Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Mask (1961)

The Mask is a very obscure 1961 movie that has the distinction of being probably Canada’s first home-grown horror movie. It’s also notable for being at the tail end of the original 3-D fad.

A young man named Michael Radin working at the Museum of Ancient History takes a 3,000-year-old American Indian ritual mask home with him. He dons the mask and instantly starts to experience a kind of bad acid trip. In his dream, or hallucination, he stalks and kills a young woman. When he wakes up he has claw marks on his face. Is this really a dream? And even if it is a dream, is the dream coming from his own subconscious or from the mask itself?

Radin consults a psychiatrist. Dr Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) thinks that Radin is just a routine neurotic acting out his subconscious fantasies. Radin is so upset, and so angry at Dr Barnes, that he promptly goes home and blows his brains out. But before doing that he packs the mask in a cardboard box and mails it to Dr Barnes. Dr Barnes just can’t help himself - he has to try the mask himself. And he’s immediately zapped into acid trip/Indian tribal ritual territory.

Dr Barnes isn’t really sure if his visions are the product of his own mind or if they’re coming from the mask but what he is convinced of is that this represents a major break-through in psychiatry. He is determined to continue experimenting with the mask. But the mask is habit-forming and it causes problems with his girlfriend Pam (Claudette Nevins). Pam persuades him to consult another psychiatrist, a man who was his mentor in his student days. The professor reluctantly agrees to help Dr Barnes with his research on the mask, but only under controlled conditions.

As you might expect those controlled conditions very quickly get out of control. A further problem for Allan Barnes is the police investigation of Michael Radin’s suicide. Lieutenant Martin (Bull Walker) is not sure this was a straightforward suicide.

After experiencing a few forays into dream territory with the mask Dr Barnes starts to take an unhealthy interest in his secretary. It’s an interest that is unhealthy for him but may be considerably more than unhealthy for her.

The Mask was directed by Julian Roffman. It was his second movie as director, and his last. The dream sequences were filmed in 3-D and were done by Serbian-born veteran Hollywood montage editor Slavko Vorkapich. These dream sequences are the movie’s highlight and they’re pretty impressive. The decision to do them in 3-D was perhaps unfortunate as it gave the impression that they were as gimmicky and trivial as 3-D itself. By this time the 3-D fad had well and truly run its course.

The acting is uniformly bad. Since this is a horror movie that doesn’t matter too much. And the bulk of the movie consists of a fairly routine horror movie plot that is really just a framing device for the dream sequences that are the movie’s real raison d'être.

This movie got a theatrical release in the US courtesy of Warner Brothers but sadly it didn’t do well enough to provide a launching pad for director Julian Roffman or for Canadian horror movies.

The DVD release from Cheezy Flicks is quite awful. It’s fullframe and the picture quality is mediocre, and most importantly the transfer very badly fails to do justice to the dream sequences (even if you do wear the 3-D glasses included with the DVD). The movie has also been cut which may be the explanation for the very abrupt ending.

Despite the dreadfulness of the DVD The Mask is still worth seeing and this DVD is probably going to be your only chance to do so. It’s an intriguing precursor to the wave of psychedelic movies that hit movie screens in the mid-60s.

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