produced and directed by Julian Roffman
written by Frank Taubes, Sandy Haber, Franklin Delessert
shot by Herbert S. Alpert
scored by Louis Applebaum and Myron Schaeffer, with “Electro Magic Sound” performed, in part, on a Hamograph
acted by Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings, Martin Lavut, Leo Leyden
running time: 83 minutes
screens with: Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures (1922, 8 minutes)
cardboard red/green anaglyphic “masks” provided for three 3-D sequences.
by Bill Stamets
Canadian director Julian Roffman creates a horror film about the perils of peering into the primordial male sub-subconscious in “The Mask.” The 3-D gimmick of this 1961 curiosity is how it cleverly interpolates the audience into the screen mind of a psychiatrist who dons the 3,000-year-old mask.
Shot in Toronto, “The Mask” was restored by the 3-D Film Archive in New York, and re-released this fall at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. For a U.S. re-release back in 1971 it was titled “Eyes of Hell.”
“You will see things never before seen on any screen,” publicist Jim Moran cautions us in the opening square-up. Posing with the jewel-encrusted prop, he continues: “You in this theater are especially privileged to join in seeing the terrifying sights that can only be seen through the mask… Each of you has been given a mask. When you see the mask put on in the picture, you put yours on too.”
The first horror feature made in Canada, “The Mask” not only invites us to participate in an “ancient ritual so unearthly, so terrifying it has been wiped out of the memory of man,” this black-and-white work evokes our primal encounter with cinema itself. “The greatest thrill since you first saw a picture move!” hypes a poster from 1961.
Roffman (also going by Hoffman) starts his psycho-horror tale at night in the woods. A woman screams. Her killer awakes the next morning with three scratches on his face. He’s Michael Radin (Martin Lavut). “It’s like a nightmare,” he yells at his psychiatrist, Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens). “Can’t you understand this is not just another case of neurosis or psychosis? This is a living nightmare.”
Before taking his own life in his rented room, Michael mails the “cursed” mask to Allan’s office. Lieutenant Martin (Bill Walker) is on the case. Doctor Soames (Leo Leyden) at the Museum of Ancient History informs him that his late employee was “a brilliant archaeologist” who was studying this “great archaeological find” after hours.
Roffman reportedly asked the National Institute of Health for a psychiatrist for background. In a 1991 interview in Filmfax magagazine, the director claimed: “In South America and in Africa, the witch doctors rub peyote inside the mask and the heat from their face releases the drug. They go into a tantrum, they have their own visions. So we knew the mask could do this. I researched masks and I found a South American Indian Mask that the tribes had used.”
Allan reads the letter Michael included in the box with the museum’s mask: “Once I was a scholar. Now I am like an animal, fleeing from my own nightmares… Are you certain that just underneath the surface of your own mind there does not lurk a storm and fury waiting– waiting to be released? Are you willing to make the experiment, doctor? You hold the key in your own hand. If you are not afraid, put the mask on now. Put the mask on now! Put the mask on now!! Put the mask on now!!!”
That’s your cue to put on your anaglyphic red/green mask too. “Look through your mask…If you can’t take it…Take it off!” instructs that same poster. This will be the first of three weird 3-D visits to a netherworld of deliriously unclear coordinates.
We see the archaeologist with sunken eyes. He dwells like a ghoul in a zone with much dry ice. Men in masks and robes place women atop sacrificial altars. Funhouse shots startle: eyeballs hurl into the theater, snakes lunge out of eye sockets of skulls, disarmed hands grasp, and fireballs discharge from the palms of officiants.
If this is the point of view of the psychiatrist, what is his late patient doing in the psychiatrist’s subconscious? Or are we experiencing replays of Michael’s memories now embedded in the mask? The camera lens never simulates the eyes of the character wearing the mask and looking through its eye openings. Instead, the mask operates more like Roffman’s camera: it lets us watch a 3D-movie in the 2D-movie. But we never become first-person eyewitnesses to the weirdness, reenact any murderous instincts.
How the mask works mystifies the characters as much as must have the screenwriters. Wearing it is addictive, according to one diagnosis. “The legend states that the mask can hypnotize a man, and bring out the evil in him; bring it out and magnify it,” reports the Lieutenant.
“There’s much to be learned here,” insists Allan, in between his 3-D trips at the beckoning of the mask’s reverb voice. “Man’s most secret mind. Of a world that exists even deeper than the subconscious… The hope of man to know what his mind really is. What he really thinks.” Killing women is what men really, really want to do, reveals “The Mask.” Under the mask’s influence, Allan almost strangles his secretary one night.
“I hold out the knowledge of the universe and you– you spit on it,” Allan rebukes his fiancee Pam Albright (Claudette Nevins) after she resists trying on the mask herself. “Get out of my way.” Then he forces her to put it on. She reports no effect. “The Mask” here implies she lacks a subconscious, or the 3,000 year-old rite admits women only for sacrificial use.
“The Mask” tracks with post-war noir and horror that’s typically disquieted by mind control and the chaos inside our skulls. View at your own risk, per a disclaimer on the 1961 poster: “The management is not responsible for nervous breakdowns!”