Before anyone could say, “Hey, did you see the new classic 3-D Blu-Ray release of…?” I already had my active glasses on, firing up my home theater set-up. The most recent example of this encompassed the Kino Classics/3-D Film Archive rendition of the 1961 fright flick THE MASK.
Any Boomer who ever picked up a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland remembers those incredible surreal stills of giant skull imagery, with ghoulish figures resembling a casting call for Carnival of Souls performing live sacrifices. It was a movie every kid yearned to see, but rarely had the opportunity. True, the Canadian import was briefly released here by Warner Bros., and then again re-issued under the title Eyes from Hell. But, if ya sneezed, ya missed it.
Watching this gem now underlines the fact that the wait to see it properly (in remastered 3-D; the original was anaglyph) was well worth it.
The first Canadian horror film, THE MASK has also been cited as the first Canadian 3-D feature, a claim that needs a bit of tweaking. THE MASK certainly tips its hat to the previous year’s Psycho, and adds supernatural bits to the demented ones. Imagine a Robert Bloch-penned feature-length episode of the 1960 Thriller series, and you get the general idea. I should also mention that actual the first full 3-D Canadian feature, while indeed a horror pic, wasn’t this entry (and didn’t happen until 2012); that honor belongs to a Shaun of the Dead-type gory spoof entitled Dead Before Dawn (it was also notable for being the first 3-D feature directed by a woman: April Mullen).
The plot of THE MASK revolves around the prestigious Museum of Ancient History excavating a rare find that includes a ritual mask. The proceedings are given a sort-of reality check via an introduction by world’s most famous authority on masks; of course, it’s hard to accept these prologues after Criswell’s in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but WTF.
Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), an eager young archeologist/scientist who obviously never saw the Bramwell Fletcher scene in The Mummy, decides to play around with all the artifacts, including donning the hideous front-piece. To cut to the chase, he’s immediately driven insane, prone to stalking hot young women at night through wooded areas. Fortunately (well, not really), he’s in therapy like so many successful early Sixties eggheads, and screams his way into an emergency session with Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens). Natch, the shrink thinks this guy’s nuts (thus, justifying his treatment), and tells him to come back during his appointed time (and, presumably, after he’s washed the blood off his hands and hidden the latest severed head with the others in the fridge).
The young lunatic kills himself, but not before shipping the mask to his disbelieving analyst. This, I should add, provides the impetus for my favorite kind of homicidal spine-tingler – the crazy psychiatrist – ’cause, you guessed it, he can’t resist trying the revolting thing on either, which then immediately takes control of him, body and soul. Furthermore, this sets off the 3-D sequences, as each time a wearer places the loathsome mug on his/her punim, a disembodied voice announces, “Put the mask on NOW!” This originally prompted the audiences to put their glasses on to enjoy the wacked-out psychedelic stereoscopic moments (before psychedelic was even a thing).
Suffice to say, things do not end well.
THE MASK was the brainchild of Julian Roffman, who directed the pic from a creepy screenplay by Frank Taubes, Sandy Haver and Franklin Delessert. No less that Slavko Vorkapich was credited with the Dali-esque 3-D segments; however, due to the budget limitations, his original concepts could not be utilized. Roffman himself revised the freakish moments, but, as Vorkapich’s participation was on a pay-or-play basis, his billing contract had to be upheld regardless if any of his ideas were used or not.
Not to worry, the 3-D is terrific (Roffman loved the process, and enjoyed working with it – automatically making me a big supporter of the director). Psycho references aside, the mask/glasses connection more closely resembles a William Castle gimmick than Hitchcock, but, don’t get me wrong – that ain’t a bad way to go.
The performances (Stevens, Lavut, plus Claudette Nevens, Bill Walker, and Anne Collings), monochrome photography (by Herb Alpert – no not him – but I wish) and music by composer Louis Applebaum (with Electro Magic Sound audio during the 3-D bits in 5.1 surround) all work well together, accentuated by Roffman’s taut direction.
The Blu-Ray of THE MASK (from spectacular 35MM elements) is outstanding, with the 3-D set-pieces knocking ’em out of the ballpark (and seemingly in your lap).
Of course, the great thing about any 3-D Archive Blu-Ray is that one comes to expect a treasure trove of extras. Here again, THE MASK doesn’t disappoint. The supplements are almost as much fun as the movie and comprise an anaglyph presentation of the 3-D scenes as presented in 1961, audio commentary by film historian Jason Pichonsky and trailers and TV spots. There is also a neat montage of montages by Vorkapich, spanning 1928-37 (from Sins of the Fathers to The Firefly) that demonstrate how close to the artist’s vision Roffman was able to get. We also get Vorkapich’s classic 1928 short (codirected with Robert Florey) The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra, in addition to his Abstract Experiment in Kodachrome (1940).
The best supplement is a 20-minute documentary on the director, Julian Roffman: The Man Behind The Mask, which is nothing less than fascinating. While I knew Roffman was a pioneer in the Canadian motion-picture industry, I didn’t realize that he was the force behind 1973’s The Pyx, a Christopher Plummer-Karen Black horror entry he held disdain for, but which, in recent years, has garnered quite a cult following. Best of all you get to see that most desirable prop, the mask itself (and wait’ll you see it in color!)
Finally, there’s a genuinely macabre 2014 short, One Night in Hell, also in 3-D, that perfectly fits in with the program (and also makes an ideal lead-in for collectors who own a 3-D copy of Scorsese’s Hugo).
Bottom line, if you’re a 3-D fan, you can’t afford not to put THE MASK on your to buy list. “Take your wallet out NOW…”
THE MASK. Black and white w/3-D sequences [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA w/5.1 special segments. Kino Classics/3-D Film Archive. CAT # K20173. SRP: $34.95.