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The Mask (Eyes of Hell) | Blu-ray Review

Julian Roffman The MaskAfter a restored print played for the first time at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, Kino Lorber presents Julian Roffman’s 1961 vintage horror film The Mask on 3D Blu-ray. Collectors of vintage 3D technology and classic horror cinema should take note, especially for the film’s expressive, nightmarish sequences. Hailed as ‘psychedlic’ and repackaged as a psychotronic classic, the title is a fun throwback to event cinema.

Owning several notable distinctions, not only was it the first Canadian film widely distributed in the United States, but it was also the only 3D feature from the country to play here, as well as the Canada’s first foray into the genre. It’s the last of only two titles directed by Roffman, who would eventually produce a small handful of films (including the obscure early 70s delight The Pyx).

The Toronto International Film Festival’s sole surviving 35mm print was deemed too brittle after an initial screening, but thanks to a recent collaboration between TIFF and the 3D Film Archive, it’s been restored to former glory and screened as part of the 2015 TIFF Cinematheque program. Though noticeably spare on plot, Roffman’s film does feature a delightful trio of surreal sequences meant to utilize the once cutting edge technology. But its simplicity lends the film a bit of undefined eeriness, avoiding the rampant silliness usually evident in similar B-grade genre offerings from the period.

A doomed archaeologist attempts to convince his psychiatrist Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) that an ancient tribal mask he’s restoring for a museum is causing him murderous nightmares. Except, they aren’t nightmares because the man thinks he’s been out killing women whenever he wears the mask. To Barnes’ detriment, he doesn’t believe his patient, who commits suicide and mails the mask to the analyst. Immediately, Barnes finds himself drawn to the grotesque item, and sees disturbing images when he puts it on. Soon, he’s addicted to wearing it and experiences the same type of ‘nightmares.’

It’s too bad the film wasn’t released under its more provocative alternate title Eyes of Hell, since its subject matter and trajectory would eventually be recycled for the Jerry Lewis styled riff of the famed 1994 Jim Carrey comedy The Mask. Filled with pointed, salty dialogue between its stock characters (“You were my most brilliant student!”), Roffman’s film is really only notable for the sequences where Paul Stevens’ ambitious psychiatrist pretends his continual fascination with the mask is due to his volition in discovering the most secret facets of mankind’s psyche when, in actuality, he’s being controlled by the strange totem. Though it appears to be nothing more than a bejeweled skull, the imagery transforms into solvent, surreal nightmare sequences with imagery that seems undoubtedly influenced by the alabaster mask in Georges Franju’s iconic Eyes Without a Face.

What the psychiatrist is really discovering about his psyche is up to the audience to interpret since these complicated choreographed metaphors don’t directly translate to the misogynistic murders taking place back in the narrative’s reality whenever a man dons the mask. One wonders what visions would have run through secretary Pam’s (Claudette Nevins) head had she given into temptation. Its speculation of mankind’s use of ‘masks,’ including the shifting personas we present to others, calibrated by a myriad of social cues, is interesting, but not explored quite as deftly as it could have been. The dream sequences are quite superb, with a free floating gigantic version of the mask circling mysterious robed figures. Striking and unsettling, these are in direct contrast to the crisp frames of DoP Herbert S. Alpert (his final screen credit) in the film’s ‘normal’ universe.

Although we’ve had countless films constructed around cursed artifacts belonging to mystical indigenous races, The Mask is an odd curio worthy of attention from vintage genre hounds.

Disc Review:

Kino Lorber throws an uncustomary amount of special features into this stereoscopic 3D offering, presented in 1.66:1 with something called ‘Electro-Magic’ Sound (aka optional 5.1 surround sound during 3D sequences). The restored print looks alive and well in this transfer, and the rediscovered item includes audio commentary from film historian Jason Pichonksy, as well as several other extra features. However, please note, the 3D glasses necessary to enjoy these wonders are not included.

Julian Roffman – The Man Behind the Mask:
This twenty-two minute feature explores the career and faded legacy of Roffman, who began as a documentarian. The director’s son as well as film historians comment on his achievements.

3D Sequences in Analglyph format:
Specific instructions for setting up the 3D sequences are included.

The Films of Slavko Vorkapich:
Three shorts made by famed montagist Slavko Vorkapich are also included. “Abstract Experiment in Kodachrome” is a two and a half minute exploration of shapes, colors, and textures while “The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra” is a thirteen minute black and white, heavily stylized experiment. Eleven minutes of montage sequences from Vorkapich’s films are also on hand.

One Night in Hell:
This 2014 short film from James Hall and Jason Jameson is available in 2D and 3D, a seven minute animated feature depicting what its title promises, a glimpse into a night’s activities in the dark pit.

Final Thoughts:

Though its narrative is glaringly simple, The Mask is a fun visual interpretation of the id. Roffman’s creative visuals don’t make up for a lack of sound expertise, but it’s still entertaining.

Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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