10 great films about masks

There’s no disguising this list’s theme: the rich history of masks on screen.

8 May 2014

By Michael Brooke

Frank (2014)

Succinctly defined as “a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others”, masks were an integral part of ceremonies, rituals and dramatic entertainment for thousands of years before the invention of the cinema (9,000-year-old ones are known to exist, and there’s no evidence that they’re the first). 

They’re a uniquely effective way of establishing character or mood (often at a considerable distance), their facial features can be either exaggerated, simplified or simultaneously convincingly human and yet unnervingly artificial. Indeed, one of the standard visual signifiers of ‘drama’ is a pair of masks whose expressions denote ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’, an effect brilliantly exploited in a brief vignette in Amadeus (1984) when a sinister figure wearing a black ‘tragedy’ mask turns round to reveal its counterpart on the back of his head, which now appears to be grinning mockingly. For a key characteristic of the mask is the paradoxical way that it’s both fixed and flexible, a passive receptacle for whatever emotions we choose to project upon it.

Similarly, many iconic characters – Batman, Captain America, Darth Vader, the Lone Ranger, the Phantom of the Opera, Spider-Man, Zorro – are identifiable purely through a quick sketch of their masks, and the same is true of Frank Sidebottom, the irrepressibly upbeat northern comedian-cum-musician originally created by Chris Sievey (1955-2010) and resurrected with startling success in the recent film Frank, in which Michael Fassbender plays the title role while permanently encased in a papier-mâché head.

Both Fassbender and Frank follow in a grand tradition, and while this list can’t help but be highly selective, it does at least give a hint of the sheer range of cinematic masks that have graced our screens over the last century, and the personalities that they concealed or transformed.

Les Vampires (1915)

Director: Louis Feuillade

Les Vampires (1915)

Louis Feuillade’s 10-part, seven-hour serial practically defined the iconography of the masked supervillain, and its echoes resound through plenty of Hollywood blockbusters a century later. The Vampires aren’t actual bloodsuckers but a gang of criminals whose most eye-catching member is the ineffably slinky Irma Vep, played by music-hall performer Musidora (née Jeanne Roques), clad from head to foot in black, sometimes to such an extent that only an eye-slit is visible. The effect suggests both a terrorist and an executioner, and clearly anticipates Catwoman’s various incarnations. 

More importantly, Feuillade and Musidora suggest that her disguise helps to render her wholly independent and classless in a way that few actual French women could claim at the time (Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep explored this notion further). Irma and her colleagues are the notional villains, but Feuillade’s fascination with them is so palpable that the film ran into trouble with the French authorities for glamourising crime.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Director: Rupert Julian

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel has been adapted umpteen times, but the first Hollywood version is still the one that best catches its blood-and-thunder melodrama. In the title role, Lon Chaney is effectively wearing two masks – the more sedate one under which he prowls the Paris Opera at night, which he tells his inamorata Christine (Mary Philbin) she must never remove, and the grotesque vision (the makeup designed by Chaney himself) that confronts her when she disobeys him. The Phantom’s ‘unmasking’ still has the power to chill the marrow. (True to the novel, but unlike many successors, this Phantom has been deformed since birth, not burned by acid or fire).

The film also has one of the most memorable cinematic depictions of a great European tradition, the masquerade ball in which all the guests are decoratively masked. Indeed, the Phantom’s choice of costume directly evokes one of literature’s more famous masquerade events, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (later filmed by Roger Corman in 1964).

The Wicked Lady (1945)

Director: Leslie Arliss

The Wicked Lady (1945)

This Gainsborough melodrama was such a mammoth box-office hit that a BFI survey reckoned that even as recently as 2004 it would still be in ninth place on Britain’s all-time top 10 if the latter was adjusted for inflation.

So why did it strike such a powerful chord? Very possibly because Britain’s cinema-going audience was heavily female during wartime (their menfolk being otherwise engaged), and this story of a bored pillar of the aristocracy (Margaret Lockwood on splendidly lip-curling form) finding fulfilment in donning a mask and committing highway robbery clearly pandered to all kinds of fantasies, and not just ones involving co-star James Mason. Utterly amoral though she turns out to be, Lockwood’s Lady Barbara Skelton is proudly asserting her independence at every turn, even if, like Irma Vep before her, she has to don a disguise in order to exploit it to the full. Even by today’s standards, the film is startlingly racy, and one can only imagine how thrillingly subversive it must have seemed in 1945.

Eyes without a Face (1960)

Director: Georges Franju

Eyes without a Face (1960)

Two of the cinema’s greatest mask-based horror films premiered within months of each other. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (originally The Mask of Satan) opened with an alleged witch having a metal mask being hammered into her face, while Georges Franju’s even more unsettling vision saw Christiane (Édith Scob) donning an eerily blank-faced mask in order to hide the fact that her face is badly burned following a car accident caused by her plastic-surgeon father (Pierre Brasseur).

Acting almost entirely with her sorrowful, intensely expressive eyes, Scob gives one of the cinema’s great masked performances, the mask in this case acting as a surrogate for her father’s failed attempts at creating a more plausible one out of the flesh of kidnapped young women. Masks also turn up in Franju’s other films, notably his Feuillade remake Judex (1963), whose highlight is a masquerade ball in which everyone is disguised as animals and birds.

