31 October 2011

Five Scary Movie Masks in Non-Scary Movies

I had to mark this year’s Halloween by of course looking at something scary within cinema, but without just selecting titles for a list of Favourite Horror Films Ever or something similar, I wanted to try something different. Last year I wrote about three randomly selected horror movies in a brief set of posts called What I Liked Most About... (I chose Saw, The Baby and Carnival of Souls). I also compiled a Top Ten Most Underloved and Under-Nourished Zombie Characters for The Film Experience.

Hello, I'm an 8-inch plastic replica of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. 
I'm this post's official sponsor. Enjoy, or expect a visit from me later...

But this year I thought about the one image that suggests Halloween to me the most (and most obvious, ultimately) when I think about today: John carpenter’s Halloween, or, more specifically, the face of Michael Myers. One of the reasons he’s so scary is that for the most part, we don’t see his face. The spray-paint-altered William Shatner mask, with its dark eyeholes and deathly facade, is tantamount to fear itself in my eyes. Masks merely on their own can be enough to instil in someone sheer terror. It’s the human-looking-but-not-actually-human aspect. The fact that we don't know who or what lurks beneath it can be terrifying. Horror: fear of the unknown. But even when we do know who's under the plastic or the latex facade, is it scary then? Well, yes, sometimes it darn well is.

So I’ve come up with is a list of Five Scary Movie Masks in Non-Scary Movies. Of course there are some scary elements in one or two of the films below that could place them in, or close to, the horror genre. But on the whole none of them would be ostensibly be described as horror movies. Ok, Drive and The Dark Knight come close, but it can all get a bit blurry with certain films...

Gosling grapples with faceache in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn/2011)

In the film Gosling’s actual face is only a slightly more animated version of, say, one of Easter Island’s head statues anyway, so an expressionless stuntman mask makes scant difference to the emotive transference of Driver’s persona. But Gosling was terrific in the role. He was rock solid. Unreadable. Static. All the qualities of a particularly effective mask. But for reasons of head-smashing unpredictability and unfettered revenge, Gos had to go covert and ‘mask up’. He looked like a close-shaved Channing Tatum in the wrong aspect ratio. If Michael Myers used William Shatner’s spray-painted Captain Kirk face to aid his killing spree, Gos as Driver looked as if he had fashioned a mask made from fat DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Check that long shot of an imposing, unknowably fearsome Driver slowly moving toward a victim on the beach, with the lighthouse searchlight illuminating his best scary pose. Pure John Carpenter, that. Drive was driven by such horrific details.

Palin goes for the immature look in Brazil (Terry Gilliam/1985)

Something about such an innocent-seeming design like this baby-faced mask was actually quite unsettling when utilised by Terry Gilliam the way it was within his nightmarish dystopian vision, Brazil. Workmanlike hero Sam (Jonathan Pryce) is detained in a large silo-like structure (ifKafka designed the sets for The Empire Strikes Back...) and strapped to a dentist’s chair. That he’s interrogated by a man in clinical get-up, topped off with the above-mentioned mask, adds to the horriblly oppressive and downright freaky atmosphere. (As if Brazil wasn’t freaky enough; many of Gilliam’s films always seem to teeter on the edge of the horror genre.) I’m not sure if it’s a relief or another layer of hellishness when the face beneath the mask turns out to belong to Michael Palin, one of the screen’s best-loved comedy mugs. With its black eye holes and anguished expression, it resembles a defective, deformed and discarded doll part. And, whichever films they crop up in – horror or not – dolls are simply scary things.

Ledger steals the scene with a straight face in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan/2008)

Clearly Heath Ledger as The Joker is a frightful figure, a scary film persona, anyway you look at it. He obviously didn’t really require a mask to be terrifying. His scarred, smeared and crassly-made-up face was terrible mask enough to compliment the jokey alter-ego enough, twisted as it was by accident as much as it was by total fury for Batman’s demise. In The Dark Knight we are introduced to him as one of a handful of well-orchestrated bank robbers. We don’t know which one of them is actually him at first – they all wear the same scuffed and knackered faux clown face – but he eventually emerges out of the not-so-funny crowd. Not knowing which clown was the real Joker was paramount to the fear aroused in his introductory scene. He is one in a throng of many. The smiling eyes and unsmiling mouth of his disconcerting clown face make for an eerie entrance into the film. Why so shy, Joker?

Jolie mans up from the neck up in Salt (Phillip Noyce/2009)

Originally the Salt (which I reviewed last year) of the title was meant to be an Edward, Edwin, or even Ethan instead of an Evelyn; apparently, it was meant to be a movie vehicle for Tom Cruise. When he turned it down, they reconfigured the role for a female star. Step up, Angelina Jolie. She was more than willing to get salty with the role and man-up in one scene where she has to get past White House security undetected. It’s a daft moment in a daft film, but I’m not sure she realised quite how unsettling her transformation into a man would be – mainly because she looked like a Madame Tussauds waxwork model of David Guest in military uniform. But was her rubber-faced disguise meant to be a nod toward Cruise’s involvement in the movie? It certainly looks a bit like him, albeit an oddly lacquered, embalmed version. I don’t know quite what happened, but from this making of clip, it looks like it was actually Ryan Seacrest was the model for ManJolie. A scarier prospect than any horror makeup. She convinced the guards and made it through the presidential detectors though. If I were a security guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I’d expect my P45 in the post the next day.

Dorff ages before our very eyes in Somewhere (Sofia Coppola/2010)

One of Sofia Coppola’s best ever moments of direction came in her film Somewhere. Stephen Dorff, as hip, ex-Hollywood star-turned-slacker Johnny Marco sits for a makeup session. The plaster is applied and we wait and watch as it dries. It feels as if it will take forever and that Coppola will film it in real time. Her camera gradually zooms in on his mud-rock-caked face. (Was there an ominous hum on the soundtrack, or did I imagine it? Was it merely Dorff’s laboured, creepy breathing I heard?) His encased head resembles a mutant bust. It becomes an object of horror by association. Its misshapen features, along with the eerie stillness of the moment, suggest an aura of terror; the feeling that something untoward is about to occur. What will happen next? Will Dorff suddenly break out and emerge a movie monster? Or maybe he will play out the remainder of the film just like this. In the next scene, however, Dorff can be seen in full old-man latex makeup – it was, of course, plaster cast preparation for a role. Coppola appeared to be making reference to the elongation of time on a film set and the frightening inevitability of old age at the same time. The implied horror was truly unsettling, but this realisation is scary enough and in a very real way.

Most of the selections were of recent films, but I was choosing titles based on the scary-face factor coming from non-horror movies and these five stood out. Others considered were: Eyes Wide Shut (Cruise's orgy-ball mask), V for Vendetta (V's famous show face), Donnie Darko (Frank's rodent scarer), Predator (the predator's grimacing headgear) and Darth Vader.


  1. Thank you for giving me nightmares Craig.
    The Somewhere moment was very Bjork, no? Also, I've always been slightly more freaked out by just eye masks, like everyone in that "Eyes Wide Shut" orgy.

  2. No problem, Jose! Thanks for reading. Yes, that Somewhere moment was like if Bjork got her hands on Halloween... Funnily enough, the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut was the sixth place title for the list. So ominous, esp. due to the eerie music...