BR: Mask, The (1961)

May 16, 2016 | By

Mask1961_BR_sFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  KINO

Region: All

Released:  November 24, 2015

Genre:  Horror / 3D

Synopsis: A psychiatrist becomes as addicted as his recently demised patient, tripping out with an ancient mask, and waking up with murderous desires!

Special Features:  Audio commentary by film historian Jason Pichonsky / Bio Featurette: “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask” (21:56) / Original Theatrical Trailer + 3 reissue Trailers + 2 TV Spots / 3D sequences in anaglyph 3D (16:07) + 3D Set-Up Guide / Gallery of Slavko Vorkapich montages from 1928-1937 (11:09) / 2 Slavko Vorkapich short films: “The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra” (13:34) + “Abstract Experiment in Kodachrome” (2:21) / Bonus 2014 short: “One Night in Hell” (7:23) in flat and Blu-ray 3D with Dolby Atmos.




After being a rather obscure reference as Canada’s first feature-length horror and 3D film, The Mask – not to be confused in any way with the same-titled 1995 Jim Carrey comedy – makes its debut on Blu-ray and DVD via KINO Classics in a special edition that’s a bit of bungle, but I’ll get to that a little later.

The Mask was Julian Roffman’s second attempt at feature film directing, having tried to kick start the Canadian film industry with a cautionary tale of social ills with The Bloody Brood (1959), a film also notable for being Peter Falk’s feature film debut.

As the KINO’s BR’s bonus bio featurette details, Roffman had one helluva career and should be considered a pioneer of the Canadian film industry, but because much of his work wasn’t formally credited – doing newsreels in the U.S., along with TV series – Roffman’s name tends to appear as a curious footnote in our film history, often tied to The Mask which wasn’t easily seen except as a VHS release tied to Elvira’s syndicated series.

The Elvira tape release had the 3D sequences in anaglyph form, but the print was quite poor, but a rare and pretty decent 35mm print resides in the archives at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where it was screened once in 2012 before it was withdrawn for restoration. The 3+ year project done in conjunction with the 3-D Film Archive saved the movie from oblivion, and Roffman’s name too some degree, and as the featurette details, the movie could never have succeed without Roffman’s dogged determination to finish an ambitious project that ran into a multitude of hurdles.

The proposed 3D process from a British maker didn’t work properly, so Roffman figured out a way to create 3D and use elaborate sets with novel effects that go beyond thrusting things at audiences. Perhaps taking a nod from William Castle and his 13 Ghosts (1960), The Mask has similarly timed sequences where audiences would be cued (“Put the mask ON! Put the mask on NOW!”) to raise their dainty little Magic Mystic Masks (that’s the actual name) and experience the awe and horror of 3D.

Where Castle prompted audiences to raise their viewers to see the film’s ‘ghosts’ like the main characters, Roffman crafted three sequences where we are thrust alongside the hero into dreamy immersions of a world of altars, flame-throwing skull-women, giant masks, cobwebs, a moat of hands, a snake, and being tossed into a swirling mass of clouds.

These were Roffman’s own creations even though famed montage expert Slavko Vorkapich is credited for the dream sequences – a contractual obligation for different concepts that were deemed too expensive (lots of bugs, apparently) and ultimately junked before anything was shot.

Roffman also ran into bad luck when visionary electronic composer Myron Schaeffer died early into the scoring stage, leaving National Film Board (NFB) veteran Louis Applebaum to handle the more traditional score pieces, and Schaeffer’s unfinished work to stand on its own in the scored dream sequences.

When The Mask was completed, Warner Bros. picked up the film, and after a successful reissue campaign as Eyes of Hell, Roffman’s trippy shocker reportedly became the most successful Canadian movie of the 1960s with healthy box office grosses and the first Canadian film to be widely distribute in the U.S.

So why didn’t Roffman direct another picture?

He produced a few more – co-producing the Italian AIP import Spy in Your Eye (1965), the draft-dodger drama The Blast (1969) for AIP, the Montreal-shot cult thriller The Pyx (1973), and taking over some directing chores on The Glove (1979) – but there was that nasty stigma among bureaucrats and the documentary establishment in which real Canadian filmmakers shouldn’t make exploitation pictures about cursed masks that make the wearer addicted to the mind-fucks; and it perhaps didn’t help that Roffman’s roots lay in making documentaries, being one of the NFB’s first recruits.

