Mask, The (1961)

Author: Brett H.
Submitted by: Brett H.   Date : 2008-04-19 12:59

Directed by: Julian Roffman
Written by: Frank Taubes, Sandy Haver and Franklin Delessert
Produced by: Julian Roffman and Nat Taylor

Reviewed by: Brett H.

(NOTE:”Put the mask (3D glasses) on… now!” when viewing the last five screenshots for a better indication of the surreal “Depth Dimension” effects and chilling atmosphere of The Mask.)

“The nightmares come from the mask!”

It took a while, but Canada finally spewed out its first horror film in 1961. At the very least, it’s the first one in recent memory and the first one anyone remembers. In 1913 an 18 minute short film called The Werewolf, which certainly appears to be the earliest lycanthrope film ever made, was released. Based on an old Native legend regarding transformation and vengeance, the only known print of it was destroyed in a fire in the twenties. Fast forward to the sixties and we have The Mask; the first Canadian horror film, the first Canadian film to be widely distributed worldwide, the first Canadian film to make money before production was completed and the first 3-D film to come from the Great White North. One could go on and on regarding the significance of The Mask to the Canadian horror film industry in hindsight, although its success did little to fuel the horror fire at the time. The Canadian powers that be, not to mention the most professional people in the struggling industry, generally believed that films had to be socially relevant or even better, documentaries. Julian Roffman was the king of the documentary hill and somehow was pulled into the world of mainstream films with The Bloody Brood (not a horror film), which created little stir upon release. The Mask would be different, raking in the dough and maintaining a legacy of audience interaction nearly unheard of. Grab that set of 3-D glasses jammed away in your drawer and join me as we see the horrific inner workings of the human mind through the eyes of The Mask!

An archaeological dig has unearthed a South American mask from below the earth’s surface. A great discover is soon an amazing discovery as Michael Radin (Martin Lavut) dons the creepy old veneer and grows extremely violent. After a particularly destructive outburst, Michael turns to Dr. Barnes (Paul Stevens) for advice. Dr. Barnes dismisses this “mask” as something coming from within Michael’s subconscious mind. Not hearing what he wanted to, Michael goes home and takes his own life so as to never see the haunting, surreal and torturous images seen through the eyes of this age-old façade. Before he dies, he mails the mask to Dr. Barnes and leaves him a note in the box. After reading the note, Dr. Barnes hears Michael’s haunting voice telling him to put the mask on, if he dares. With great courage, Dr. Barnes enters a world reflecting his deepest self, his darkest primal urges enveloped in frightening imagery, shadows, fog and death. The mask is an addiction and a possessor, its goal solely to drive he who dons it to murderous madness.

Against the traditional Roffman’s impulses, The Mask leeched onto the 3D craze that literally brought the audience into the movie. A gimmick, maybe, but what set it apart from others in the original onslaught of 3D classics was the significance to the plot and surrealism featured on the celluloid. Movie-goers were treated to a mask which featured tinted lenses in the eyeholes to view the movie through. When the voice of a deceased character cried hauntingly from beyond the grave, “put the mask on… NOW!”, the audience donned their own masks and saw the terrifying imagery that Dr. Barnes experiences, exactly how he sees it. This transcends the realm of any gimmick and adds so much to the film that it is absolutely essential to appreciate the film. Rather than merely exploiting things jumping out at the viewer (which it does), the blur of colors that the 3D glasses add give it a Suspiria like quality that mashes wonderfully with creepy gothic scenery, fog and fire spewing, coffins being rowed by demons on mist, flying eyeballs and more.

The Suspiria on acid colouring does much in terms of adding a weird and even more surreal feel to the 3D sequences, which are without question the best parts of the movie. The places the ancient demonic relic takes those who wear it are from deeper than the subconscious, hypnotizing a man and bringing out evil that lies within. It’s appropriate that the psychedelic visions the mask/3D glasses bring forth are much different than normal vision since where the hallucinations come from aren’t of this world. It’s almost as though the viewer enters a different plane of reality, a horrifying “dementian” if you will. The pain in the ass red/blue hue of a normal 3D movie actually makes sense here and adds to the film as a whole, and that makes all the difference. The normal parts (otherwise known as the plot) of the movie are in normal 2D, and then they bring out the 3D when the shit hits the fan, a great idea since prolonged use of 3D glasses is hard on the eyes. The lone drawback is it takes a moment or two (a mere fifteen minutes of the running time is in 3D) to adjust and appreciate the extra depth the anaglyph 3D offers. A small price to pay to leave the viewing with the pleasure of thrilling 3D and no headache.

Overall, the acting is decent for a low budget flick and the plot is once again adequate, albeit a bit drab in parts. Characters are fine, but the mask is the true star of the show, and it’s very worthy of such a title. It’s fun to see Dr. Barnes warp into a madman because of the mask’s influence and the idea of a place existing in the mind that no other medium could ever expose is intriguing. Along the way it becomes apparent that the mask is being compared to drug addiction and shows the unholy thoughts of animal lust that has to exist somewhere in everyone. Dr. Barnes wants hit after hit of the experience, but as with drugs, the more you do, the more you want… and there is a price to pay to dance with the devil. With crystal meth and other hard drugs seeping their way into poor souls more and more each day, the film is much more cemented in reality now than when it was initially released (something Roffman would surely be pleased about). The music is similar to every other classic era horror you’ve ever seen and works well with the haunting voice telling Dr. Barnes to put the mask on. The shadowy dream plane has much better sound effects, distortion, screams, growls and loud banging, which adds to the gothic surrealism and weirdness. The 2D music is cliché, but effective. The 3D “Electro-Magic Sound!” is awesome.

As far as the country of Canada being represented within the film, it’s not, other than an almost entirely Canadian cast. There’s not really room in the film for a sure-fire setting, The Mask is all about the curious antique, the descent into madness, hallucination and murder. Much like the way Americans perceive Canada as a land of igloos and mullets, The Mask offers a distorted and exaggerated view of reality and is a great little b-horror extravaganza. As crazy as it sounds, little was done in the Canadian film industry to exploit The Mask’s success. As odd as Canadian film history turned out to be, there was a method to everyone’s madness. B-movies had less chance to succeed because of fewer drive-ins in the country, not to mention the cold weather significantly shortening the season. In a way, they would cheapen the serious face of the documentary and real drama based industry, as Canadian snobs would later argue. The tax shelter era brought forth 100% tax breaks, but really ended up financing films no one in America would look at (although there was light at the end of the tunnel).

Admittedly, all of this has its own unique place in Canuck history and as bad as things seem, looking back the industry may have been doomed from the start. From the simple history of the people to the cultural differences, maybe Canada just isn’t meant to have a truly successful film industry. It’s as accurate of a reflection as any on this country, we try to fit in everywhere and in the process end up being one of a kind, just like many of the tremendous b-movies the Canada has grown. Some, like the unreleased Creature of Comfort, never blossomed from the seed. Others like The Mask and Terror Train sprouted from the ground into well loved daisies. Black Christmas and The Brood grew to be tall, strong roses that will never be forgotten in the eyes of horror fans. People like Julian Roffman, David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman were the gardeners with an immaculate eye for detail that proved to be the water keeping these flowers (and in some cases, weeds) alive. For better or for worse, these movies are ours, and this particular film is one of those haunting unknown products of Canada that just begs for a DVD release (in 3D) so the whole world can discover what the select few who have taken the trek down the cold, isolated roads of Maple Leaf Macabre already know; The Mask is one of the best 3D movies ever made! Buy it!

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