The Mask (1961), reportedly Canada’s first horror movie (and first 3-D feature, and first feature distributed by a major studio), is a real oddity, professionally-made and reasonably polished for a relatively low-budget movie, but otherwise quite different in look and tone from Hollywood product. Rather like the made-in-Pennsylvania The Blob (1958) and 4-D Man (1959), it’s ambitious and a bit more intelligent than most exploitation films of its era.
And it’s certainly different in one respect: nearly 15 minutes of its 83-minute running time are in 3-D. The 1952-1955 craze for 3-D was pretty much kaput by 1961; distributed by Warner Bros., it and the now totally obscure September Storm (1960), from 20th Century-Fox, were the only major 3-D features released between 1955 and 1966.
One of the nagging myths about classic 3-D movies, completely untrue, was those red-blue glasses moviegoers supposedly had to wear, and the inferior, headache-inducing image they created. In fact nearly all ‘50s 3-D movies employed “polarized” viewers resembling sunglasses. The Mask was a rare exception; originally, for its 3-D sequences, “Magic Mystic Masks,” i.e. red-blue anaglyphic lenses in cardboard frames, created the effect. Unlike nearly all ‘50s 3-D features, which required two separate but synchronized 35mm prints (one for the left eye, one for the right), The Mask could be exhibited in any theater as it used a single print, a major convenience.
Ingeniously though, the folks at 3-D Film Archive, which has done more for classic 3-D on video than all the major labels combined, have gone back to the original left and right 35mm elements to enable picture perfect Blu-ray 3-D. Instead of the slightly blurred red-blue image theatrical audiences saw back in 1961 (and on multiple reissues thereafter), viewers can now enjoy the film’s surreal 3-D scenes in razor sharp, perfectly aligned black-and-white 3-D.
Further, they’ve restored the rarely heard Electro-Magic (surround) sound, remixed for 5.1 surround, enhancing the immersive experience even more.
The plot of The Mask is almost incidental, but moderately effective on its own terms. A deeply troubled patient (Martin Lavut) of psychiatrist Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens) commits suicide, but not before mailing the skeptical shrink an ancient tribal mask at the root of the patient’s psychosis. Inexorably compelled to “put the mask on NOW” (so booms Barnes’s unrecognizable off-screen voice, cueing moviegoers to do likewise), Barnes experiences wildly surreal, proto-psychedelic visions. These 3-D “dream sequences” were supervised by Slavoljub “Slavko” Vorkapić, a Serbian experimental filmmaker who in Hollywood created dynamic montage sequences, usually without credit, for such films as San Francisco (1936), The Good Earth (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) while directing short films of his own. The sequences, while tame by today’s standards, would be extraordinarily silly were they not also so hypnotically effective.
The director of credit was Montréal-born Julian Roffman, who had a minor career as a producer-director. Several of his later films in that former capacity, The Pyx (1973) and The Glove (1979), are available on DVD. Those movies are unusual, too, but generally unmemorable. Beetle browed character actor Stevens is the only actor in the cast viewers are likely to recognize. Prolific but mainly on television, Stevens did have memorable roles in a handful of other pictures, notably Exodus (1960), Patton (1970), and the mostly poor Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). He died in 1986.
The Mask was picked up by Warner Bros. soon after its Canadian premiere and did well enough that New Line Cinema reissued it several times beginning in 1970, sometimes under the title Eyes of Hell. Because it had been intended from the start to be exhibited in anaglyphic format, it didn’t look too terrible when it was broadcast on commercial television in the early 1980s, during the second big wave of 3-D productions and reissues. A subsequent VHS (and, I think, laserdisc) release of The Mask also looked about as good as 3-D could get in those formats. Certainly it was infinitely superior to atrocious 3-D VHS versions of Creature from the Black Lagoon and most other releases of the period.
Nonetheless, the 3-D Film Archive’s 3-D Blu-ray, distributed by Kino, is a revelation. It quite literally far surpasses even the film’s original 1961 bookings by way of its 3-D Blu-ray conversion and looks and sounds great throughout. Though only about one-fifth of the film is in 3-D, the entire show (in 1.66:1 widescreen) has been encoded that way, allowing the viewer to switch back-and-forth between the 2-D “plot” scenes without glasses and the dream sequences with 3-D viewers – without the fuss of needing to constantly adjust one’s monitor.
As an option, the 3-D sequences are also presented in their original anaglyphic format (red-blue 3-D glasses not included), supplemented by useful anaglyphic calibration guide.
Also included is an excellent audio commentary with film historian Jason Pichonsky; “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask,” a very fine 20-minute featurette; four trailers and TV spots; and, best of all, several illustrative (if 2-D) short films by Vorkapić. As a bonus there’s a seven-minute short film by James Hall and Jason Jameson, also in Blu-ray 3-D, One Night in Hell (2014), presented with Dolby ATMOS audio and featuring music by Brian May. Aesthetically it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the presentation, but on its own terms it’s a really fantastic little short.
Once again Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz (among others associated with 3-D Film Archive) have hit it out of the park. Though not a great film by any means, The Mask offers many startlingly good 3-D effects and it’s a rather fascinating, unique film in several respects. Keep ‘em coming, guys!