The way one can read Roffman’s career isn’t as a disappointment, but as an industry pioneer and head-butter. The problem lay in the government’s Griersonian blindered view that we should only make documentaries; fiction, especially metaphors about drug abuse using a creepy Mayan mask, were insulting to the country’s cultural makeup.

Roffman’s movie delivers most of the goods on a low, low budget, and what should’ve been an intro into filmmaking and distribution kind of turned into a loss leader, selling the picture and watching other people make a killing, while Roffman’s own producing efforts were stymied by the American-dominated theatre circuits – a problem that lingers today.

As great as the 3D sequences are – they’re tremendous fun – the film gets wobbly around the middle, mostly because the script just doesn’t have enough meat, and there’s a really terrible subplot involving a police investigation which Warner’s cut from their edit to speed things up. The dialogue is weak, and you can tell the handful of actors filling the frame were told to ‘look busy’ using minimal props: a coroner keeps raising and gazing mystically at a chemical bottle while the lead detective plays Basil Exposition, and there’s even a running gag of ‘eating too many donuts.’ (The gag may have been forgivable had the box of baked goods been from Tim Horton’s, but the chain wasn’t founded until 1964.)

There’s an innate goofiness to the dialogue, and the relationship between shrink Dr. Allan Barnes (veteran American actor Paul Stevens) and fiancee Pam Albright (prolific American actress Claudette Nevins, making her film debut) gets precious, especially when Pam pleads with Allan to stop ‘putting on the mask’ because it’s like a drug. A car chase through Toronto’s Forest Hill as Pam ‘returns’ the mask to the museum via taxi is rather clumsy, and there are some unusual edits throughout the film, but there is always a sense Roffman was trying to transcend both his budget and the genre – just not succeeding in glaring spots.

A wrap-up involving Allan’s mentor and efforts to ‘de-tox’ is amusing, while Allan’s relationship with ever-smiling / rather duncey secretary Miss Goodrich (Anne Collings) is both ridiculously contrived and weird.

Besides the 3D sequences, The Mask’s most effective moments come in the first third, where the film begins with a hokey intro (another sequence excised in reissue prints) by a ‘mask expert’ (magician Harry Blackstone, Sr.), and the material in which Allan’s deeply disturbed patient Michael Radin (actor and future director Martin Lavut) tries to convince the good doctor his delusions are leading to murderous deeds (namely the film’s great stalk & strangle opening) which, when Allan dons the mask, he too is close to committing.

It’s a fun B-movie nor worse than its American cousins, and it’s certainly bold for packing in three lengthy 3D sequences and Schaeffer’s avant garde music. CanCon fans and Torontonians will also have some fun trying to pinpoint the locations: parts of Forest Hill, maybe Avenue Road north of Bloor, and the front of a University of Toronto edifice playing the museum’s entrance. (The real and very different interior of the Royal Ontario Museum is also seen, including the giant totem pole in the main stairway.)



The Blu-ray – DVD Cock-Up

There’s no doubt the film restoration is first-rate: the TIFF print in 2012 looked pretty good, but as DVDBeaver’s Gary Tooze detailed in an extract from a correspondence with lead restorationist Bob Furmanek, the final results come from a variety of sources including the TIFF print, a near-pristine 35mm master fine grain and optical track owned by the 3-D Film Archive (who ultimately purchased the film rights in 2008), and discrete 3D elements from the Library of Congress.

The 3D sequences have sharp registration and are extremely atmospheric and fun. The mono sound’s also been augmented in a separate 5.1 track, where the 3D sequences bleed into a dynamic “Electro-Magnetic Sound,” adding to the film’s dips into trippiness. (Those preferring mono can also select a straight mono mix.)

KINO’s release really should’ve been a combo edition, because there are extras that are unique to specific formats – which means you have to buy both if you want all of the extras.

Both discs contain specific 3D versions of the film: the Blu has BR-3D, and the DVD has straight anaglyph 3D and comes with 3D glasses. However, the Blu contains a separate gallery with the 3D sequences in anaglyph 3D, which is pointless because the BR doesn’t come with any anaglyph glasses.

Why not master the Blu with seamless branching that offers the viewer the choice in watching fancier BR-3D or old anaglyph 3D? The BR certainly has room for it, and the film was exhibited in its restored 2015 version in anaglyph 3D.

