Saturday, May 19, 2012

105. THE MASK (1961)

This is a fascinating curio: the second and last film directed by Julian Rothman (who continued to work thereafter as a producer); it was the first Canadian horror film; and also the first Canadian film of any kind to contain anaglyphic 3D sequences.

Obviously made under the gimmick-laden influence of William Castle, it is the story of Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens), the psychiatrist treating Michael (Martin Lavut), a disturbed young man who believes he may have committed murder under the influence of an ancient Aztec mask he stole from a local museum, which has the power of taking the wearer to new depths of awareness while also bringing their propensities for evil to the surface. Just before committing suicide, Michael pays his landlady to mail the mask to Dr. Barnes, who naturally cannot resist putting it on... for the sake of research. It gives him an experience he cannot wait to repeat. When the voice in his head commands "PUT THE MASK ON!", members of the audience were cued to don their 3D glasses, at which point the normal black-and-white cinematography cut to the three-dimensional footage. In the case of this film, the 3D footage consists of surreal fantasy sequences designed by Slavko Vorkapic, set in some kind of nightmare realm. These sequences, three in number, are hard to describe (Barnes becomes a kind of zombie figure moving through foggy, bare-branched dreamscapes, encountering cloaked figures and apparitions of the mask firing fireballs from the palms of its hands) but they are beautifully executed and the 3D quality is surprisingly good, even in a so-so, dumbed-down copy like the one I consulted. The film (later reissued as THE EYES OF HELL, which is how I first saw it at a midnight show in the early 1970s) was originally distributed to US theaters by Warner Bros., whose rights have since lapsed, but the film is certainly deserving of full restoration and a proper DVD/Blu-ray release.

Unlike the Castle films that inspired it, THE MASK has a lot more going for it conceptually than its bag of dimensional tricks. The direction feels a bit lopsided, but the rough edges somehow make the scenes that work, that seem visionary, all the more admirable. The film has a mildly claustrophobic, academic, and appropriately semi-British feel about it, reminiscent of two films actually made later: Sidney Hayers' BURN, WITCH, BURN (NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, produced the same year but released in 1962) and John Krish's UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964). The performances are good, if a bit arch at times, but the dialogue sometimes errs on the wrong side of agonizing when it imagines the way Barnes' romantically interested secretary (Anne Collings) speaks to him. The fourth and last film credited to cinematographer Herbert S. Alpert, THE MASK has terrific atmosphere and the opening scene, which plunges us right into the middle of an attack set in a wooded area, is atmospherically shot and immediately invigorates the film with a FRANKENSTEIN 1970-like charge of adrenalin. For whatever reason, not all of the scenes cut together smoothly, and the ever-adjusted height of the camera's eye line makes the film feel choppier than it might actually be.

Nevertheless, this is a remarkable starting point for Canadian horror cinema and part of the fun of watching it now stems from acknowledging how its imagery has resonated across time, particularly in the work of David Cronenberg. Paul Stevens bears a striking resemblance to Geza Kovacs, who played Martin Sheen's henchman Sonny in THE DEAD ZONE, and his Dr. Allen Barnes is very much in the mold of Cronenberg's later mad scientists, delving into his own internal mysteries for reasons more gratifying to his own narcissism and libido than to society, and Rothman and his screenwriters draw a direct correlative between his increasing dependency on the Mask to drug addiction, which relates the film not only to NAKED LUNCH but to the notion of addictive imagery that underlies VIDEODROME. The Accumicon Helmet worn by Max Renn (James Woods) in that film, which allows him to externalize his internal imagery, seems a direct descendant of the Mask.

Viewed via DVD-R, but a Cheezy Flicks DVD release (taken from the Rhino VHS release, which was cropped to 1.33:1 from the original 1.85:1 ratio) exists.  

No comments:

Post a Comment