everyone perhaps trying to find themselves, trying on “different faces”, as it were.
The 70’s would lead masks into darker territory film wise. Movies like “Beneath The Planet Of The Apes” involved mutants wearing masks and body suits. In 1974, masks in film would take a frightening turn.. In 1974, a trip to Texas changed the face (literally and figuratively) of masked horror.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” pointed film masks in a new directionin a new direction. It was one of the first “Slasher” films; films that often use gratuitous violence to tell the story (interestingly enough, the original “Massacre” has very little visible blood, most is implied-it’s sequels made up in that department, however). “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is said to be influenced by Ed Gein’s story. So was Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Other films were claiming some influence on their story. Contrary to popular belief, TCM is NOT based on an actual Chainsaw murder. This urban legend has been denounced by popular sites such as Snopes.com, and the moderator of the TCM fan site has constantly had to refute this rumour. The “Chainsaw” part of the movie is said to come from the imagination of Tobe Hooper, the director, who wondered absently if turning on a chainsaw in a hardware store would cause a panic. So while the character may have been influenced by Ed Gein’s crimes, there never was a “chainsaw massacre”.
The villain of TCM is a character named “Leather face”. He lives with his brother and father in a house in Texas. When a group of teens comes into town, they go to a house that is next to the family. As the teens go wandering, they run into Leather face, a chainsaw wielding man wearing a mask made of human skin. We discover that the family are in fact cannibals, as we see skeleton based furniture in the house and bodies in the freezer. The teens slowly find their way into the clutches of Leather face and the family, with the final character making a desperate run from freedom after a memorable dinner scene. Leather face actually has 3 masks during the film; his “hunting” face, a “mother” face, and “pretty woman” face, all made of human skin. Leather face would terrorize audiences, and set in motion what would be a bevy of masked killers. This is one of the influences of the Gein story. The masks also pose the question of identity. In the first film, Leather face has 1 “male” mask and two “female” masks. He even comes across as almost motherly while wearing a “mother” mask at one point in the film. He does all his killing with his “male” mask, and sits down to dinner with his “pretty woman” mask. Also, as the story goes on, Leather face comes across as less a villain and more an agent of his dominating family. The importance of who he is beneath the mask is not as important as what he uses the masks to represent.
In 1978, a second masked antagonist entered the cinema, with a Halloween theme no less. “Halloween” was the cinematic debut for Michael Myers. In the film, Michael kills his babysitters as a child on Halloween night. Michael is sent to a reformatory but escapes twenty five years later. He would continually hunt down Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who is revealed to be his sister. Wearing a white mask, he continues to kill those connected to his childhood, and anyone who gets in his way of Strode. What is his motivation? Unlike Leather face, who was dominated by his family, in the original movie he seems to have none, just killing for the sake of killing.
One cannot speak about masks and movies without mentioning another cultural changing film; “Star Wars”. In 1977, George Lucas would release a film that would change a generation. Iconic masks like Darth Vader’s and his Stormtroopers would grab imagination. Sequels followed in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return Of The Jedi”. Only the villains wore the masks, except when the heroes were trying to infiltrate the villains lairs. Even a “side” character in Boba Fett, a bounty hunter, was extremely popular, and is one of the most popular characters in the Star Wars universe; and this is what seemed to bemuse Lucas: people weren’t interested in “plain” Luke. They wanted to be Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Stormtroopers. The most popular hero was Han Solo, more of an anti-hero who shot first and asked questions later.
Coming out of the depression and slowly out of World War 2, colourful masked characters would slowly start to come back to the screens. Movie serials were finding some traction in the theatres, and “Batman and Robin” would star in a 15 part movie serial, the masked duo, along with more of the Lone Ranger, would work their way across the screen. Superheroes originated in cinema as serials back in the 1940’s. As part of a movie going experience, there were several segments to the cinema experience. There was a newsreel, a cartoon, coming attractions and movie serials before the main attraction. The serial was a short film that often had heroes battling villains, and ending in “Cliff-hangers”, often with hero literally hanging off of a cliff. If you wanted to see the conclusion, you had to come back the next week or month and see how the story continued. Heroes like Captain Marvel (1941), Batman and The Phantom (43), Captain America (44) dominated the screen in these films. Wha is interesting to note is that these characters, even though masked, were not feared. The admiring quote “Who was that masked man?” even today implies someone doing good while remaining anonymous. Even the masks the characters wore only covered part of the face-it was important to see part of the face of the hero, they were human, we can identify with them. The mask was a sign of humility, good was the main intention; whoever the person was, their actions were more important than their identity. To me this suggests that during this time, people were more likely to taking things at face value, and not question the motives. The masked hero wants anonymity, nothing more. The idea of masks to “scare” or unnerve people didn’t really enter too much into the equation.
Moving into the fifties, there was turmoil in the comic book industry. Regulatory bodies were imposing censorship on comics that were felt to be too violent. As a result, the serials dwindled, as the comic industry was connected to the serials in regards to income. Serials disappeared from theatres, as did their masks. The fifties were also a time of cultural change. As World War 2 was left in the mirror, there was more optimism, more hope. So why this seeming void of masks in movies? Perhaps a feeling of “nothing to hide” was prevalent. We wouldn’t see masks back on the screen until the 1960’s
The 1960’s were the beginnings of another shift in movie making. Masks at this time were becoming visible again in the theatre. There were a few masked killer films during the 60’s, most of them from Europe. Movies like Mr. Sardonicus, (1961), Onibaba, (1964) and “Les Yeux Sans Visage”; though it wasn’t the killer who wore a mask. A rebirth of sorts took place in 1966. “Batman” was released as a feature film. Based on the campy television series of the same name (which were two-parters, harkening back to the serial days), the campiness carried over to the feature. With odd camera angles, clichéd dialogue and the words “wham!” and “Pow!” filling the screen, the movie was still a hit, comic book heroes were back in the public eye. “The List of Adrian Messenger” has an intriguing use of masks. The main characters play their roles, all wearing masks that disguise their identity. It is only at the end of the film during the credits where the performers unmask to show their true (performer) identities. It wasn’t a superhero movie, but rather a movie that used masks as a way of telling a story. Television’s were tuned to “Mission Impossible”, an almost never ending parade of masks, spies, and plots. We would also see this in “The Second Best Secret Agent In The World” (1965), more espionage about a multi-masking spy hero. The 60’s were a time of cultural change again. There were the Korean and Vietnam wars, the women’s liberation movement was moving forward, a culture trying to find themselves. Perhaps this explains the “multi-masking” movies and television; everyone perhaps trying to find themselves, trying on “different faces”, as it were.