Wednesday, 14 July 2010 21:32

The Seven Greatest Masked Movie Killers

Written by  Chris Brosnahan
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Horror films are a varied genre. For each feast of gore, there's a slow, subtle build up to a disturbing finale. For each boring, formulaic piece of nonsense, there's something genuinely innovative.


It also allows for genre staples, and when you talk about horror movies, you really have to talk about the slasher genre. In that genre, there's usually a lunatic stalking victims throughout the movie. There is, though, a further sub-genre: that of the masked murderer.


Masks aren't something that are used in movies often. In fact, they're not used in many forms of entertainment. There's the superhero genre, Mexican wrestling and specific forms of theatre, and not much more other than that. But somehow, in the horror genre, the masked murderer has become a staple.


So, as a long time fan, here are some thoughts on which masked Hollywood murderers are the most disturbing. Disagree with my selections or my rankings? Take it up in our forum.


7 – Ghostface (The Scream Franchise)


Ghostface


Based on the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch, featuring an elongated, exaggerated display of misery, Ghostface was an immediately iconic killer. As design goes, it was brilliant. Immediately recognisable, it played with convention by having various killers don the outfit and mask .


However, the other way in which the movie played with conventions was to consistently portray the murderer as....well, a bit rubbish, really. Ghostface strikes very quickly, and repeatedly gets fended off, runs into things and generally doesn't seem to be very good at what he's doing.


Also, he's not helped by the fact that the Scary Movie movies mock Ghostface quite so efficiently. These parodies were at their best when actually not exaggerating the source material too much.


Finally, there's no sense of personality with this killer, because of the simple fact that it isn't one person. There's no body language, or sense of it being a unique individual. It could be anyone under the mask, and while that's scary on some levels, it doesn't make for a great killer.


6 – Jigsaw (The Saw Franchise)


Jigsaw


The whole point of Jigsaw is that the murderer underneath the mask, John Kramer, is basically a genius. A twisted genius, and one who appears to have lost any and all sense of perspective, but a genius nonetheless. As such, the pig mask has a little more symbolism than just looking gross.


The year Kramer became a killer, and started his campaign to try and make humanity that little bit better (by reminding them of their survival instincts) was also the Chinese Year of the Pig. In the Chinese Zodiac, the Year of the Pig symbolises rebirth.


Are there minus points? Well, yes. The mask is disturbing, certainly, but there isn't really any more to it than that. It's disturbing on a very shallow level, rather than a deeply disturbing level. It's just not a nightmare creator.


Ironically, the reason why the mask doesn't stick in the memory more is one of the strengths of the series. Tobin Bell is so effortlessly charismatic, captivating and downright odd looking that this is a rare case of a movie serial killer who is far more frightening with his mask off. And that just isn't a good sign, really.


5 The Villagers (The Wicker Man)


The Wicker Man


Okay, they're not serial killers, as far as we know. Okay, so it doesn't quite fit.


It doesn't matter. The Wicker Man manages to break all the rules as a movie anyway, so the masks in them warrant some mentioning. On top of that, the fact that the islanders are prepared to sacrifice someone means that they're all killers anyway, so it fits fine! It does. Honest. Stop looking at me like that.


Here's the thing: The Wicker Man is terrifying and brilliant as a movie, and manages to do more with brief glimpses of masks than most horror films do with pools of gore. On top of that, it does it during the day. Think how rare it is to have a horror film almost entirely take place during the day, and you get an idea just how unique the film is.


On top of that, the fact that the masks are present because of a belief system makes the whole thing that little bit spookier. These people aren't just doing what they're doing because they're a bit mental; they're doing it because they utterly believe it's the right thing to do. And, while watching the movie for the first time, the dawning realisation that what they're doing is more than just tradition is part of what makes the film work. The animal masks, and what they represent is a hugely important part of this.


This just makes it even luckier that the proposed sequel (in which Sergeant Howie survives, and undergoes a magical test of strength/faith with Lord Summerisle, in order to magically age them all so they die earlier. I wish I was kidding.) was never made.


4 - Jason Vorhees (The Friday the 13th Franchise)


Jason Vorhees


I have to admit, I umme'd and ahhe'd about putting Jason this high. The Friday the 13th movies are a huge amount of fun, but personally, I don't find him particularly frightening.


