A masked maniac is at loose murdering woman in a snowy Canadian town. Police Chief Jonathan Rich (Christopher Lee) reaches the scene with his best detective, Bob McClaine (Rod Taylor) when cops corner prime suspect: Johannes Krantz (Frank Brennan). Unfortunately a trigger-happy idiot sparks a shootout. Chief Rich is injured before Bob machine-guns Krantz. Yet only days after Krantz's death, the killings continue. Bob continues the investigation but is distracted on discovering his wife Maria (Valerie Perrine) is having an affair with his partner Ray (Sam Cook). Meanwhile a recuperating Chief Rich grows increasingly puzzled and frustrated as to whether Krantz has found a way to cheat death or else another killer is continuing his grisly work?
Gloomy Swedish thrillers have captured the public imagination for the past ten years but few genre fans will want to revisit this sloppy Scandinavian mess despite the presence of cult stars Christopher Lee and Rod Taylor. Swedish filmmaker Arne Mattsson started out making successful comedies but also made a mark with his series of so-called Hillman thrillers. Based on novels by writer Folke Mellvig, the films centred on Kajsa and John Hillman, a crime-solving middle-class city couple in the style of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence, Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) or Jonathan and Jennifer Hart in the lovably cheesy television show Hart to Hart. Some European critics cite Mattsson's second film in the Hillman series, Mannequin in Red (1958), as the progenitor of the largely Italian sub-genre of giallo horror-thrillers. Mattsson continued to shift from comedies to thrillers along with the occasional critically-acclaimed drama throughout the rest of his career, including gothic horror films such as Nightmare (1965) and Moriana (1965). Towards the latter stage however he began cranking out substandard low-budget action films in collaboration with infamous action hack Mats Helge Olsson. Their Eighties output of David Carradine vehicles are legendarily bad.
Sadly Mask of Murder ranks up there with the worst of Mattsson's action films. It is a clumsy, confusing mess with plotting and dialogue out of a bad cartoon and an air of solemnity that does not make it any less laughable. Old pros Christopher Lee and Rod Taylor invest their roles with utmost gravitas but are undone by Mattsson's ham-fisted plotting and staging along with a story that is meandering and dull. The film provides more of a showcase for Taylor than Lee and calls on the veteran action man to tackle a more ambiguous character than usual. He is more than up to the task but stranded in a meandering, unfocused narrative while interacting with bizarre characters that are either emotionless robots or bug-eyed goons. Mattsson presents the viewer with scene after scene where characters simply do not act like normal human beings: a woman is weirdly flippant when a close friend dies, a cop brutally interrogates the victim of a knife attack, a psychiatrist makes a right mess of questioning a remarkably dim little boy. The latter scene at least pays off with a hilarious put-down of her abilities by Christopher Lee.
One can only imagine whether or not Volodja Semitjov's original script read better than it plays. It has an interesting conceit and an ambiguous finale that belongs in a much better movie but for the most part the plot does not add up. Mattsson telegraphs every red-herring then reaches for cod-psychological explanations to paper over the abundant absurdities. In scenes with glassy-eyed youngsters dancing to cheesy synth pop he exhibits all the signs of an ageing filmmaker trying his utmost to be hip yet the numerous instances where middle-aged male characters gripe about women, young people and discos betrays his misanthropy. From Alfred Hitchcock to Henri-Georges Clouzot and even Lucio Fulci, there is a long history of old men utilizing the thriller form to reflect misanthropic attitudes about 'amoral', 'modern' society. The difference is where those men leavened their satirical bile with no small amount of film-making panache, Mattsson was clearly long past his prime.