Have you ever had one of those moments where you recall a scene from a movie you saw as a child but can’t remember what movie the scene came from? It’s just a splinter in your brain of a single scene or image from decades ago, the larger movie or context completely forgotten. I had one of these for many years. I could only remember an image of a woman reclining on a stone wall in front of a giant skull mask. This haunted me for years. Finally, one day while combing through the film section of a bookstore in New York, I found the fantastic book Re/Search: Incredibly Strange Films, which featured this very image on the front cover. A quick check on the index proved this longtime brain splinter of mine was in fact The Mask from 1961.
The Mask is a 1961 Canadian 3D film directed by Julian Roffman. The plot focuses on a young archeologist, Dr. Allen Barnes, who acquires a strange tribal mask. He debates putting the mask on as it is rumored to drive people insane, but the mask convinces him by boomingly demanding “Put on the mask! Put on the Mask!” (which also indicates to viewers to put on their 3D glasses). Once wearing the malicious mask, Barnes experiences psychedelic hallucinations and becomes increasing violent. As the mental trips take a toll on Barnes’ sanity, his violence level quickly escalates. And now you also know where Jim Carrey’s overly-hyper 1994 The Mask gets its plot from.
1961 was just the start of the forth-coming psychedelic drug culture. Filmmakers were taking notice of LSD’s rise to popularity, and by the early sixties trippy set pieces were beginning to have a place in horror films, one of the earliest instances being The Tingler in 1959. But what makes The Mask so fascinating is that it is mostly trippy sequences with the plot just providing a reason for them. Yes, there is a plot, but the time spent in reality is minimal compared to the time the viewer spends in the mind-altered world of the mask. Luckily, these scenes are also in 3D to increase the surreal experience even more. These psychedelic set pieces are not just the lightshow of swirling colors that becomes standard in later drug trip movies. The Mask features strange segments of story-telling featuring amazing sets, costuming, and shocking effective special effects. Some of these scenes are downright freaky! And whereas the “reality” portions of the film saunter along a tad slow, “the mask” segments have energy and a fervor that move at an entirely different pace. And this makes sense because the mask sequences were directed by an entirely different person- Slako Vorkapich.
I was actually shocked to learn that Vorkapich had been the genius behind the mask sequences. Serbian born Vorkapich was a professional montage director in the 1930’s working mostly for MGM and Universal. Yes, there were directors who specialized just in montages (though they are now filed under “editorial department” on IMDB). Since filmmakers were just beginning to understand the capabilities of film as an art form, montages were all the rage, and Vorkapich was considered to be the best of the best when it came to creating them. Horror fans will know his work from the montage transformation scene in 1941’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His opening Furies sequence in 1934’s film Crime Without Passion has become a standard for film schools, and Vorkapcih’s name is regularly dropped by hipster film snobs. By 1961, Vorkapich was pretty much in retirement. So huge kudos to director Julian Roffman for pulling him into The Mask and letting his trippy sequences become the meat of the film.
For years The Mask was only available on VHS, until 2008 when Cheezy Flicks released it to DVD. But I really encourage viewers to try to hunt down a theatrical screening of this one. In Los Angeles, we have an event called "Secret Sixteen" that takes place at the horror industry hang-out Jumpcut Café. Film buff Mike Williamson hosts and screens rare 16mm film prints, and just a few months ago he screened a 3D print of The Mask to a packed house. The 3D looked so brilliant on a big screen! The VHS and DVD both feature the 3D sequences in the dual color anaglyph, but many modern flat-screen TVs struggle with the older technology. It took some serious tweaking of the color scale to get the DVD to work on my new TV set. I also question the transfer quality on the Cheezy flicks DVD release, but it lieu of finding a print screening, the DVD will suffice. Now... PUT ON THE MASK!