It's possibly the fact that he always seems in a little bit of a hurry. Not as much as Ghostface, admittedly, who runs around like he's overdosed on sugar, but still: Jason Vorhees strides about a lot. He doesn't stalk, he doesn't care about being silent – he's just a force of nature.


Being a force of nature isn't a particularly bad thing in itself, however Vorhees almost entirely lacks personality. He lacks the intrigue of a lot of other movie killers, partially through the fact that he's something of a shuffling zombie, entirely motivated by senseless murder.


However, one thing cannot be argued with. Jason is simply iconic, and the degradation of the mask over the series is a strong part of that.



3 – Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Series)


Leatherface


Take all the other masked nutters on this page, and all of them stop short at what this insane piece of work does. They make or buy their masks out of material, or – possibly – an animal's head.


This guy? He makes a mask from other people's faces. There's a level of commitment there that's scary in its own way. That's more commitment than most people would be able to give to keeping a diary.


And on top of that, he's a definable character. In fact, he's one of a number, since his entire family is made up of dangerous, cannibalistic mentalists, but he's the character that stays with you after watching the movie. He's somewhere between the mother of the group and a child. When he hangs one of his victims up on a meathook, it's the fact that he's not paying any attention to her that makes it scary.


2 -  Irving Wallace (Stage Fright)


Irving Wallace


Chances are that you haven't seen this one, unfortunately. It's a rather obscure American movie made by an Italian production company. It's cheap, it's nasty and it features a serial killer who wears a giant owl head.


And yet, it's brilliant. The killer in it is easily one of the most frightening I've ever seen, even if it all gets a bit ludicrous at times.


The film is set in a theatre, not long before opening night. The cast are frazzled and annoyed and are bitching at each other. The director has taken the step of locking all the doors – they're getting this perfect. Unfortunately, he's locked a serial killer in there with them.


The film is pretty much set on rails from that point on, but there's a wonderful moment near the end that manages to stick in the memory despite a certain level of incompetence. The murderer arranges his victims on the stage (much like Michael Myers does with his victims around the house). However, we get to see what he does once he's done, as one survivor is spying on him. He just sits calmly amongst them, totally at peace, surveying his work. He's committed all these atrocities in order to feel some peace.


This even manages to be scary when one of the corpses keeps blinking.


It's an odd movie, certainly. It's cheap and veers between brilliant and awful. However, when it works well, it creates genuinely disturbing images that stay with the viewer long after. And no image is more effective than the imposing, surreal image of the murderer himself. Wallace is absolutely brutal, chasing his victims with a single-mindedness, but one with an odd, theatrical flair.



1 – Michael Myers (The Halloween Franchise)


Michael Myers


Why is Michael Myers so terrifying? It's because his mask is the most human and yet also the most alien. And he manages to do both at the same time.


If you didn't know, the mask is based on a Captain Kirk mask, painted white with the eyes cut out. As a result, there are recognisable features there. They're not particularly exaggerated or distorted - they're just extremely generic and bland.


This means that the mask jumps a little logic leap, by making Myers seem a little more like he should be able to be be reasoned with. There's an identifiable face, but it is absolutely, utterly beyond any kind of understanding, bargaining or reasoning. Just a blank, expressionless mask.


And, on top of that, the feeling that the face underneath the mask is just as expressionless.


Next time you see Halloween, just think to yourself: what would you do if you were in that position? Michael isn't just a force of nature, he seems to be worryingly intelligent. He plans, and he plots, and he's doing all of this in order to pull off some bizarre form of a Halloween trick.


We don't understand him. We'll never understand him. It's entirely possible that he's chosen this blank face in order to simply mock us for that.


Last modified on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 22:33
Chris Brosnahan

Chris Brosnahan

Chris is a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

He's been collecting comics since he was 13, and owns far too many DVDs. At one point, he was a ring announcer for professional wrestling, which was... odd.

Website: twitter.com/chrisbrosnahan

1 Comment

  • Comment Link Matt Thursday, 15 July 2010 14:20 posted by Matt

    Good call with The Wicker Man, sir! I must admit that even I'd not thought about them being masked killers before, as they're de-masked come the ending, but even so you have a point.

    I'd be inclined to swap Jason and Irving Wallace around, as the owls head is a bit too comical from what I've seen - which, admittedly is just from stills at this point in time - and because I'm a Jason fan.

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