Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ Masks in Horror Cinema does not begin like a horror film, at least not in the sense of an attention-grabbing opening scene or, in this case, an introduction; instead, Heller-Nicholas’ introduction, and indeed most of “Part One: Masks, Horror and Cinema – Towards Codification,” is a slow build to the meatier material in “Part Two: Horror Film Masks from 1970 – Case Studies” and “Part Three: Masks as Transformational Technology – Moving Forward by Looking Back.” Until the case studies, the pace is methodical, occasionally repetitive, and too often references what will eventually come until it feels like a tease that seems unlikely to pay off. However, it does pay off. Heller-Nicholas’ analysis of masks in specific horror films, particularly post-1970 films, is entirely engaging, well-researched, and even experimental in its revelations and style, which makes the reader wonder if the author has finally taken off her mask or put it on.
The time to consider face masks could not be more appropriate. Most of us who are not POTUS are hustling around grocery stores and sitting in waiting rooms breathing hotly into face masks that hopefully will protect ourselves and others from what is actually a common horror film scenario turned real-life situation: a global pandemic. While Masks in Horror Cinema was published just before COVID-19, it nevertheless resonates with our current debate about masks. The introduction considers the history of masks in terms of ritual and myth before delving into the frequent purpose of masks in horror cinema – to both disguise and reveal the identity of a killer. But this definition is still too simplistic as Heller-Nicholas shows the myriad cultural and political meanings of masks, adding more subtext to a killer’s identity formation. The objects, or the masks themselves, are considered part of a film’s mise en scène; they are “transformative devices” with a diversity of functions: “They can have practical safety functions in some contexts, while maintaining near-mystical symbolic force in others” (pp. 2; 8). In the first half of Masks in Horror Cinema, Heller-Nicholas lays the foundation for her theories on the “shamanistic imagination” and the “trickster figure” in relation to horror masks, her research informed heavily by the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, George Bataille, and Efrat Tseëlon. The liminality of masks, or the tension between concealment and revelation, continues throughout Heller-Nicholas’ text, with a pull towards a supernatural or spiritual power that is constantly tempered by a material, individualistic body, and mind.
Heller-Nicholas is careful to provide a history and definition of shamanism that is not reductive or “reduc[es] complex and diverse cultural practises to a singular whole” (p. 34). The shamanistic imagination connects masks to their ritual function, which is an aspect of horror cinema, where myths and archetypes are extensively used. Heller-Nicholas focuses often on the archetype of the trickster, utilising William Hyne’s characterisation of the trickster figure, and linking it to later masked horror antagonists that cause chaos and mayhem. In addition, the influence of Japanese Noh Theatre and Italian Commedia dell’arte is emphasised, especially in the use of blank masks. For example, the way Noh masks in A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926) transform inmates of an asylum, further complicating notions of sanity and identity. “Part One” scrupulously pays homage to the many sources that have played a role, however minute, in the meaning of masks in horror cinema: gothic literature, penny dreadfuls, German expressionist films, Grand Guignol Theatre, Theatre of Cruelty, Universal Classic monster films, and Dark House films.
These influences appear in the examination of The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) and the 1930 reissue (with sound) as Heller-Nicholas deconstructs the second unmasking scene with Lon Chaney, which differs due to Chaney’s preference for the 1925 version: “Although not up to Chaney’s standards, it is arguable that it is the very frailty of the disguise that renders its removal so violent. The flimsy materiality of the mask communicates sensorially the delicacy of constructed identities, the mask constructed as a volatile membrane between the ‘performed’ (controlled) masked phantom and the frightened individual underneath.” (p. 65) In addition to her close viewing of Chaney’s unmasking, I enjoyed the way Heller-Nicholas highlights Peter Lorre’s career, which included two masked performances in Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935) and The Face behind the Mask (Robert Florey, 1941). It made me reconsider an old favourite, Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944), where Lorre does not wear a mask to cover a disfigurement but instead disfigures his criminal partner (Boris Karloff) in order to hide his identity. Heller-Nicholas progresses to the internationalization of films beginning in 1960s, when American moviegoers were exposed to more foreign films. The use of surgical masks in Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face Georges Franju, 1960) and Oni masks in Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964) are prominently featured, as are the Lucha libre masks in the Santo filmography, specifically Santo vs las mujeres Vampiro (Samson vs the Vampire Women, Alfonso Corona Blake, 1962).
In “Part Two,” Heller-Nicholas hits her stride, exploring the meaning and material behind the masks in post-1970s horror cinema. She begins with a selection of skin masks that “critique or subvert patriarchal norms, with varying success” (p. 91). In Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976), a grotesquely feminine mask is worn by the killer, who we believe at first is young Alice (Paula Sheppard), but who turns out to be the elderly Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). Heller-Nicholas claims, “The mask is a tool to explore feminine identities beyond adult womanhood, exposing the complex and difficult spaces of adolescent girls and older women within the patriarchal constructs of Roman Catholicism” (p. 95). The patriarchy is similarly studied in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), where a literal skin mask is worn by Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), which Heller-Nicholas considers a critique of consumerism and consumption, suggesting that “the patriarchy has cannibalized itself” (p. 99). Finally, the trappings of patriarchy, wealth and privilege are examined in Happy Birthday to Me (J. Lee Thompson, 1981), where the affluent killer Ann (Tracey E Bregman) wears a mask to disguise herself as the impoverished Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson), which subsequently causes Ginny to be wrongly accused of the murders.
