly lashing out, with appalling brutality, only against those who are unable to defend themselves. Perhaps what The Black Mass, and Amber Sealey’s No Man Of God (2021), are proving is that the best way to tell true-crime tales of monstrous masculinity without resorting to cheap exploitation or tawdry sensationalism is for the gaze to be (re)directed by a woman. Pinn nails it.

strap: Devanny Pinn’s directorial debut finds a positive female gaze through a negative male one in an unfolding true crime

© Anton Bitel