This could be a large list, so we are confining this list to American horror films (or films with horror elements). The criteria: the film must use at least one mask, or the concept of masking identity, to full effect. We’re not writing film reviews or ranking the quality of the film itself – only the design, the character(s) and use of the mask in the film.
10. Friday 13th part III, 1982Jason Vorhees’ mask in the mega-hit series Friday the 13th is, simply, a standard 1970’s hockey goalie mask. If the filmmakers had ended idea for Jason’s mask there, Friday the 13th might not have made our list. But they didn’t. The mask is great because it’s emblematic. Every wound Jason collects and every experience he undergoes is made manifest in that mask – even in succeeding films. Jason and the mask are inseparable.
9. Alice, Sweet Alice, 1976Isn’t little Alice just an unfortunate and misunderstood young girl dealing with her parents’ painful divorce? Good God, no! She’s a calculating little psychopath. Once she dons that cheap, semi-transparent plastic mask, someone or something is as good as dead. The perfectly smooth design of the mask, coupled with its molded plastic smile, is the perfect touch for this little monster’s face. The mask becomes an expression of joy – and it’s only worn when Alice needs to kill. Unsettling, to say the least.
8. The Strangers, 2008Random would probably be the best word to describe the killers’ motivation in this film, which is why their masks, in our humble opinion, work so well. A burlap sack with eye holes and an uncertain smile and two cartoonish female face-casts – this actually says a lot about our killers. There’s no unified theme in their headdress. It appears that they just wore what was handy or convenient; they didn’t plan anything. Effective, for this film at least.
7. Tourist Trap, 1979An unhealthy fascination with the human form, particularly the human face, defines the purveyor of the tourist trap in this surprisingly fun B-film. The antagonist enjoys luring good-looking tourists into his road-side attraction in order to steal their visages. He casts their faces and constructs masks to add to his collection. It’s quite creepy and a great use of masks.
6. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, 2006Though Leslie Vernon is amiable, he’s also a serial killer – who truly believes in the conventions of storytelling (particularly horror conventions). Namely, in order to bolster character growth in the protagonist, he or she must face a worthy villain. When the mask is off, Leslie’s great company. Once the mask is on, there’s a role he must play. And he takes this role very seriously. Bonus points for mask design: the texture, shape and expression fit this sad but resolute character exceptionally well.
5. Mimic, 1997Although there is no official mask in this film, the concept of masking one’s true appearance is used to stunning effect in Mimic. Evolution in the animal kingdom offers many creatures defensive or predatory tools. Mimic certainly capitalizes on nature’s means of masking identity. Hats off to the filmmakers for successfully implementing this survival strategy into an original monster feature.
4. Halloween, 1978An unhuman prosthetic face based on William Shatner’s features! An actual, cheap Halloween mask sold in stores! Who knew? Michael Myers looks terrifying in his Halloween mask and, of course, he stalks his prey on Halloween. Everything comes full circle.
3. Donnie Darko, 2001A gleaming, steel demonic rabbit with a twisting grin. Hell yeah! Design alone – full points! A dream, the reputation of the “trickster” rabbit, or perhaps a love of Richard Adams’ famed novel Watership Down – director Richard Kelly, who sketched the original design of the Frank mask, is not certain where Frank came from. When the 24-year-old director had begun production on the film, he faced serious self-doubt and a feeling of uncertainty from his cast and crew. But when Frank appeared on set, the atmosphere changed. Frank’s quiet intensity and twisted smile gave Kelly the support he needed to take the helm of Donnie Darko and turn it into one of the most-loved cult films of the decade.
2. Silence of the Lambs, 1991It may not be a straight-ahead horror film, and masks are not exactly dominant in the narrative (transformation is), but they are significant. Hannibal Lecter looks absolutely terrifying in the partial mask used in his transfer to a new facility. Oh, and don’t forget how he was able to escape his new cell: didn’t he fashion a rather unique mask? Reminiscent of the wolf in sheep’s clothing – or lamb’s clothing here.
1. Phantom of the Opera, 1925Yes, it’s an old one. But all these years and thousands of films later, this is still the most effective use of a mask in any film. A smooth plaster cast of a human face masks the grotesque visage of the Phantom. Not only is it a great story, it’s also a commentary on how society uses the face to judge character. When the phantom is masked, he’s a possible – yet tenuous – love interest who plays beautiful, hypnotic music; unmasked, he’s a horrifying villain. He’s equally fearsome when masked as the Red Death, which in itself is a magnificent mask. And the scene of his unmasking remains one of the all-time best shock-reveals in the history of cinema.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974
Blood Fest, 2018 (featuring our very own mask!)