THE MASK: "Look into the Eyes of Hell!"

By Dr. Abner Mality

Welcome to our little museum of the glad you could join us! Here you will find many instruments of murder and artworks inspired by lunacy. A superb collection of dark and dismal artifacts awaits your inspection! But I first want to bring your attention to the prize item of the collection.

See that bizarre mask there on the pedestal? The one that looks like a skull with glassy, goggling eyes? The one with the vague Aztec or Mayan look? Quite a fascinatingly ugly thing, isn't it? Look at it...look at those may imagine them looking back at you. And you may just hear a faint, far away voice giving you a stern command. Telling you to PUT...THE MASK ON...NOW!

The Mask we are speaking of was featured prominently in a most unusual and intriguing movie from 1961...a movie simply called "The Mask", although it was also known as "The Eyes of Hell" and even "The Spooky Movie Show". That movie has the distinction of being the first true horror film ever made in Canada. And it was also one of the most effective uses of 3-D ever captured on film. I guarantee if you watch "The Mask", you will never forget it!

I ask you now to accompany me as I look at the strange story of "The Mask" and the many mysteries it conceals. Be warned, though! The hypnotic allure of this weird artifact is said to be extremely dangerous...just ask Dr. Allen Barnes if you doubt me.

"The Mask" is the second of only two films directed by Julian Roffman. It's a shame that there weren't more. His other movie "The Bloody Brood" was something of a cult classic told the story of killer beatniks who forced their victims to eat hamburger cooked with ground glass! A young Peter Falk distinguished himself as the leader of the deadly group. But after "The Bloody Brood", Roffman made his way to Canada, where he was asked to helm an ambitious horror film that would be the first of its kind from the Frozen North. The movie would also be filmed in anaglyphic 3-D.

The 3-D craze was pretty much dead by the time Roffman got to "The Mask". But the script for this movie suggested some very exciting possibilities for 3-D. There were some hallucinatory dream sequences that could be transformed into things that had never been seen or done before. The challenge was too much to pass up and so "The Mask" was born.

The nightmare sequences that characters see when they put on the gruesome mask of the title are the highlight of the film. They are truly mind-blowing and the 3-D enhances the surreal horrors amazingly. These nightmare sequences were mostly the creation of an artist named Slavko Vorkapich. When accompanied by an eerie electronic soundtrack, the "mask" segments are truly macabre and ground-breaking.

"The Mask" is rightfully famous for those excursions into a demented mind, but the rest of the movie also holds up. It is very reminiscent in style to an episode of the "Thriller" TV show hosted by Boris Karloff. Paul Stephens does a great job as the psychologist Allen Barnes who gets sucked into a murderous hell when he dons the mask.

We'll look further at the reception to "The Mask" and the impact it has had later, but first I command you to follow the story of the gruesome object itself. PUT...THE MASK ON...NOW!

It begins in a darkened forest, with a woman fleeing in mortal terror from a blank-faced madman. His pursuit is slow but relentless. After the chase, we see the flash of a knife and hear a scream of fear...

We cut from the grim night-haunted wood to the clean and brightly lit office of Dr. Allen Barnes, psychiatrist, who is currently arguing with his latest patient. With a start, we see it is the same man who was pursuing the woman. He is Michael Radin, professor of archaeology, and he is a deeply troubled person. He feels his mind is being torn apart and he is being driven by murderous impulses. He also seems to resist all the advice and treatment of Dr. Barnes. The therapy session breaks down completely as Radin snarls at Barnes. "You're a fool, doctor...a narrow-minded fool! You could never understand what drives me!" He storms out of the office in a huff, leaving a befuddled Barnes behind.

Radin returns to his dishevelled apartment room and gets in an immediate fight with his landlady, who wishes he would clean his place up once in a while. Radin bullies her into mailing a mysterious package, which she agrees to do once she's been paid. When she leaves, Radin writes a note, plays with a Chinese bobble-head toy and smiles at it....and then pulls a gun and proceeds to blow his brains out.

