Nowadays, the big gimmick at the cinema is 3D. From silly monster movies like I, Frankenstein and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Oscar-bait films such as Gravity and Avatar, seemingly every modern big-budget movie gets a 3D release. Hollywood even trips over itself to re-release hits like Titanic and Jurassic Park in 3D in an effort to squeeze additional revenue out of existing titles. Classic 3D horror films may not have been as slick as modern ones, but they were just as much fun for audiences. As early as the 1950s, 3D could be found wowing theatergoers in films like House of Wax and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Released in 1961, a little Canadian film called The Mask added an interactive element to the technology, simultaneously amazing and horrifying viewers in the process.
The Mask begins with a brilliant architect named Michael Radin (Martin Lavut, who lent his voice talents to the adult animated film Heavy Metal) stumbling in to see his psychiatrist, Doctor Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens from Battle for the Planet of the Apes). Michael complains about suffering from highly realistic nightmares after putting on an ancient mask that he got from a museum at which he works. After speaking with Allan, Michael goes home and commits suicide, but not before sending the mask to Allan. Allan learns that the mask puts its wearer in a hypnotic trance that brings out the evil in them. Nonetheless, Allan puts the mask on and experiences its addictive nightmares first-hand. Allan’s girlfriend, Pam (Claudette Nevins from Tuff Turf), and colleague, Professor Quincey (Pressure Burst’s Norman Ettlinger), work with a policeman named Lieutenant Martin (Drop Dead, Dearest’s Bill Walker) to try and get Allan to destroy the mask, but they may be too late to save him from the same fate that befell Michael Radin.
In true low-budget fashion, The Mask has gone by several different titles since its production. Although The Mask is its original name, and the one by which it is most well-known, it has also been released as Eyes from Hell and The Spooky Picture Show, and it was reissued in the United States as Face of Fire. Directed by Julian Roffman (The Bloody Brood), The Mask is historically significant for a few different reasons. First of all, it is widely considered to be the first feature length horror film to come out of Canada. It is also one of the first Canadian films to have been given a wide release in America. Additionally, it is also believed to be the first Canadian 3D movie. Finally, it had a great William Castle-esque gimmick that proved an ingenious usage of 3D technology.
Without the budget and resources to make a full 3D feature, Julian Roffman made The Mask into a hybrid film. On the surface, it was a typical mystery/horror/sci-fi movie written by Frank Taubes, Sandy Haver, and Franklin Delessert (The Mask being the sole writing credit for all three). However, whenever Allan is about to put on the mask, he hears Michael Radin’s voice beckoning him to “PUT THE MASK ON NOW” over and over. This chant is also a signal for the audience to put on the special 3D glasses that they were given when they entered the theater. The viewer is then treated to a handful of fantastically surreal and cartoonish dream sequences full of horrifying imagery, all being presided over by a giant version of the mask. These sequences only last a few minutes each time and, although they have little to do with the main plot of the film, they are easily the most terrifying sections of the film.
The 3D effects in The Mask are, while primitive by today’s standards, very effective. Of course, it is all anaglyphic 3D, meaning it uses the old red and blue lens glasses, but the simplicity makes the transition from the black-and-white sections of the film to the 3D less jarring. The writing for the dream sequences is credited to Slavki Vorkapich (who did the montage effects in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but his original visions would have been too expensive to produce. So, although Vorkapich is still given credit, the dream sequences were actually designed and conceptualized by Julian Roffman himself. The dream segments are very reminiscent of the climax scenes in The Dunwich Horror or, more recently, the head-trippy areas of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. The 3D portions of The Mask are very hallucinatory and surrealistic, with plenty of frightening imagery. These are the chilling parts of the movie.
While the 3D segments of The Mask really steal the show, they are not the only interesting looking scenes; the entire film is well shot. Aside from the dreams, most of the action takes place in the confines of small rooms, and cinematographer Herb S. Alpert (A Cool Sound from Hell) makes the most of what he is given. He utilizes a lot of cool lighting effects to splash shadows and light across actors’ faces and bodies in creative and controlled ways, giving the film an almost film noir look. Alpert also shows hints of sci-fi and monster movie style with motivated zooms and quick camera movements. The non-3D sections of The Mask may not get as much attention as the dream sequences, but they’re still well done and look great. Herb S. Alpert is an effective visual storyteller.
With all the high-tech and awe-inspiring 3D effects that fill movie theaters today, it’s easy to forget how the technology started. The Mask is a great reminder of a simpler time, when 3D was used to tell a story rather than to distract from it.