We’re all (with some exceptions*) having to learn to live with donning masks for much of our social interactions outside the home – at least for the near future.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Brits have had to wear face protectors, as they’ve been a feature of numerous plagues, two World Wars and most recently The Great Smog of London in 1952, which took up to 12,000 lives in the capital.
In the movies, masks have long been a familiar trope, including Star Wars, The Man in the Iron Mask, Phantom of the Opera, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Silence of the Lambs, The Lone Ranger, Zorro and many others.
With the latest advice on mask-wearing, a selection of movies from the 90s onwards where facial coverings are central to the plot.
With one justifiable exception, I’ll exclude superhero movies, otherwise they’d be little room for anything else.
In order of release:
The Scream Quartet (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime)
Wes Craven rehabilitated himself with both audiences and critics with Scream franchise, a knowing series of horror movies that combined black comedy, genuine scares and meta-musing for slasher film buffs.
As with Pirates of the Caribbean, the novelty of the first picture wore off as the series progressed but they all remain watchable, which is more than you can say about the Depp movies.
Scream is famous for The Ghostface Killer, whose iconic mask has proved invaluable to Halloween partygoers on a budget. A fifth instalment in the franchise is threatened for 2021.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Amazon Prime
Stanley Kubrick’s last picture is something of a Marmite viewing experience for many, even including the director’s fans.
Based on the 1926 novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, the terribly titled Eyes Wide Shut was mistakenly marketed as an ‘erotic thriller’, which really doesn’t do the movie any favours.
It’s a bit of a slog, with a glacial pace and some uneven acting from Tom Cruise, but if you’re in the mood for some rather tame decadence this is the picture for you. The highlight for many fast-forward aficionados being the infamous masked ball orgy.
This little seen slasher from horror legend George A Romero (Night of the Living Dead), stars Jason Flemyng (Pennyworth) as a downtrodden office worker Henry Creedlow, who wakes one morning to find his face transformed into a featureless white mask.
This event convinces Creedlow to follow through on his innermost urges and kill all those who have wronged him over the years. Starting with his wife.
V for Vendetta (2005) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
Another iconic mask which in this case has become associated with street protest, V for Vendetta received a mixed reception, not least from Alan Moore, on whose graphic novel the movie was based. Not altogether surprising, given the author’s public disdain for all film adaptations of his work.
The Guy Fawkes mask sported by a Hugo Weaving (’V’) now has a life of its own, outgrowing a rather average dystopian thriller.
John Hurt plays Adam Sutler, the fascist ruler of the UK, the negative of the actor’s uber-victim Winston Smith in 1984. Sutler faces the anarchist mastermind V and Natalie Portman as his bland protégé Evey who attempt to overthrow his increasingly oppressive regime.
The Strangers (2008) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
A rather unpleasant home invasion picture, with echoes of The Manson Family and Michael Haneke’s sadistic Funny Games (1997), The Stranger pits rural couple Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman against a gang of masked nihilistic killers.
The film was a box office hit, with a take of $82.4m on a budget of just $9m, so some people obviously enjoyed it – and to be fair, they’re a decent number of unexpected jolts which get the adrenaline flowing.
Franklyn (2008) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
A mash-up of Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The City & The City (BBC2, 2018), this parallel worlds science-fantasy stars bland leading man Ryan Phillippe (The Lincoln Lawyer, Cruel Intentions) as a masked vigilante out for justice (what else?).
Gerald McMorrow’s movie achieved a distinctive look on a lowish budget (£6m), and also he managed to rope in the very capable Eva Green to co-star, who has an extensive track record in the genre, with Dark Shadows, Penny Dreadful, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Sin City 2, and The Golden Compass all under her belt.
Watchmen (2009) – Amazon Prime
Although some felt this a far too literal adaptation (with a single glaring omission) of Alan Moore’s (him again) masterpiece, Zach Snyder’s picture has plenty of entertaining elements – if you’re not familiar with the original.
Set in another dystopian future, Watchmen posits a world where Richard Nixon was elected for a further two terms, one in which nuclear war is a distinct possibility.
Masked crime-fighters have been forced to retire, but someone is killing them one by one…
The mask of the diminutive and disturbed vigilante Rorschach is notable for its strangely shifting features that appear to reflect his moods…
Drive (2011) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
Regarded as overrated and pretentious by some, Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Gosling sports a rubber stuntman’s mask for the gruelling climax of the picture.
A top-notch cast includes Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and Albert Brooks.
The Skin I Live In (2011) – available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
From the same year, The Skin I Live In reunited Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar with his frequent collaborator and muse Antonio Banderas. A perverse tale of sexual identity, body-horror and obsession, Banderas stars as a plastic surgeon with an unethical approach to his work. To put it mildly.
The Purge Quartet (2013, 2014, 2016, 2018) -The First Purge (2018) is currently on Netflix, the rest available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime
Surprise, surprise, more dystopian misery in the twisted world of The Purge franchise, where any form of crime is permitted for a single evening each year, which apparently lets off enough steam for the remaining 364.5 days to be largely peaceful. Masks play an important part of the event, with Purgers donning a variety of bizarre disguises, giving a carnival-like element to the carnage.
Mirroring the Scream quartet, there will be a 2021 movie (The Forever Purge). And again, as with Scream, there was the seemingly obligatory TV series spin-off on Amazon Prime.