The Mask (1961)Canadian director Julian Roffman only made 2 films. The Bloody Brood, starring one of my favorite actors Peter Falk about a gang of psychotic beatniks, and dope dealers who actually feed a delivery boy ground up glass so they can watch him die!
Then there’s Roffman’s The Mask which is a oneiric trippy experience. The Mask that looks like a tribal bejeweled skull, enables the wearer to see his own Psyche, much like The Cheaters television episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller. The dream sequences are surreal and quite disturbing for it’s day, just for extra fun, it was originally released in 3D.
And the film’s titles have gone through several incarnations with alternative titles like, Face of Fire, Eyes of Hell and the ridiculous The Spooky Movie Show.
The Mask was scripted by Frank Taubes and Sandy Habner. the film cast is Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins(another busy television actress), Bill Walker, Anne Collings and Martin Lavut.
Paul Stevens (soap opera star from Another World and television shows such as The Streets Of San Fransisco and The Rockford Files) plays psychiatrist Allan Barnes who has primal hallucinations when ever he wears the mask, which becomes like an addiction for him. The mask represents a hunger, to wear the mask and indulge in the hallucinations that create a rapturous psycho sexual urge that lies buried deep in the subconscious part of our minds. When ever these hallucinations occur, the film utilizes the gimmick of 3D to enhance the visual experience for us. The Mask came out after the 50s craze was over, when 3D was causing a stir at movie theaters. The suits in Hollywood realized that 3D was not a powerful enough draw to get people away from the advent of television, so they quickly abandoned it’s novelty.
Psychiatrist Allan Barnes has a patient that is a challenge for him. Michael Radin an archeologist played by Martin Lavut, who works for the Museum of Ancient History. Michael is struggling with horrible nightmares in which he is on a murderous rampage killing women. Radin, doesn’t believe that these are nightmares he’s having, He thinks that he is being taken over while actually committing these crimes, and has no power to stop.
In addition to this notion archeologist Radin thinks that it’s an ancient South American mask that belongs to the Museum that is holding sway over his consciousness.Radin’s theory is that wearing the mask puts the person in a deep trance like state, then causes their most repressed subconscious urges, usually evil ones to become externalized.
As usually it is the case in films of the 50’s and 60’s the idea of an ancient religious artifact representing a primitive and savage culture was very common in various genre films. To portray another culture as “other” was an ethnocentric ritual of Hollywood. The dark deeds of a people other than white America, with no value system in place, and bizarre rituals were expected. And it’s only because a white American donned the evil foreign mask which was a)taboo, and b)made the wearer completely unaccountable for their heinous actions. The characterization of the savage inside us all, being invaded from without, by a foreign influence or idea. A place where dark gods and goddesses reign.
The mask requires blood sacrifices and the person wearing it is forced to commit these murderous rituals. Again, the other underlying theme of the film, is the idea of addiction. The person wearing the mask becomes compelled to wear it, it becomes a compulsion. “I’m like an addict” Radin tells Barnes.
Barnes tries to to convince Radin that the mask has no power over him and that the truth lies in his own mind. Radin becomes infuriated with Barnes and storms out of his office. That night Radin kills himself, but not before he sends the mask to Barnes first.
Barnes is obviously disturbed by the news that his patient has committed suicide, but once he receives the mask he starts to develop a fixation on it. During these times of preoccupation he/we hear a voice that tells him to “Put the mask on now” and so Dr Barnes does it.
Once Barnes wears the mask, the film begins it’s journey into the realm of the three dimensional world.During it’s theatrical release the audience was actually given cardboard copies of the mask with built in 3-D glasses, and when Barnes was told to wear the mask, that was our cue to put the mask on as well.
During the 3-D segments, we are taken to a visually nightmarish landscape, complete with sacrificial altars, ritualistic figures who look like macabre Greek choruses in tattered black robes or players from the theater of the absurd., post modern architecture that mimic ancient Aztec structures or perhaps visions of Hell. Snakes and fireballs would come hurling out of the movie screen at us. Snakes have often represented the sexual, fire often meaning purification which most cultures who’s use of human sacrifices were meant to purify the soul along with being an offering.Does the mask even take us beyond the Id, where women dress in silken black tatters just waiting to embrace us.
In the dream world,there is a man who looks like Barnes in a shredded suit, and Radin who comes in and out of sequence, with one eye horrifically dangling down by his cheek. These segments were very surreal, without much context to them, but were meant to be hallucinatory and primal excursions for the mask wearer and us viewers.
After putting the mask on the first time Barnes is convinced that the mask holds deep secrets into the human Psyche, “Even deeper than the subconscious” Barnes tells us, just like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass taking an LSD acid trip during the 60’s. Perhaps Roffman, Taubes and Habner felt that everyone wears a mask in society, and that only going deeper into the subconscious can we be free to be who we truly are. A bunch of maniacal blood lusting savages. Or maybe it was just darn fun to hurl fireballs at us from the movie screen. Or both are true. It’s definitely a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction. When Barnes says ” I tried to stop, I can’t, I don’t want to” his girlfriend Pam says,”Do you have to take the drug again, Allan?
Barne’s girlfriend Pam Albright played by Claudette Nevins, doesn’t approve of him messing around with something so unnatural, so taboo. But it’s too late, because Barnes has fallen under the spell of the mask and is now compelled to wear it as Radin was.Barnes tells Pam that it orders him to pick it up, so Pam grabs it and plans on returning it to the museum. So that it can remain a relic and not a substance that can be abused.
Barnes steals it back, and the urges become even greater, ultimately he gets the craving to kill his secretary Jill Goodrich played by Anne Collings. This scares Barnes and forces him to confront what’s happening to him, so he calls a colleague of his, Dr Quincy,(Norman Ettlinger). Unfortunately Quincy’s reaction is the same as when Radin came to Barnes. That the mask has no power, that it’s all in Barne’s head. But his friend Dr Quincy is concerned and tells Pam that he’s worried Barnes is headed for a total breakdown.
Barnes wearing the mask once again, starts to pursue his secretary “I must experience the greatest act of the human mind, to take another human life” But girlfriend Pam gets the cops involved and they wind up arresting Barnes and putting him away.
The last sequence of the film shows us that the mask is back at the museum, and of course there is another man gazing at it with fascination like Radin, and Barnes. That the evil events are destined to repeat themselves, because curiosity is the damnation of human nature.
The Mask was certainly original for it’s time. The otherworldly dream sequences had disturbing images that weren’t usual for American made horror films, in particular dealing with drug abuse and repressed sexuality.
Not until later on with the counterculture of the 60s and early 70s with LSD “trip” films like
The Angry Breed 1968 The Trip 1967, Angel Angel Down We Go 1969 and Go Ask Alice 1973
Even back in the days of George Melies with his 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon an iconic piece of film work that blends science fiction with psychedelic aspects that were very ahead of it’s time.
I’m a big fan of The Mask because it really creates a nightmarish experience for it’s actors and us, and is an original contribution to the genre of cult horror films.