Dr. Barnes is disturbed to learn of Radin's fate: "It's never easy to lose a patient," he tells his attractive girlfriend Pam when she visits his office. At that precise moment, the package sent by Radin arrives. When Pam leaves, Barnes absently opens the package...and is confronted by THE MASK. It's a repulsive, vaguely goofy looking representation of a skull, with round crystal eyes, a movable jaw and a mosaic-like texture. It resembles something from a Meso-American culture such as the Mayans or the Toltecs. And indeed,  that is where Radin discovered it on one of his trips to South America. Barnes believed that Radin merely transferred his own buried phobias and neuroses onto the mask. But as he stares at the ugly thing, he hears Radin's voice commanding PUT...THE MASK ON...NOW!

Giving in to the impulse, Barnes puts the mask on. And now the fun really begins, as he is plunged into a surreal hell of nightmarish visions. As Barnes puts the mask on, patrons in the theater watching the movie put on their own 3-D glasses so they could sample all the horror of The Mask's diabolical world. They weren't disappointed! Few movies ever made better or more imaginative use of 3-D than this!

We are thrust into a swirling vortex where the giant skull of the Mask zooms into view. Eyeballs blast ouf of the mask and practically into our lap! We get pulled down the vortex and emerge in a creepy, fog-shrouded realm. A ragged zombie-like figure is seen. Is this meant to be Barnes? The ghoulish being has a mask-like face of its own with staring eyes and practically no mouth. It staggers through decayed ruins in a psychedelic landscape. Hands reach out of the mist to clutch and writhe. On the soundtrack is a disturbing sequence of electronic shrieks and tones...perfect accompaniment to a nightmare.

Our zombie sees a group of fearsome robed characters taking a lovely female ghoul wearing her own expressionless mask to an altar. Snakes strike and lunge towards the ghoul, who cringes from them. One macabre scene follows another as the robed priests, their own faces decayed and sinister, back off. The ghoul approaches the altar and prepares to kiss the female zombie. But beneath her mask lies another skull, as the giant visage of The Mask zooms into view and leers, causing the ghoul to fall into a bottomless pit...

Barnes awakens in a stupor in his office and pulls The Mask off. Now the master psychologist understands what Radin was talking about. And he now feels his own dark impulses taking over. The acting of Paul Stephens in this scene is superlative.

The first thing Barnes does is put the moves on his hot secretary (who may or may not be the Girl Ghoul in the dream sequences) despite the fact he's already got a girlfriend. He takes her for a little drive and comes very close to doing her in. But he's not quite that far gone yet. Pam can already detect a strong change in him and she immediately knows the Mask is no good. But her pleading goes for naught, as Barnes again hears the voice commanding him to PUT...THE MASK ON...NOW!

We return to the ghastly 3-D world of The Ghoul. But this time things are more intense and brutal. His guide is a hooded figure who reveals a ruined face with an eyeball dangling on his cheek. This looks to me like Radin, but with the 3-D effects and the make-up it's hard to tell. Even more menacing is a gigantic figure wearing The Mask who shoots bolts of fire from his hands and breathes flame! This scene is awesome to watch in 3-D, as the fireballs look like  they are flying right at you! Again the Ghoul is pursuing the Girl Ghoul, who is being carried away by the Evil Priests. It is certain they mean to sacrifice her. The Ghoul staggers towards them...but again, Barnes awakens from his spell!

His mind is falling apart, just like Radin's, but he cannot resist the awful lure of The Mask. Pam astutely makes the connection between The Mask and drug addiction. "I can't stop, " moans Barnes. "I don't want do!". Pam tearfully tells him "Will you keep going deeper and deeper into it, Allen? Until you finally die?" Like a true addict, Barnes can't resist The Mask. He decides to pay a desperate visit to his own mentor, Dr. Quincy, to see if he can help.

Ironically, Quincy reacts to Barnes in much the same way Barnes reacted to Radin...he thinks The Mask has no power and everything is in Barnes' mind. But after extreme prodding from Barnes, he will help Allen on one condition....that he puts The Mask on only in controlled situations and only with Quincy present. Barnes eagerly agrees.

But the power of The Mask is irresistable. Barnes gives in to his addiction once more and puts the cursed thing on. And once again, The Ghoul tumbles into his hellish fog-shrouded world. This time he is a passenger in a floating coffin, piloted through a sea of mist by the Evil Priest with the blasted eyeball. Clutching hands threaten from all sides. The giant robed figure wearing the Mask again appears and belches flame. But this time The Ghoul finds the courage to fight past the obstacles in his way. His goal is the altar where the Girl Ghoul lies. After dispatching the Priests, the Ghoul embraces his heart's desire at last. It is death!

