“The Black Mass” Doesn’t Live Up to Its Harrowing Premise [REVIEW]

From its ominous opening moments assuring us that murderers could be anywhere, hiding in plain sight, The Black Mass kicks off with a palpable sense of dread. As we’re thrust into the perspective of an unnamed, unassuming psychopath (credited only as “Me”), director Devanny Pinn’s feature debut initially promises an uncompromising plunge into the mind of a serial killer. For a stretch, that’s exactly what it delivers – an effectively tense, slow-burn exercise in atmospheric horror as the killer meticulously stalks his prey of unsuspecting sorority sisters.

Through adept sound design building layers of ominous breathing and discordant noises, along with camerawork that regularly obscures the killer’s face to reinforce his inscrutability, Pinn demonstrates a strong handle on ratcheting up audience unease. When coupled with the period-accurate 1970s aesthetic, the film’s first two acts conjure an authentically retro psychological horror vibe akin to classics like Black Christmas. We’re made to share the sisters’ growing discomfort as the killer inserts himself into their lives through a series of unnerving encounters and interactions laced with false pretenses.

Unfortunately, that simmering tension boils over into a final act that largely squanders the film’s initial formal accomplishments. As the stalker’s meticulous restraint gives way to indiscriminate bloodshed, Pinn’s control over tone and perspective takes a misguided turn towards gratuitous exploitation rather than shedding new insight into the real-life horrors she’s depicting. Shocking bursts of graphic violence intermingle with half-baked attempts to inject supernatural elements that simply don’t mesh with the grounded, slow-burn psychological terror established earlier. By the time the film tries to re-center itself around the victims’ resilience, it feels like a case of too little, too late.

For horror fans craving a more nuanced, atmospheric, and grounded look at the true crime that inspired it, The Black Mass will likely leave you underwhelmed. While it features flashes of strong directorial craft, the film’s tonal jumps, lack of depth for its victims, and inability to find a compelling new lens into such well-trodden material render it a muddled misfire overall. A disappointingly missed opportunity.

While the strengths of The Black Mass lie in its stylistic flourishes and slow-burn tension, those admirable elements are consistently undercut by the limitations of its narrative approach. By choosing to focus the entire film on a condensed 24-hour period of stalking and violence, the story ultimately lacks breathing room to develop its protagonists beyond one-note victims-in-waiting.

Outside of some brief characterization in their earliest scenes fretting over college woes, the sorority sisters at the center of the rampage remain ciphers. We learn precious little about their individual personalities, hopes, or inner lives that could make us invest deeper in their fates or the tragedy that befalls them. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for an atmospheric horror exercise, but it does limit the emotional impact when the bloodshed inevitably arrives.

YouTube video

Speaking of that bloodshed, it’s depicted with an unflinching brutality that arguably crosses the line into exploitative territory at certain points. While Pinn’s formal control is on full display during the extended massacre sequence – with her expert framing, sound design, and killer POV shots maintaining a palpable sense of dread – the relentless violence ultimately becomes numbing rather than insightful.

Cheap shocks and over-the-top gruesomeness take precedence over any deeper rumination on the real-life horrors that inspired the story. The film even clumsily introduces some misguided supernatural elements in a baffling attempt to up the shock value, completely betraying the grounded psychological terror it had so meticulously cultivated in its first two acts.

It’s a shame, because the performance at the dark heart of The Black Mass is undeniably skin-crawling. As the unnamed psychopath, Andrew Sykes oozes an understated menace that makes every mundane interaction drip with unease. His ability to switch between a polite, unassuming facade and sudden bouts of seething rage is chilling to behold. One can’t help but wish his committed work was in service of a more substantive, coherent exploration of what drove such depravity.

Instead, Pinn’s film often mistakes provocation for insight, relying on empty shock value rather than attempting to burrow deeper into this real-life nightmare in any meaningful way. For all its stylistic bravado in the craftsmanship, The Black Mass ultimately rings hollow – a wasted opportunity to create a seminal new perspective on one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Diehard horror buffs may find some grisly pleasures to savor, but for those craving more than just visceral thrills, this Black Mass is more likely to leave you feeling soullessly gutted.

In its final moments, The Black Mass makes a half-hearted attempt to re-center itself around the victims – flashing text about how the surviving sisters went on to become advocates and find purpose in the tragedy’s aftermath. It’s an admirable notion, but one that rings hollow after the preceding onslaught of gratuitous violence and wasted potential.

For all her directorial flair and skills at cultivating dread, Devanny Pinn’s debut feature can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Is it a meditative character study into the banality of evil? A harrowing recreation of real-life horrors? A sleazy bit of exploitation reveling in graphic thrills? The Black Mass tries to straddle all those tones and more, resulting in a final product that lacks a cohesive perspective or deeper resonance.

There are flashes of formal excellence to be found, from the ominous sound design to Pinn’s controlled camerawork ratcheting up the tension. Andrew Sykes’ committed lead performance as the unassuming psychopath is also a standout. But those positives are continuously undermined by narrative shortcomings – underdeveloped protagonists, a fumbled attempt to blend psychological realism with supernatural embellishments, and a final act that lazily indulges in shock value over insight.

For diehard horror fans, there may be enough slick style and brutal gruesomeness to make The Black Mass a passable bit of midnight movie debauchery. But for those hoping this harrowing true crime story could offer a more nuanced, atmospheric, and thoughtful descent into depravity, Pinn’s film will likely leave you feeling underwhelmed and empty. A missed opportunity to create a modern genre classic.

Rating: 4/10