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Originally conceived as two short stories, one about a boxer and the other a banker, writer/director Elias Plagianos decided to combine both tales into The Crimson Mask, making its Western New York debut at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. After realizing short films have little to no chance of making back the money put forth, he saw how the two ideas rested on the same general Faustian principle of selling one’s soul for a hastily thought out scheme for success. Rather than giving their essence to the Devil, however, these characters give up existence for debt, in effect becoming slaves to commerce as steady rises beget rapid falls. Seeing so many people in the NYC area living as though money wasn’t an object, Plagianos saw them ruining their lives once the collectors came to call. So, becoming his characters in order to create them—racking up credit card debt to finance the planned two million dollar budget that became a $180,000 reality—he set forth to tell the story of two men over-extending themselves, cosmically intertwined by an ancient, cultish history. A higher power pulls the strings for a reuniting of Parker and Caine at the underground Crimson Mask’s Trial by Combat.

Beginning with a well-choreographed sword fight, recalling those of Highlander fame, the film shows us the theatre of blood for which the community of its title lives to continue. The secretive leaders of The Crimson Mask subtly lead a candidate to them, setting events in action that play to their weaknesses and desires for the good life, without care for the consequences. It is a sort of manufactured fate that intervenes to put them on a collision course that can only end with death or murder. Whereas some victors stay entrenched within the society, rising up the ranks to become controllers of it, others decline the invitation, realizing the sacrifices made and the slavery they instill with people unaware of the lies being fed to them. To remain in the group, one must accept their role in the destruction of man, of keeping the general public under control as pawns to be used for entertainment and replaced when their jobs have ceased to be useful. Perhaps having children is one reason to walk away, finally learning the value of life and the ingrained power of protecting them from the cruelties of the world.

The shear fact that this film was made is a success story worthy of an audience. Shot in three weeks, taking a full year of post-production and another of festival rounds, all after the lengthy six year gestation period writing the script, the visual aesthetic and production value show how much one can do with very little. Many sets were created and exterior location shots are held at a minimum to keep costs down, yet so many moments portray a cinematic feel of an abundance of resources. Plagianos says that he applied filters and computer techniques to enhance the imagery, shown to great effect with a glare-filled memory sequence of Joshua Burrow’s banker Thomas Caine and his father as well as a gorgeous scene in the wrestling ring, over-cranked for dramatic slomotion and intercut with a past flash of Robert Clohessy’s boxer Parker, now faking his craft for cash. Some instances do admittedly feel a bit over-produced, especially the early third dealing with Parker, displayed with an old-time Depression era sheen from wardrobe to sets. Even the jazzy sax score made me think of a past era, putting into my head that these two lead actors existed in different times, set on a collision course. This hypothesis is proven false, though, with one of many revelatory connections at the end concerning Parker’s daughter.

The way in which everything plays out does cause you to wonder whether what you are seeing is real or not. Perhaps the time difference is intentional, adding another layer of fantasy to the metaphoric tale of greed and regret. Any time you infuse a story like Faust into your film, the melding of the real and mystical is unavoidable. While I enjoyed the allusions to that classic German tale, I do think they were too blatant, but that could just be me giving the general public the benefit of the doubt in knowing of the story, something undeserved if my German-language Masters student friend’s shock I knew of it is any indication. I loved the subtle inclusion of marionettes in the hands of a homeless man, one the Devil and the other a soul about to be sold. The interaction with Burrow works on the level of his character, but also metaphorically to his actions if you are familiar with Goethe. By bringing that character back later on, now as a literal manifestation of the control being wielded by the Crimson Mask collective, and named Dr. Faustus, became a little too much, tainting the ethereal connection it held before.

Again, though, despite thinking some moments were heavy-handed, I do believe Plagianos’s choices are intelligently made and for the better of the script at hand. It doesn’t hurt that your two leads, Burrow and the underused journeyman Clohessy, understand their roles and play them with the type of passion deserved. Watching Parker on his last legs of life still able to talk back to his employer—a great no nonsense turn of Brooklyn underbelly from Lee R. Sellars—with humor and wit, as well as have the ability to attempt to retrieve his pride when defeat by sword seems his only option, goes a long way in making the climatic scene resonate. It may be one more convenient connection at the hands of a higher power, using ‘The Book’ of Chapter Three’s title to bond these two men together as slaves unwilling to back down and be pushed around like puppets, but beneath the contrivance is a measure of truth. If anything, the multitude of overlapping plot threads and crisscrossing of paths only adds to the illusory aspect of the film, making The Crimson Mask into the morality tale its creator set out to make. It’s inspiring job of professionalism as a first-time feature with little in the way of monetary resource shows the promise this young man’s future holds. I look forward to checking out his next two projects, but I’ll let him announce them himself at Cannes this May.

The Crimson Mask 7/10

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photography:
courtesy of www.thecrimsonmask.com/

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