When one thinks of a man putting on a strange mask, one that turns him into a dangerous Mr. Hyde like character, most will immediately think of the Jim Carrey movie or the comic it was based on, but Canadian director Julian Roffman was there first with his 1961 movie also called The Mask. Roffman is considered by most as the godfather of genre filmmaking in Canada, and The Mask has the distinction of not only being the first Canadian horror film but also for being the only Canadian 3D feature film as well. Though the film has only three 3D sequences – totaling roughly 14 minutes – they are truly remarkable and are what makes this film the cult classic it is today.
Borrowing from the gimmick master William Castle the film opens with Jim Moran, a popular television personality at the time, informing the audience of the mysterious history and power of The Mask, explaining that when you see someone put on The Mask you would then put on the cardboard mask that was provided to you, “Then you will share in an adventure in the darkest recesses of the human mind.” This is very reminiscent of William Castle’s 13 Ghost which had the audience don “Ghost Viewers” when prompted, and it came out only a year earlier.
After the films infomercial like prologue, we jump right into the action as we see a poor woman being chased by a deranged man. The man is Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), a professor who works at the local museum, and he isn’t chasing this woman in some strange way to get tenure. He had taken a South American mask home to study (Do museums really allow that?) upon donning the mask it had opened his mind, expanding the evilness deep down in his soul, and turned him into a murderous bastard. After brutally murdering the woman Radin goes to see Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), a psychiatrist that Radin hopes can free him from this living nightmare. Barnes is the film’s main character and clearly falls into the category of people that are “Really bad at their jobs” for though he chalks up Radin’s ravings about The Mask to stem from some deep-seated psychological issue, and not from some form of mystical possession, but what he doesn’t do is notify the police. Radin tells him of his dreams of committing murder, and he has the defensive wounds on his face from his last victim, but Barnes puts that down to probably self-inflicted.
A mentally distraught Radin leaves Barnes’s office, goes home, and blows his brains out, but not before packing up The Mask and having his landlady mail it to Barnes. This is certainly a nasty way at getting back out your skeptical shrink. It’s here that the film introduces police detective Martin (Bill Walker) who is investigating Radin’s death to ensure that it was, in fact, a suicide and not murder, and after discovering that Radin had a valuable mask on loan from the museum (Again, really? I know us Canadians are known for politeness but letting someone take a valuable artifact home seems rather odd), and now that it’s missing he amps up his investigation. Barnes tells Martin about his patient’s strange obsession with The Mask but has no idea where it is.
When Detective Martin leaves Barnes opens the package and discovers The Mask, he first tries to get his secretary to stop Martin from leaving, but he’s too late, so he then sits down and reads the packages accompanying note from Radin. The note basically goads Barnes into putting on The Mask, and as Radin knows what is most likely going to happen this quite the “Fuck you for not helping” note from beyond the grave. It’s here that we get out first of three nightmare sequences as a booming voiceover orders us to, “PUT ON THE MASK NOW!” This sequence is as if Salvador Dali had dropped acid while watching Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Ghastly figures in hauntingly tortured death masks parade through one visual nightmare after another, and the 3D effects just add to the otherworldliness of the scene.
The rest of the film’s running time is divided between Detective Martin trying to find The Mask and Barne’s fiancée Pam Albright (Claudette Nevins) and her desperate attempts to get The Mask away from the man she loves. Barnes tries to explain to her the importance of The Mask, how it can further man’s understanding of the psyche like never before, but she clearly sees that he is being driven insane by the damn thing. That Barnes later seduces his secretary and later tries to kill her, kind of bears out Pam’s worries.
Even with just 83 minute run time, some people may find some of the police procedural stuff a bit of a slog, but the acting across the board is fantastic, and those nightmare dreamscapes will most likely haunt long after you’ve turned off your player. With The Mask Julian Roffman brings a visual flair to what could have been just your average thriller, and added to that is the excellent electronic score of “Electro Magic Sound” provided by Myron Schaeffer, which just makes those nightmarish vision even spookier. This is a must-see for fans of the genre and really makes me proud to be a Canadian.
The Mask (1961)
Julian Roffman assembles an exceptional cast to bring us a dark and twisted trip inside the mind of man. The horrifying visions of these nightmarish landscapes are nothing less than brilliant, and the is 3D used to great effect and not just as a gimmick.