As we prepare to watch Tom Hardy graduate from Bane’s venom-inhaling mask in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) to a full-scale parasite in Ruben Fleischer’s upcoming Venom (2018), let’s consider the importance of the mask outside the horror and conventional superhero genre. Despite these stereotypes, this favourite form of disguise has made significant appearances in thrillers, war movies and many others, often in just as effective and terrifying ways. Beware of spoilers ahead. Here are five of my favourite masks below:
The Ex-Presidents Masks, Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s film follows rookie agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) as he infiltrates a group of suspected bank-robbing surfers. While this premise might not sound as exhilarating as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, Point Break is packed with tension and brilliant action scenes.
One of the highlights involves a robbery scene where the surfing group arrive at a bank wearing the masks of Presidents Reagan, Nixon, Carter and Johnson. If the smiling rubber facial expressions aren’t strange enough, they somehow manage to become even more bizarre when the Ex-Presidents start shouting instructions at the helpless bank employees. The Ronald Reagan robber, implied to be gang leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), shouts so forcefully that you can often see the rubber mask mouth move up and down. You don’t want to be surfin’ USA anywhere within the vicinity of these dudes.
The Clown Masks, The Dark Knight (2008)
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Although the Ex-Presidents masks are impressive works of art, sometimes it’s the simple things that work best. Take Heath Ledger’s Joker, for example. Our first introduction to the clown masks takes place as we view a goon shooting the glass of the bank building and zip wiring across. Yet it’s the subtle, intelligent static shot of an unknown individual holding a clown mask that sets the anticipation in motion. Each mask has its own individual style, however minimalist. There are masks with the bright red hair, another mask with blue hair as well as one with a broad nose and angry facial expression.
The main man, however, sticks with a comparatively discreet hairless mask, with only a few emphasised paint marks around the mask features. Although the audience might be able to guess the face behind the disguise, the
moment when the Joker casually reveals himself midway through his “Whatever doesn’t kill you” statement is one of the finest character introductions in cinema.
Rubber Mask, Drive (2011)
Although no heists take place in Drive – excluding the botched pawn job – there’s still lots of room for creepy mask action.
The rubber mask somehow manages to build on the disturbing facial expressions of the previous entries and create a whole other disturbing monster just through the slight realism of the rubber face. Sure, few human beings will have quite the same deranged grin, or quite the same huge head, but the basic building blocks are there.
The mask is slightly off-putting when The Driver uses it for a practical stunt job. But it takes on a whole new level of weird when he dons it once more to seek vengeance against Nino (Ron Pearlman). Approaching his pizza shop in slow motion, the image of the Driver glaring through the glass of the door with the mute head is a difficult one to forget.
Following a brief pursuit in his vehicle, The Driver still insists on donning the huge head as he drags the dying gangster from his crushed car and drowns him in the sea. Now that’s commitment.
Head Mask, Total Recall (1990)
Paul Verhoeven is living proof that you don’t need horror films to create disturbing images. Whether it’s the hyperbolic gore in Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) or the gratuitous scenes in Showgirls (1995) and Basic Instinct (1992), the man knows how to make his audience uncomfortable.
In Total Recall, however, we’re treated to a particularly odd scene as Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is trying to escape from his attackers in the guise of a woman. However, just as Quiad is close to making his escape, the fake face of the woman starts malfunctioning. Quiad desperately tries to hold the face together, but then decides to remove a red bar from the head, at which point it suddenly splits apart into eight sections.
If this sounds utterly insane, that’s probably because it is. Also, you’ll never be able to think of the phrase “two weeks” in the same way again.
Pilot Mask, Dunkirk (2017)
Finishing off with a less traumatising example is the simplistic mask used by Farrier (Tom Hardy) in Christopher Nolan’s recent war epic. Not satisfied with just masking Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan insists on hiding his mouth for a second time.
Although Hardy plays a minor role within the film’s structure, his charisma nonetheless shines through as a stoic pilot carrying out his duty for queen and country. The final images as Farrier removes his mask on the beach and sets fire to his spitfire are some of the most evocative scenes in the film.
Featured image credit: Sony.