Blank masks, perhaps most recognisable from the Halloween franchise (1978-2018), follow the investigation of skin masks. Blank masks are seen a “symbolic canvas upon which viewers can inscribe meaning” (p. 111). While these masks remove the humanness or individuality of the wearer, they also reveal the capacity of masks to transform the wearer. Mike Myers (played, among others, by Nick Castle, Tony Moran, and Will Sandin) is a famous example of a blank-mask killer in horror cinema that Heller-Nicholas does not neglect, but she also includes more obscure films that utilise blank masks, like Celia (Ann Tuner, 1989), where a Noh mask, divorced from its original cultural context, becomes a sacred object for another child, Celia, based around an ancient Scottish ritual. Heller-Nicholas also explores the trend in horror films in which masked white upper-class corporate men kill women. In Bruiser (George A. Romero, 2000), Henry (Jason Flemyng) is enraged at the infidelity of his wife, while in Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016), a masked man terrorises Maddie (Kate Siegel) in a home invasion horror film. Heller-Nicholas writes, “Played by John Gallagher Jr., the assailant in Hush is credited simply as ‘Man’, suggesting that he is representative of a ubiquitous brand of white male violence, representing a capacity for violence against women within many men, not just one fictional character.” (p. 124) Yet Heller-Nicholas notes that in the latter film, the killer is unmasked less than thirty minutes into the film, illustrating that “when a man is masked, he is silent, mythic and undefeatable” (p. 126), whereas, when he is unmasked, he is human and thus mortal.
The spiritual element returns with a study of animal masks: “Animal masks symbolically transform their wearers into something less than human: they dehumanize through the mask into an animal state.” (p. 129) Dehumanising, or seeing someone as Other than human, is an effective strategy in horror film. In Seuseung-ui eunhye (Bloody Reunion, Dae-wung Lim, 2006), a rabbit mask is worn, not only to dehumanise the killer but because the chosen animal is important to the killer: “this particular animal is adopted as a totem by the film’s killer, revealing as much about the wearer’s self-image as the animal’s broader cultural meaning.” (p. 134) In the film, a group of girls visit their elderly former teacher Mrs. Park (Oh Mi-hee), then the girls get killed off one by one by someone wearing a rabbit mask. While in Alice, Sweet Alice, the older woman is the masked killer, here it is not the elderly Mrs. Park but Mi-Ja (Seo Young-hee), the young girl, which Heller-Nicholas points out is a “disturbing contrast between the cute, child-like bunny mask with extreme acts of violence committed by its wearer” (p. 135). An owl mask used by the killer in Stage Fright or Deliria (Michele Soavi, 1987), where the “mythological connotations” are once again essential to the killer’s identity, as owls were seen as “harbingers of bad luck” in Italy (p. 137). A lengthier examination is given to La Vampire nue (The Nude Vampire, Jean Rollin, 1970), a surrealist horror film that deploys a number of animal masks; however, in this case, the masks are used as protection against a possible vampire.
The section on repurposed masks shows that “even if the original intended function of certain masks is benign or even helpful (such as, for instance, safety masks), the heft of their symbolic presences is broadly transferable, even if their specific meanings are not” (p. 149). Heller-Nicholas uses the gas masks worn by miners in My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981) as an example of masks worn for a practical purposes, but then connects the cultural history of gas masks, especially around World War II, which reveals a much deeper significance to the killer’s wearing of a gas mask. In Evidence (Olatunde Osunsanmi, 2013), a welding mask is worn to disguise the gender of two violent and powerful women, Rachel (Caitlin Stacey) and LeAnn (Torrey DeVitto), though the reveal is linked to Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983). Then, of course, there is the iconic hockey mask worn by Jason Voorhees (Ari Lehman) in the Friday the 13th series. The hockey mask does not appear in the franchise until Friday the 13th Part III (Steve Milner, 1982), though masks of different sorts appear in the first two films. Apparently, Milner chose the hockey mask because he thought it looked good, but Heller-Nicholas considers the choice “a transitional moment in constructing what makes Jason a monster”: like the sport of hockey, “the wearer is simultaneously defensive and on the attack” (p. 157). The combination of psychology along with larger socio-political analysis is continued in the study of surgical masks in Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kōji Shiraishi, 2007), where Heller-Nicholas looks back at the history of face masks in Japan, from the Spanish flu to the SARS crisis.
“Part Three” shifts gears from the material masks to the use of technology as a mask in horror cinema. This includes the use of 3D technology for audiences, but more provocatively, the camera itself as a mask. Heller-Nicholas explores films where the camera becomes a weapon of sorts as well as a facial covering, as in Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960). This is where the author riffs most freely, and to dazzling effect, when considering the feel of the camera in the hand, how it is held tightly to the face, like a mask, by the killer. Furthermore, perhaps the best example of the trickster figure appears in her analysis of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982), where a Halloween mask company, Silver Shamrock, embeds popular Halloween masks with computer chips that will eventually kill the children who wear them. The trickster being the capitalist antagonist, Silver Shamrock. Found footage horror appears as well in “Part Three” in an examination of The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007). The killer in the film wears a gas mask and a traditional plague doctor mask to gruesome effect:
while medieval plague doctors wore the masks as a practical means of diffusing the smell of dying bodies and protecting themselves from infection, by wearing this mask in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the killer acknowledges the intensity of what a room that has seen so much carnage must smell like. And, like the gas mask, the notion of protection – that the mask will filter out diseased air – only adds to the dehumanisation of his victims, reduced in his eyes to diseased, abject meat. (p. 186)
This is one of the few forays into body gore as the mask also works as a shield to most bloodbaths.
Overall, Heller-Nicholas’ text is a significant addition to the growing Horror Studies Series published through University of Wales Press. Since Masks came out before the remake of The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020), treating this upcoming film would be an intriguing next step for the author, as would a focus on any horror films featuring masks that emerge after the pandemic.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019)