There’s only twenty minutes or so of 3-D in The Mask, but there’s more vital invention in those twenty minutes than in the last few years’ worth of 3-D movies, from Gaspar Noé’s comin’-at-ya penises in Love to any of the converted-after-the-fact action-movie junk the studios upcharge for. Julian Roffman’s 1961 film plays at first like many other Hammer-inspired horror cheapies, and nothing in its first scenes betrays its minor exoticism — it is, its creators claim, Canada’s first horror film. The plot is monochrome boilerplate about a psychiatrist haunted by a tribal mask — legend says that it amplifies the evil in the heart of whoever wears it. But the hokum gets elevated into nightmare when the mask comes on — and when we put on our glasses.
Like Intolerance, which opens with an explanation of how audiences should read cross-cutting between scenes, The Mask (playing in a newly restored edition) instructs us as it dazzles: “Put on the mask,” a mad voice insists, just before the movie vaults into its carnivalesque third dimension. Many of its scare tactics are spook-house/fright-flick standbys: Here come fog, skeletons, pyrotechnics, monstrous hands clawing at your eyes, and gaudy sarcophagi that collapse into dust. But the spook-house edges into the art-house, and the familiar — lit with the oranges and blues of last century’s 3-D tech — becomes elusive, devilish, one image of endearingly homemade terror forever dissolving into the next.
The Mask‘s three extended 3-D set pieces are each fresh hellscapes the film tours you through. (The montagist Slavko Vorkapich designed these sequences.) The idea is that it’s you in the mask, your mind running amok, your evil being plumbed up and paraded before you. Settings shift with dream logic so that a shrink’s office becomes a stalactite cave in just a couple of sweaty heartbeats. From the mist, faces appear, stiff yet somewhat familiar — are they characters you’ve already seen, wearing transparent masks themselves? Animated spiders dance in the foreground, and some ancient tomb strobes behind the cowled undead. A skull lunges out at you, something like the logo at the opening of a Looney Tune or Jimmy Stewart’s face in Vertigo‘s freakout.
The photographic trickery keeps topping itself — one of those faces dissolves into a skull in whose dark sockets eyeballs well up — and Stephen Timar’s aggressive editing makes even some primitive effects disorienting. The phallic bulb-heads of some puppeteered snakes suggest the swordplay of Love, especially because it’s hard to get a good look at them. Meanwhile, the papery ghouls who leap up from behind an altar suggest that the kids from the neighborhood have put together their best-ever haunted house. Brooding atop all this is Willard Goodman and Dick Vorisek’s dying-souls soundtrack, relentless in its electric droning and grinding. This is horror that never acknowledges that old-movie assumption that horror’s a laugh, kid stuff. Here it’s a state — a full dimension.
Directed by Julian Roffman
January 15–17, Anthology Film Archives