THE MASK (1961) Blu-ray
Director: Julian Roffman
Kino Classics

An essential slice of psychotronic ballyhoo cinema, THE MASK is not only the first Canadian-made horror feature film but also the first and only Canadian feature to be made in 3-D (well, partially in 3-D). The newly-restored version of this Canuck cult opus now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Classics.

Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), a young scientist working at the Museum of Ancient History, believes he is cursed after wearing an ancient South American mask that’s property his workplace. Putting the mask on his face causes him to have nightmares about killing women and other nasty doings, and he believes it causes subconscious, evil thoughts to come to the forefront. Michael tells his psychiatrist Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) about these intense problems, but Allan believes that the mask has no power over him, and that all this unpleasantness is in his mind. Since his shrink won’t believe him, Michael sees no other option but to shoot himself in the head, but before doing so, he mails the mask to Allan along with a note. A police lieutenant (Bill Walker, DROP DEAD, DEAREST) comes to Allan’s office to question him about his late patient, but leaves just before it is realized that the package containing the mask is sitting on Allan's desk. Allan puts the mask on and enters into a nightmare world of altar sacrifices and other hellish visions, and like Michael, is inclined to repeated wearings and further hallucinogenic sessions. Allan’s fiancée Pam (Claudette Nevins, DON’T GO TO SLEEP) intervenes, seeing that the mask is causing him to breakdown, and she even grabs the thing and returns it to the museum. Allan of course steals it back, continues to place it on his face and after further subconscious episodes, he preys on his devoted secretary (Anne Collings, AFFAIR WITH A KILLER), growing increasingly insane.

By the time THE MASK was released to theaters, the 3D craze of the 1950s had died down, but there was a new fad (thanks mostly to the cinema of William Castle) of “gimmick” films such as THE TINGLER and 13 GHOSTS, so the timing couldn’t have been better. The publicity shtick here is that audience members were told to “put the mask on NOW!” for three separate sequences, coaxing them to put on special viewers (anaglyphic 3D red and cyan-lensed glasses called the “Magic Mystic Mask”). Like other Castle films of this ilk, as well as ballyhoo pictures like HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, an authority (in this case, an expert on rare masks) comes on screen in a prologue to talk to the audience and introduce them and warn them about the mask in the film (“I wouldn’t put it on for all the wealth of the Indians”), and instructs them when to put on their special viewers.

Shot in Toronto on a miniscule budget using a number of American and English actors in its cast, THE MASK (also known as EYES OF HELL) at times feels and has the appearance of an elongated “Twilight Zone” episode when the non 3D scenes are on display, and this is not a bad thing. The film is actually well-acted and the storyline is simplistic yet engrossing enough, and it artfully uses the notion of putting on the detrimental mask as a metaphor for drug addiction. But it’s the hallucinatory nightmare sequences that give the film its edge. These dialogue-void haunted bits, which run less than 15 minutes collectively, showcase truly imaginative and surrealistic visions of an otherworld Haites, with bizarre landscapes (of the smoke-filled and cavernous kind), human sacrifices, lots of skeletal imagery, protruding serpents, eyeballs and fireballs, and some gruesome looking characters all hiding their actual faces with some kind of macabre concealment. The sets here include a giant woman’s hand with the fingertips doubling as lit candlesticks, and there's a massive replica of the titular mask (a skull-like face fronted with mosaic tiles and the appearance of bulging eyes), and this is all very impressive, comparable with even the most inventively ambitious European horror films of the 1960s. The scripting of these 3D sequences were credited to motion-picture montagist Slavko Vorkapich, though reportedly he had never did any actual work on the film due to a dispute with the director. The electronic music score ("Electro Magic Sound") adds an unearthly feeling to these scenes, at times sounding like something you’d hear in an early 1960s German Krimi movie.

Recently restored from original 35mm elements by TIFF and 3-D Film Archive, THE MASK is presented here on Blu-ray in 2D (flat) and 3D for those who have both 3D televisions and Blu-ray players. We are not able to screen the 3D version since we only have a standard setup at present, but here’s the rundown on the 2D version: it’s presented in 1080p in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The black and white film elements (carrying a Warner Bros logo at the beginning and end, as they distributed the film in the States) look terrific here with deep black levels, crisp whites and excellent grays. Detail is sharp and vivid, and the grain structure also looks filmic and solid throughout. There’s also very little in the way of dirt and debris, so this transfer is head and shoulders above the Rhino VHS version and the Image Entertainment laserdisc edition (both which included the 3D sequences with the anaglyph process). The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track (with an optional 5.1 Surround track for the 3D sequences) and sounds excellent, with clear dialogue and sound effects, and the music also having nice distinctness to it. There are no subtitles options.

As an extra, the 3D scenes (16:07) can be found here in anaglyphic form, though you’ll need to supply your own pair of red/cyan glasses to view them correctly. This is a treat for those without 3D televisions, as the old-fashioned process works nicely for these scenes here, with the sequences having ample depth and separation to them (there’s also a 3D calibration guide so you can adjust your set for maximum anaglyphic separation). “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask” (21:57) is a featurette on the film’s director, who is sort of a legend in the Canadian film industry. It includes interviews with Canuxploitation film historian Paul Corupe and Roffman's son Peter and it essays his background in documentary films and being hired by the National Film Board of Canada, and then making features like THE BLOODY BROOD with Peter Falk and THE MASK (which he wasn’t crazy about the script for) and its very experimental production process (Roffman later produced such exploitation films as EXPLOSION, THE PYX and THE GLOVE). Film historian Jason Pichonsky is on hand for a thorough and informative audio commentary, as he discusses the making of the film and the career of its director, the cast, crew and technical aspects, and he mentions that reissues of the film (as EYES OF HELL) were a cut version, and that what is presented here is indeed complete. A section of films of Slavko Vorkapich are included: “Abstract Experiments in Kodachrome” (2:22), “The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra” (13:37) and a collection of montage sequences (11:09) that he worked on, dating back to 1928. “One Night In Hell” (7:24) is also playable in either 3D or 2D. It’s a short 2014 film written and directed by Jason Jameson and James Hall, and its animated visions of a stereoscopic Hell almost look like a modern-day tribute to George Méliès (the music is by Queen guitarist Brian May, who makes a devilish appearance at the very end). Rounding out the extras are the film’s original theatrical, a reissue theatrical trailer and two TV spots when it was on a double bill with EXPLOSION (60 and 30 seconds). (George R. Reis)