Secondly: the DVD sort-of ‘replicates’ the experience of watching the film in its 3D-TV broadcast incarnation by including the very rare segments directed by Roffman starring Harry Blackstone Jr. and Gay Blackstone in a series of cheesy magic tricks that formed intro, ad break bumpers, and outro material. Called “Mystic Magic,” these crisply transferred extras (with fuzzy but functional anaglyph 3D) are in a separate gallery. Both the BR and the DVD could’ve been authored with seamless branching to give viewers the option to watch the film in its theatrical and 3D-TV form.

Several cult films were revisited in 3D-TV during the 1980s, such as The Mad Magician (1954), Gorilla at Large (1954), and Hondo (1953), and The Mask made its 3D-TV debut around 1982 when Roffman sold the film rights to 3D Video Corporation. The 3D-TV segments are exclusive to the DVD, whereas the BR contains montages from older title sequences by Slavko Vorkapich. Also added is Vorkapich’s satirical short film The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928), plus Abstract Experiment in Kodachrome, both sporting newly commissioned scores, as derived from KINO’s DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1984-1941.

Where the DVD has one trailer, the BR has four trailers and TV spots, including some bearing the reissue title Eyes of Hell, and some double-billing Eyes of Hell with Roffman’s The Blast (rebranded as Explosion) starring Don Stroud and Dynasty’s Gordon Thomson (!). The Blast was directed by Jules Bricken, a TV director-producer who also produced two notable features, Drango (1957) and John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).

Also unique to the BR is the bonus short One Night in Hell (2014) in BR-3D and flat versions. The animated short features a framing device that replicates 19th century stereoscopic viewers where the central image, resembling an etching, is framed by a slender margin and curved top. The animation is very detailed and beautiful, and follows a rebellious fellow newly sent to Hell, and rather than play orderly in Satan’s small orchestra, he goes wild with his guitar, opting for an electrified solo which endears the skeletal figure to no one. The short ends with a short cameo by its composer, Queen guitarist Brian May. The whole endeavor is presented in Dolby Atmos.

Both DVD and BR share the concise and info-packed bio featurette “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask,” by film historian Jason Pichonsky.

Son Peter Roffman and Rue Morgue contributor and creator Paul Corupe provide the bio material that’s supported by a wealth of stills and rare film clips, including Roffman’s documentary shorts, such as And So They Live (1940), co-directed with John Ferno; the NFB WWII propaganda shorts Up from the Ranks (1943), Battle is Our Business (1943), and The Proudest Girl in the World (1944); and The Warning Shadow (1953) for the American Cancer Society and the short Freedom to Read (1954). Roffman also served as second unit director on the James Cagney classic Captains of the Clouds (1942), but returned to Canada in the 1950s when he was Blacklisted for penning film reviews in The Daily Worker.

Neither BR nor DVD discs comes with a booklet – some info on the restoration (or even better, as a separate featurette) would’ve been edifying, given the details would’ve spotlighted the preservation efforts of both TIFF and the 3-D Film Archive – but each disc contains the same informative commentary by Pichonsky, who covers a fair bit of ground on the actors, the locations, the effects, and Roffman’s directing, producing, and effects chores.

KINO’s release is by no means a disaster, but the DVD and BR releases feel like two halves of a combo edition that was split for SD and HD consumers, and as much as I’m not a fan of combo editions, the wonky separation of extras makes this an intensely frustrating situation for Mask fans, because it mandates double-dipping to get all the extras. (Actually, to enjoy stills and other rare promo materials, visit the 3-D Film Archive’s site.)

I also suspect that while the inclusion of the Vorkapich montages and short films may seem as a nice bonus to showcase the artist whose work was never used in the finished film, the material comes from a 2005 DVD set… which means there was room for the “Mystic Magic” material, making this release feel like a compromise, since the Vorkapich extras come from a KINO set that’s credited at the end of these extras, but is very much out of print.

The BR certainly offers the best sound, image, and dominant extras, but this should’ve been a better coordinated released, since KINO’s already put out other 3-D Film Archive titles, including Gog (1954) and The Bubble (1966).

Also available: Bonus Media + Editor’s Blog on the film’s 2012 + 2015 screenings before / after restoration at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB — Composer Filmographies (IMDB): Louis Applebaum / Myron Schaeffer
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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