Horror films have featured mask-wearing killers practically since films existed. I mean, think about it; ever heard of The Phantom of the Opera? He wore a mask.
As movie-making evolved, masks were still present amongst horror films. Of course, the idea blew up after the release of 1978’s Halloween – everyone knows the story of how John Carpenter and his crew snagged a William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask and re-designed it into the legendary face of Michael Myers.
The newest film to dress its killer in a mask is Amazon original Totally Killer, proving the trope lives on even today. So, I have come up with my own personal list of favorite masked killer horror films. Let it be known that I am eliminating burlap sack masks from this list – not because I don’t like the movies (Trick ‘r Treat is one of my favorites), but because including sack masks would make this a multi-part article! But, let’s give credit to the horror films that have done the burlap sack mask proud: The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Trick ‘r Treat and Friday the 13th.
That’s right, I am not including Jason Vorhees on this list, only because his iconic hockey mask didn’t appear until part 3. Prior to that, his mother was the killer (while Jason himself only made a brief appearance at the end of the first film, unmasked), and in Part 2, he wore a burlap sack.
Let’s start with the Grandaddy of them all: Halloween. Not only did little Michael Myers wear a clown mask while slaughtering his sister Judith, that mask has show up in every Halloween film since. And while Michael was not in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, that whole dang movie was about evil masks!
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre preceded Halloween by 4 years, so maybe we should have talked about it first. Inspired by the story of serial killer Ed Gein, TCM featured a murderous family of cannibals. Chief among them was Leatherface, whose mask was actually the face of one of his victims. Although it was not an especially gory horror movie, it was 100% gritty and terrifying.
Scream revitalized slasher horror films when it released in 1996. It was modern, funny/scary, self-aware, and it featured its killer wearing a mask inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” The killers in each sequel have sported the same mask, since dubbed “Ghostface”, making it a horror icon.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon was a different kind of masked-killer horror movie. Filmed as a mockumentary/black comedy horror flick, it was basically a love letter to slasher films. The premise is that a film crew is documenting the attempts of a would-be serial killer to join the ranks of notorious murderers. Leslie Vernon, of course, wears a mask.
The Final Girls is a lesser-know movie, which is a shame, because it is fantastic. Through happenstance, Max steps into an iconic 80s horror film that actually starred her late mother. She tries desperately to keep her mother’s character from being killed by the masked killer. Alternately funny, scary and very emotional, The Final Girls is definitely one worth watching.
Hush was an earlier film of Mike Flanagan’s (The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep). This one was not by any means a comedy; in true Flanagan style, it was dark and very scary. Maddie is a deaf-mute writer who lives in an isolated house in the woods. One night, a creepy killer stalks her in her own home, while wearing a spooky white mask.
Happy Death Day is another black comedy slasher (and an exceptionally clever one at that). In it, college student Tree is stuck in a Groundhog Day-type time loop, as she is killed over and over again by a murderer wearing a mask. On its own, the mask isn’t scary, it’s the somewhat goofy face of a baby. But when worn by a stalker, it becomes terrifying.
I chose to include The Strangers on this list, because even though the ringleader of the killers wears a sack mask, his female cohorts wear standard masks (they are known as Dollface and Pin-Up Girl). There is little to no comedy in this pitch black home invasion film, in which the response to “Why are you doing this?” is the chilling answer: “Because you were home.”
The Purge (and its sequels) presented a bleak rendition of the US in the future, where one night each year is put aside for “The Purge.” On this night, all crime is permissible, including murder. Participants go on a killing spree, often wearing masks, and non-participants try to make their homes impervious to the marauding killers.
Haunt is one of my personal favorite sub-genre horror films, the Halloween haunt gone very wrong. It’s a familiar premise, a group of friends visiting an out-of-the-way Halloween haunted house attraction, where the fun ends quickly. It becomes evident that the “scareactors” (who wear masks) in this haunt don’t intend on letting the guests out alive.
Boy, creating this list made me want to watch some great masked killer horror films before Halloween hits!