It’s interesting to see how different countries present masks in film. Certainly, design elements change somewhat according to tradition. But beyond that, the mask, as a concept, tends to be more complex in international horror. In this broad category, a mask isn’t just something worn that hides a face or projects evil; the mask is an extension of the wearer’s shifting persona. The following is a short collection of our favorite – or favourite – use of masks in international horror films.
10. The Orphanage, Spain 2007
I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: a silent, stationary child wearing a crude burlap face mask disturbs me a bit, makes my adrenaline pump. The mask is the perfect complement to a masterfully creepy suspense tale. It gives nothing away. Its expression is not one of malice or kindness. And it seems to change throughout the story, depending on the viewer’s perspective. We never know the child’s intentions – and that’s the game! Wanna play? (Because I’m good to sit this one out.)
9. Black Sunday, Italy 1960
“It’s Death! I’ve just seen Death!” The mask of Javutich alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a true work of art that commands attention. Design-wise, it seems to be inspired by combination of traditions: the early-Renaissance Roman demon, the Japanese demon mask, and the Spartan helmet. But perhaps the best feature of this mask is that it was clearly forced onto Javutich’s face; notice how he struggles to pull it from his face, and the gaping puncture holes it leaves behind.
8. Abominable Dr. Phibes, Britain 1971
This is not a film that takes itself very seriously, which makes it kinda fun! The mask is a bit goofy too, but it has a unique aesthetic and a wonderful expression. The facial features and the way lines, colors and shapes define them is something to behold. And, of course, it serves a very specific function for Dr. Phibes. Famous last words: “This mask is jolly tight.”
7. The Skin I Live in, Spain 2011
The notion of masking is magnificently woven into the fabric of this tale. The mask in this film is both conceptual and a living, organic reality. As the story develops, we begin to realize that this concept is not only the foundation of the film, it’s every part of its structure. Each twisted reveal shows us a different aspect of covering or hiding. It’s disturbing, shocking and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.
6. A Clockwork Orange, Britain 1971
“I and my droogies wore our maskies, which were like real horrorshow disguises.” Agreed, Alex! If you were to see Alex’s mask on a store shelf, you might walk by it: an elongated, red nose stretches from a thick, uni-brow-looking partial face piece. But in context, it’s magnificent! It’s both nasty and comical, and it allows Alex to fulfill his every urge – to rape, pillage and plunder in anonymity. That is, until another urge takes over: the urge to sing.
5. The Rite, Sweden 1969
Masks in Bergman’s The Rite help create an epiphany and new reality for the authoritarian judge who tries to determine whether a certain play is “decent” enough for local audiences. But questions of decency go to the wayside as the masked actors take their audience to the realm of the gods. Here, locked onto the impassive eyes behind the cruelly imposing masks, the judge finds his soul exposed – and the act of judging reversed.
4. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Czech Republic 1970
Valerie has just reached the beginning of womanhood. And predators abound. In this hidden gem of world cinema, everything is masked – personas, intentions, desires, and (of course) faces. In Valerie, masks of predatory animals either hide or announce true character, leaving one question: At what point does one flee or embrace the predator?
3. Wickerman, Britain 1973
“Play the fool! That’s what you’re here for!” Once Sergeant Howie dons the mask of the fool, he joins the rest of the masked pagans. He believes he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But despite his intentions, the sergeant hasn’t concealed his identity; he’s revealed it. It’s one masterstroke among many in this tightly wound suspense tale, whose true horror isn’t unmasked until the very last beat.
2. Eyes Without a Face, France 1960
Christine, beloved daughter of famed surgeon Genéssier, floats through the frighteningly hypnotic Eyes Without a Face like a phantom. Having been disfigured in an accident, Christine has no face, only a feature-less feminine mask with a blank expression. Christine’s father is working on a remedy – and his methods are ghastly. Eerie is the best way to describe the experience of staring at Christine. Brilliant use of a mask.
1. Onibaba, Japan 1964
A demon lurks in the tall grasses of feudal Japan. Desperation opens the door to it; jealousy feeds it; but a mask personifies it. Magnificent design aside, this mask is endowed with magic. Interestingly, its magical qualities present a paradox: Kichi’s mother wears it to cover her appearance, but the mask recreates her and reveals her true appearance. It’s a beautiful, horrific, cautionary tale made complete with a fantastic mask.