October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article celebrating the best masked killers in horror is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Not all horror movie killers wear masks, but the savvy ones with marketing degrees know it’s the best guarantee of building a brand and maybe even kicking off a franchise. While giallos, mysteries, and some slashers use shadows and camera angles to hide the murderer’s face, a mask allows the monster to stand tall and proud in the middle of the frame. We can see them clearly even as we’re not really seeing them at all.
The mask allows for mystery, but more than that, a mask adds an impenetrable layer of the impersonal to a victim’s imminent demise. What expression sits behind the cloth, plastic, or dried human flesh? Are they smiling as they plunge the knife into your neck? Sneering as they burn you alive in your sleeping bag? Drooling as they slice off a limb with their chainsaw? Any of these is terrifying, but not knowing is somehow worse. Because it’s even possible that there’s no expression at all — just blank boredom even as your screams echo, and your heart stops beating.
We here at Film School Rejects have a strict no-mask policy at the office. But the Boo Crew is nothing if not home to dorky rebels, so you better believe we come to weekly meetings behind visages alternating between the frightening and the horrifying. Now keep reading to see who made the cut on our list of the best masked killers, as collectively curated by Chris Coffel (in a clown mask), Brad Gullickson (in a Jack Kirby mask), Meg Shields (in a Slipknot mask), Anna Swanson (in a Cliff Booth mask), Jacob Trussell (in a Tobe Hooper mask), Valerie Ettenhofer (in a ‘Freddy Krueger as the killer television from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors‘ mask), and myself (in a Michael Keaton circa 1983 mask).
10. Tomás from The Orphanage (2007)
Sneaking under the radar like the three-foot wonder that he is, ladies and gentlemen: Tomás. For those who have yet to experience the emotional sucker-punch of J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, Tomás is the potentially imaginary friend of Simón, the adopted son of our heroine Laura. I say “potentially” because Tomás’ existence on this earthly plane is up for debate. But one thing’s for certain: this lil’ man’s mask is absolutely terrifying. Tomás’ face covering looks like Raggedy Ann as imagined by Stephen Gammell. Sure, like many of the mask-wearers on this list, Tomás’ mask/nightmare sack is a terrifying solution to a sympathy-courting problem (a facial deformity). But would Tomás have made some friends if he hadn’t looked like a pint-sized possessed scarecrow? Possibly! Would Tomás having more self-confidence have prevented the stomach-churning series of child deaths that ultimately result in [redacted]? Maybe! We’re not blaming Tomás. But that mask wasn’t doing the poor kid any favors, let’s put it that way. (Meg Shields)
9. The Phantom Killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976/2014)
While the rest of the horror films on this list are fictional tales about made-up monsters, 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based on “the incredible true story” of a series of unsolved murders that occurred in the 1940s. Director Charles B. Pierce absolutely played up that fact in his marketing, and while you’d be hard-pressed to say the film is all that good, there’s no denying the unsettling and creepy vibe that its still-unidentified killer emits. The man wears a cloth sack with crudely cut eye holes, and his attacks are vicious and wholly lacking in mercy as he kills with rage-filled abandon. His basis in reality, coupled with the pure disdain he shows for his victims, makes his anonymity all the more terrifying.
A severely under-appreciated sequel/reboot was released in 2014, bringing back the killer with an entertainingly meta approach. It’s the better film of the two, by far, but both succeed equally in delivering a killer whose appearance is every bit as unnerving as the knowledge of what he’s about to do to you and your date. You know he’s one of the best masked killers as both Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and The Strangers (2008) borrowed his hood to fantastically chilling effect. (Rob Hunter)
8. The Strangers (2008)
While many masked killers are designed for a dramatic and inevitable third-act unmasking, that was never really on the table for the sadists in The Strangers. As the 2008 home invasion flick unfolds, dragging out the torturous all-night stalking of sad couple Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), it becomes clear that, even if we do see the three antagonists without a mask, we wouldn’t know who they were. The film grows more unnerving as it refuses to give in to the narrative urge to give us some kind of flashback or explanation, instead simply relying on the not-insignificant creepiness of its faceless villains.
Though we don’t get their names, the strangers who decide to terrorize a random couple “because [they] were home” do get nicknames in the credits that correspond well with their freaky masks: Dollface has long blonde hair that frames her porcelain-doll-like mask, which features expressive, Disney-fied eyes that are the exact opposite of her monotone voice. Pin-Up Girl wears a similarly pale mask, but her’s evokes a sort of soulless Betty Boop look. Their leader, called simply Man in Mask, covers his face with a truly off-putting fitted sack complete with jagged eye holes. The fact that their most basic backstories are withheld from us makes their distinctive, strange looks all the more petrifying. (Val Ettenhofer)
7. Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1982-2009)
Maybe Jason Voorhees doesn’t top your personal list of the best masked killers, but there’s arguably no mask more iconic than the one he wears across most of the Friday the 13th franchise. Hell, Alice Cooper even wrote a song for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives literally called “The Man Behind the Mask.” Even if you haven’t seen a Jason movie, his mask is still an instantly recognizable symbol of horror that hides a fascinating, tragic character that became an unstoppable killing machine across 10+ films. A reason the mask has become legendary is in part through the simplicity of its design. Similar to other masks on this list, Jason’s is a blank slate we can project onto our own untold horrors. There’s nothing outwardly unnerving about it, but we’re still petrified to find out what is lurking right behind the mask. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Michael Myers from Halloween (1978-2022)
Few horror villains have a look as iconic as Michael Myers and his truly spooky mask. While the mask has changed quite a bit over the years — getting downright silly at times — the original from John Carpenter‘s first film cannot be topped. Michael’s mask is a pale white with wide, hollowed-out black eyes. It resembles that of a human while also looking like something otherworldly. It’s featureless but detailed. And it’s all the work of a production design team forced to work on a tight budget. As the famous story goes, the crew purchased a cheap Captain Kirk mask, spray painted in white, widened the eyes, and teased the hair. And just like that, the Boogeyman was born. (Chris Coffel)
This list of the best masked killers in horror movie history concludes on the next page…
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