Onibaba (1964)

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Onibaba (1964)

One of the cinema’s most memorable masks was this demonic contortion (the film’s title translates as ‘Demon Hag’) that’s initially sported by a samurai in order to hide facial disfigurements. After he falls victim to the older of two women who eke out a living capturing and killing lost and disoriented soldiers to steal their possessions, she dons the mask herself in order to terrify her younger colleague and her lover (of whom she’s deeply jealous). But then the mask gets stuck…

Although the film is set in the medieval era, director Kaneto Shindo said that the mask (and what are later revealed to be its disfiguring properties) could also be taken to symbolise the after-effects of the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Japan a mere 19 years earlier. But it also powerfully evokes Japanese Noh drama, an ancient theatrical form that makes frequent use of iconic masks.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Director: Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Masks of some kind are a perennial staple of the horror genre – think of the Halloween, Friday the 13th or Scream franchises, or the human muzzle that prevents Hannibal Lecter from biting his captors in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But few are as insidiously memorable as the mask of dried human skin sported by ‘Leatherface’ (Gunnar Hansen), with its evocation of both Nazi experiments and the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, which loosely inspired Tobe Hooper’s film.

Leatherface has no dialogue (later films establish that he was born mute) and we never see his actual face – indeed, his nickname makes his mask a permanent part of his identity. Although few watching the film for the first time will regard him as anything other than a figure of absolute terror, subsequent viewings reveal the subtlety of Hansen’s interpretation of a man relentlessly bullied by his family to the point where he can no longer distinguish between human beings and animals when it comes to slaughtering them for meat or wearing its by-products.

Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas

Star Wars (1977)

A strong contender for the title of ‘most instantly recognisable mask in film history’, the part-cyborg General Darth Vader spends the entire running time of this film and most of its two immediate sequels behind a forbidding black mask, his stentorian breathing suggesting that he might not be able to survive without it. In fact, it was originally conceived as part of Vader’s spacesuit, not a permanent feature, although Ralph McQuarrie’s design proved so distinctive that it was swiftly rethought. Although Vader is something of a patchwork entity, his costume occupied by bodybuilder Dave Prowse or stuntman Bob Anderson, his sonorous voice provided by James Earl Jones, the mask held it all together brilliantly. 

Vader wasn’t originally supposed to dominate the entire Star Wars saga in the way that he ultimately did – but when the second film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), revealed that he was the hero Luke Skywalker’s father Anakin, he became far more intriguing. Indeed, the three prequels (The Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005) essentially boil down to Anakin Skywalker’s journey from nine-year-old innocent to the moment when he first dons the mask.

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Director: Chang Cheh

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Masked superhero films are ten a penny these days, but when Hong Kong martial arts maestro Chang Cheh made this delirious extravaganza, the likes of Batman and Spider-Man were largely confined to the small screen. The so-called ‘Poison Clan’ comprises five renegade warriors, whose costumes and masks mimic their distinctive fighting techniques: the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard and the Toad – and the hapless Yan Tieh (Chiang Sheng) is charged with tracking them down, knowing little more than their nicknames.

With its colourful and increasingly elaborate fight choreography Chang’s film was hugely influential, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere: Quentin Tarantino explicitly quotes it in Kill Bill (2004). A few years later, in the even more outrageous Five Element Ninjas (1982), Chang also exploited the iconography of another popular masked warrior, his ninjas wearing colourful costumes denoting their relationship to the five Chinese elements (gold, wood, water, fire and earth).

Paper Mask (1990)

Director: Christopher Morahan

Paper Mask (1990)

“Trust me, I’m a doctor”, went the tagline of this undeservedly neglected British thriller, and both the phrase and the surgeon’s mask next to it are supposedly reassuring signifiers of professional competence – something doubly essential if you’re about to be cut open or injected with chemicals. But do you really know who’s behind the mask? Is he really an expert in his field or someone with virtually no medical qualifications who’s managed to blag his way into the job by cynically taking over the name and effects of a recently deceased star student? 

It’s a far-fetched premise, but the film (based on Dr John Collee’s novel) makes it seem worryingly plausible – after all, male nurse Matthew (Paul McGann) looks the part, and his new colleagues are only too happy to unwittingly cover for him. After all, junior doctors are notorious for making mistakes due to tiredness and inexperience… aren’t they?

The Mask (1994)

Director: Chuck Russell

The Mask (1994)

This list could easily have devoted itself exclusively to comic-book movies, where masks usually come with the territory. However, the obvious standout in this department is this comparatively early vehicle for rubber-faced comedian Jim Carrey. He plays nerdish cartoon fan Stanley Ipkiss, who inadvertently discovers a mysterious wooden mask which, when donned, transforms him head to toe into The Mask, a green-faced amalgam of live-action performer and Tex Avery cartoon that possesses all the powers that the hapless Stanley so obviously lacked. But will the real Stanley ever be able to stand up for himself? 

What at base is a pretty familiar nebbish-makes-good scenario is turbocharged by Carrey’s exuberant performance (this was the first film in which his typically OTT approach was actually justified by the context) and some wildly inventive special effects that remain pretty impressive even after 20 more years of CGI development – but then realism was never their aim. 

Your suggestions

The Face of Another (1966)
  1. The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
  2. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)
  3. V for Vendetta  (James McTeigue, 2005)
  4. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
  5. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
  6. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)
  7. Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)
  8. The Mask (Julian Roffman, 1961)
  9. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
  10. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)

You’ve got to love a public vote that gets won by a Hiroshi Teshigahara movie! When we asked you for your suggestions of what we’d missed from this list, Teshigahara’s 1966 classic The Face of Another was the overwhelming favourite. Made as the follow-up to the director’s Woman of the Dunes (1964), it continued his collaboration with avant-garde novelist Kobo Abe and experimental composer Toru Takemitsu and tells the story of a disfigured man who constructs a lifelike mask for himself. It’s this beguilingly strange study of identity, alongside its French counterpart Eyes without a Face, that provided a well of visual and thematic motifs for Pedro Almodóvar when he came to make The Skin I Live In – the film you voted into second place. V for Vendetta was another popular choice.

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