Barnes awakens from his latest trance. This time he has gone beyond rescue and sanity. He leaves his bedroom and sees Pam coming to meet him. In his eyes, she already sees what he plans to do. Barnes has become Radin...and who knows how many others before him? As he stalks the woman he loves with murder on his mind, Barnes explains: "I must experience the greatest thrill any human being can take another life!"

Will Barnes complete his sinister task? What fate awaits The Mask itself? If you think I'm going to tell you here, you're nuts!

Despite its memorable dream sequences and brilliant use of 3-D, "The Mask" didn't make much of an impact upon its release...financially, at least. It was renamed and repackaged on the drive-in circuit a few times in the 60's, usually as "The Eyes of Hell". It lingered in the subconscious of those who had seen it. Many forgot about the "normal" parts of the film but recalled the "Ghoul" sequences and The Mask itself. Apparently the film's failure had a major impact on director Roffmann...he never directed another film. Paul Stephens went on to star in the American soap opera "One Life To Live" and TV shows like "The Streets of San Francisco". Claudette Nevins, who played Pam, was also active in soaps and TV shows. As for the rest of the cast, they faded back into obscurity.

In the 1980's, "The Mask" had a huge revival when it was shown in 3-D on TV in major markets across the country. That is where I first experienced it. There was huge hype to buy 3-D glasses (usually cheap paper ones) at 7-11's and similar markets around the country. By the time the movie was aired, the hype had reached a frenzy! The first time I saw the movie, I was blown away! 3-D is something notoriously difficult to do on TV...a similar showing of "Revenge of The Creature" in 3-D the year before was not that successful...but the anaglyphic method used to film "The Mask" made it extremely effective when televised.

But it wasn't just the novelty of snakes and fireballs zooming out of the TV that impressed me, but the imaginative surrealism of the Ghoul sequences. The staging, the costuming, the soundtrack, the direction...all were top notch and unforgettable. Even the jerky movements of the Ghoul were like something out of Japanese Kabuki theater. A gigantic clawed hand with torches as fingernails was a particularly impressive prop. And the symbolism! What did it all mean? Obviously The Ghoul is supposed to be whoever puts The Mask on. The Girl seems to be Death herself, zealously guarded by Priests. When the Ghoul fights his way past all the Priests and monsters to embrace the Girl, is he really fighting all the chains of morality to embrace murder? That's one way of looking at it. But perhaps the interpretation varies according to the mind of each person who wears The Mask.Did Radin see the same thing as Barnes? Would YOU see the same thing if YOU put The Mask on?

Some wonder if these sequences could have been inspired by LSD. That might be short-selling the imagination of Slavko Vorpich and those who worked with him. But a few years later, when the Swinging 60's REALLY started to take hold, movies like "The Trip" and "Psych-out" would feature much of the same imagery as "The Mask". Seems our ltttle Candian horror film may have been ahead of the curve...

Everybody seems to get a kick out of the Ghoul sequences, to the detriment of the rest of the film. I've seen the non-surreal parts lambasted as "boring" and "badly acted". I don't what movie they were watching, but it wasn't the one I did. Paul Stephens is fantastic as Barnes. To me, the film is competently directed and acted in all aspects. But it's true, the hellish netherworld of The Mask is the real star here.

That 80's TV revival was key in implanting memories of "The Mask" in a new generation of fans, but after that brief heyday, things got quiet again. Good quality DVD versions of the movie are very hard to find. Avoid the DVD put out by a company called "Cheezy Flicks" at all costs. As the name of the company indicates, they don't care about the product. In fact, they seem to be a DVD-R bootleg company that somehow is able to sell on Amazon and the like. However, you can find the movie on Youtube. Problem there is, the 3-D does not come across that well at all.

Will someone please rescue "The Mask" and do a decent DVD or Blu-Ray release with the wonder of anaglyph 3-D intact? This movie deserves to be seen and appreciated in all its glory, just as its creators intended.

Beyond all the bells and whistles of 3-D and weirdo dream sequences, "The Mask" poses universal questions for all of us. Are we all just wearing our own "masks" in everyday life...a thin veneer of respectability and morality? And once that is ripped away, would any of us be any different than Dr. Barnes or Paul Radin? Which "mask" is the most dangerous?

Questions to ponder, as you PUT...THE MASK ON...NOW!!!