Back in the fall of 2012, a 35mm print of Julian Roffman’s The Mask / aka The Eyes of Hell (1961) was screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the curators made a point of saying this was the first and last time they’d screen the print due to its rarity.
The pre-screening set-up implied a print in a fragile state, but after the show we all agreed it looked pretty damn good. Still, the film was slated for a restoration program, and 3 years later TIFF’s efforts in conjunction with the 3-D Film Archive were shown in a gorgeous DCP that also boasted rich sound.
Most interestingly, they retained the red-blue anaglyph 3D system rather than update it for one of the more popular digital versions. I got the impression the reasoning may have been to retain the film’s fun factor, since audiences are prompted to join the hero and raise their dainty Magic Mystic Masks just before he’s plunged into his own brand of hell.
A month later KINO released separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, and fans could put away the old Elvira VHS tape that featured classic fuzzy 3D TV effects which rarely worked well.
As the extras on KINO’s discs make clear, Roffman lived a remarkable life, moving from the NFB to U.S. productions, then back to Canada where he valiantly attempted to give the puny film industry an adrenaline hit by showing what else could be done outside of government agencies. That uphill battle proved more than tough, and although he succeeded in making Canada’s first feature-length 3D and horror film, not to mention the first feature successfully distributed in the U.S. by a major studio and during the 1960s, Canada’s most financially profitable film, critics weren’t impressed.
Roffman’s career was victimized by that weird Canuckle mentality which permeated snooty critics who felt Canada’s domain was documentaries, not commercial cinema, and they probably felt he was a sell-out, which in 2016, can be reassessed, without any hesitation, as bullshit.
It took more than 50 years, and while a flawed B-movie, The Mask is available to anyone, instead of idling in the vault of a deep catalogue holder who has little interest in exploiting an exploitation title for connoisseurs of gimmicky cheesy fun.
It’s unsurprising it took several independent organizations to collaborate on such a unique title, but as is typical for many older Canadian films, it’s not on a domestic label, so a local distributor has to import it so we can enjoy the rewards that originated in this Toronto-shot movie.
But that’s okay, because we’re used to the peculiar route local films take to get domestic distribution, let alone on Blu. What may have saved the film from oblivion was 3D, because it’s legend lies in having three very long, very trippy sequences, and stereoscopic effects that work really well. These sequences also feature early electronic work by Myron Schaeffer, an experimental composer who created a 35mm tape loop system to create the weird wavering distortion and reverb that makes each sequence so memorable. It’s a wonderful example of early sound design, and while the concept of crafting a sequence that relied on images and sound (read: no dialogue) isn’t new – Rouben Mamoulian’s early sound design in Dr. Jeyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is still very affecting – it wasn’t the norm to devote so much effort for a trippy sequence.
Schaeffer’s work, sandwiched between more traditional score material by Louis Applebaum, is very unique, and was treated to a vinyl release with newly scored 3D music by the experimental group Larva (which I’ll cover in a future review). In cinemas and on Blu, the 5.1 mix stays mono until the 3D sequences, during which Schaeffer’s music surrounds the listener in something dubbed “Electro-Magic Sound.”
I’ve posted a review of KINO’s releases – a comparison between the Blu and DVD contents – with some very critical views on the separation of special features and 3D sequences, and I’ve gathered the two pre-screening intros from 2012 and 2015 in a podcast that’s audio-only on iTunes and Libsyn.
Being a 3D extravanagza, the podcast makes use of some choice Mask sound effects, but those inclined to experience trippier material should check out the visual podcast on YouTube where I used an oscilloscope (intro 2012) and an Atari Video Music gizmo (intro 2015).
Shorter HD excerpts from each intro are gathered in a separate featurette, and highlighted in the making-of blog at Big Head Amusements, with contact info in case you might require audio treated with vintage analogue gear and digital effects for your own unique project.
Lastly, you’ll notice the 2015 intro features Gina Freitag and Andre Loiselle, editors of the University of Toronto Press compendium The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul. The screening that Saturday night was tied to the book launch, with Freitag setting up the book’s contents and contributors (which included Rue Morgue’s James Burrell, Paul Corupe, Andrea Subissati, and myself) and leads into Loiselle’s very witty account of Roffman’s film.
Coming next: Arrow Video’s Gangster VIP set, plus more Twilight Time reviews.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG