Hidden faces on the big screen

In V for Vendetta (2005) young protagonist Evey (Natalie Portman) asks her masked saviour to tell her who he is. The Guy Fawkes-masked vigilante (Hugo Weaving) points out gently and tactfully that he is a man in a mask. “Well I can see that!” sniffs Evey. “Of course you can. I’m not questioning your powers of observation. I’m merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is.” replies the mysterious figure. He’s got a point. One does not go to the effort of concealing one’s identity only to go blabbing it about to every interested passer-by. Masks have been an important aspect of theatre since the invention of drama in ancient Greece and they can be just as useful in cinema. Styles range wildly from the skimpy domino masks worn by superheroes to the full concealment of Darth Vader’s helmet. My favourites tend to be stiff immobile masks that completely conceal the wearer while superficially resembling some blank abstraction of a human (or inhuman) face. Actors often come up with very interesting performances while thusly concealed. • The Mask (1994) — We might as well start with this fun popular blockbuster although Jim Carrey’s huge green face is far from “immobile.” Carrey’s transformation from sniveling doormat to live-action cartoon grotesque is facilitated by an enchanted mask that makes him invulnerable to harm. The comic book upon which this film was based was considerably darker in tone with the main character casually murdering everyone who ever caused him the slightest annoyance. The film takes a lighter breezier approach allowing the masker to remain sympathetic. The critically mauled sequel Son of the Mask followed in 2005 to the tortured screams of moviegoers everywhere. Not to be confused with… • The Mask (AKA Eyes of Hell) (1961) — This black-and-white Canadian horror film came up with the title and “cursed mask” theme some 33 years before the Jim Carrey movie. Here an ancient mask produces addictive hallucinations in the wearer who quickly becomes a psychopathic murderer. Still nobody watches this particular film for the plot; it’s the 3-D dream sequences that really grab the viewer’s attention. • The Phantom of the Opera (1925) — Of the many many film adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel the silent version featuring Lon Chaney remains my favourite. Here the Phantom wears a simple almost goofy-looking mask that isn’t the least bit terrifying. The face underneath the mask on the other hand can still make an audience jump. • The Astro-Zombies (1968) — Wow is this ever bad. If someone ever tells you that such-and-such is the worst film ever made ask if he’s seen The Astro-Zombies. If he hasn’t then his credentials for making such announcements are extremely suspect. The monster in this one is just a guy wearing a Halloween mask. It’s a full-headed white plastic mask with domed eyeholes and a solar panel on the forehead. We know it’s a solar panel because at one point the Astro-Zombie recharges his batteries by shining a flashlight on it. An unasked-for sequel Mark of the Astro-Zombies got released direct to video in 2002. • Vanilla Sky (2001) — After getting his face mangled in a car crash Tom Cruise is presented with a “prosthetic unit” from his eager-to-please (but understandably nervous) doctors. It looks like a plain ol’ mask and Tom says so. “It’s great. This completely takes care of Halloween… but what about the other 364 days of the year?!” he growls. Yeesh picky picky! • Onibaba (1964) — One of the coolest/freakiest masks of all time is the Oni (demon) mask from this compelling Japanese black-and-white melodrama. The mask is central to the storyline and is first seen on the face of a wandering samurai who claims that it conceals his unnaturally beautiful face so that women won’t throw themselves at him wherever he goes. When the samurai is killed and looted it is revealed that his face is actually bloody and disease-ridden. The mask is stolen by a scheming woman who uses it to terrify her daughter with some truly nasty consequences. A brilliantly eerie film. • Predator (1987) — Not only is that simple pewter facemask intimidating as hell but it also conceals an astonishing monster face. Boo! • Halloween (1978) — Horror films and masks just naturally go together. Everything from old Edgar Wallace mysteries to Friday the 13th (1980) to Scream (1996) makes use of masked killers. Despite being remarkably iconic the mask from Halloween was scrounged from a costume shop at the last minute. It was actually a William Shatner mask since Captain Kirk was a popular Halloween costume at the time. The hair was changed and the mask was painted white transforming it into a blank unrecognizable face emotionless and terrifying. • Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) (1960) — A beautiful incredibly creepy French horror film that contains one of cinema’s finest masked performances. Edith Scob plays a car crash victim who spends almost the entire film wearing a mask to hide her ruined face. The mask is completely expressionless but her eyes reveal unimaginable grief and suffering. She weeps not for herself but for the victims of her mad scientist father who plans to restore Scob’s face by performing a skin transplant in which the unwilling donors (kidnapped by the father) will not survive. As heartbreaking as it is suspenseful. • Zardoz (1974) — One of the goofiest movies to feature Sean Connery who’s done more than a few stinkers. Check out the hilarious “Rarr! I’m a monster!” masks worn by the “Exterminators” exact replicas of the giant floating stone head they all worship. Crazy!