Canada and horror movies go together like snow and maple syrup. You wouldn’t think the combination would be delicious until you try it. Obviously the land of the north is known for spawning David Cronenberg and all his ooey gooey body horror goodness, but the history of Canadian cinema is littered with a horror from Bob Clark’s reign of tax credit terror (Black Christmas, Deranged, Deathdream) to the industry secretly housing most of the Saw franchise and giving Guillermo Del Toro a home away from home over the last five years. Horror movies are very much in our overly polite blood and stretch all the way back to the beginnings of commercial filmmaking in Canada.
Released in 1961, The Mask (aka Eyes Of Hell and a few other titles) was the first feature length Canadian horror film. Commissioned by Cineplex founder Nat Taylor (who needed something to book on his recently installed 3D screens) and directed by NFB veteran Julian Roffman, it’s a strange movie about a psychologist who discovers an ancient haunted mask that gives wearers nightmarish hallucinations and unlocks their murderous impulses. Shot in Toronto on a shoestring budget, The Mask feels rather ahead of its time, delivering startlingly stark murder scenes for the era, a bizarre electronic score, and some truly stunning n’ surreal 3D nightmare sequences. It’s a hokey old timey horror movie with genuine ambition.
Sadly, The Mask fell into obscurity in recent years after a mild cult appreciation on the late night cable TV circuit. That is of course until TIFF came along. Determined to preserve the oddball charms of The Mask for future generations, a TIFF restoration team partnered with the 3-D Film Archive to track down the few remaining prints and restored it to a level likely superior to it’s initial 1961 theatrical release. Just in time for Halloween, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will screen the beautiful restoration of The Mask in glorious anaglyph 3D (that’s the old red + blue style, but don’t worry it works wonderfully given that the cardboard glasses only apply to the hallucination sequences) starting October 23. We recently got a chance to chat with the Lightbox’s director of film programs Jesse Wente about the meticulous process of restoring The Mask as well as the movie’s strange history.
Dork Shelf: First off, I gather TIFF had the best surviving print before the restoration process. What condition it was in?
Jesse Wente: It was no longer showable. We showed the print once in 2011 and it was not in good shape. After we screened it, the team at the film reference library who oversee TIFF’s collection told me that we would never be able to screen it again. Just the act of running the print through the projector was enough to let us know that trying again would be too much.
But what was really surprising about the screening was that it was packed. People showed up with their original 3D glasses from the 60s, it was incredible. When they told me that we couldn’t show the print again, that started the ball rolling in terms of preservation. We wanted to make sure that it could be screened again. I think that’s the goal of any preservation project, to get work back to what the artist intended and then find a way for people to see it. In this day and age that means restoring to digital, so that’s what we ended up doing.
DS: Was it difficult to get people behind the restoration given that it’s a genre movie?
JW: Actually it being a genre film helped. It spoke to a pretty specific audience and we entered into it having shown the film and seen the reaction. We knew the film had a cult status and in today’s world, if you can appeal to specific interest group that helps. To tell you the truth, we did a fundraising campaign that was one of the most successful we’d ever had in the organization. It’s a unique movie. Not only is it a very early commercial English Canadian film, but it’s a horror movie in 3D. The movie itself is a bit of a unicorn. You don’t find something like this that often. So it wasn’t that hard at all to get the buy in. But it was very hard to then restore it. It took us two years to actually do all the work.
DS: Was it difficult just to gather all of the available prints?
JW: That was one of the hardest parts. The film’s had a very fragmented history in terms of rights ownership. There were different titles, it’s also known as Eyes Of Hell in the United States and something else in Europe. So that was a difficult process. The goal was to always get as close as possible to the film that Julian Roffman and Nat Taylor produced back in 1960 and 1961. Of the materials we had, the major issues were in the 3D segments. The materials we had no longer had convergence, so you didn’t really get much of a sense of the 3D. We were put in contact with the 3D Film Archive in New Jersey and luckily they had those materials. Their 3D segments were much better than ours and our non-3D segments were much better than theirs, so we teamed up and collaborated. Together we were able to complete the project in a way we never would have been able to separately and create the most complete version of the film that’s been available since it was released in 1961. It was quite complex, but we’re thrilled with the outcome.
DS: Did you consider remastering in digital 3D or did you always want stick with traditional anaglyph 3D?
JW: That absolutely came up and we had the ability to do it if we wanted. But I think from a preservation standpoint, the goal is to get it to where the artist would have wanted. Unfortunately most of the people involved in the production have passed on, so they couldn’t be involved. But for TIFF, getting the anaglyph 3D right was priority one. When we finally saw it restored, it was the first time I had even seen a version where the 3D worked. To me, you could tell that the artist had designed it for anaglyph 3D with the color bleed and everything else. It actually contributes to the creepiness of those sequences.
DS: Yeah, the colors really add to the hallucinogenic quality of those sequences.
JW: Exactly because it becomes not only a 3D movie, but sort of a color film. I’m very proud that’s what we got to because I think that’s exactly the quality they were trying to create and the thing that we could never see before in the unrestored prints. The idea of updating it to more contemporary 3D process is still very possible. We may do that. We have all the files and everything else we need. But to be honest, all of the requests to show it have been in anaglyph and I think for a lot of people that’s the point of the film.
And the other thing I’d point out is that the movie is constructed in such a way that the audience takes the glasses on and off. That’s part of the movie and it’s different if you have the modern 3D glasses. It’s all part of the experience. That’s one of the things that I love about this movie. It’s produced by Nat Taylor, who is one of the great movie empresarios in Canadian film history. He created Cineplex and had a huge impact on the exhibition of movies. I think taking the glasses on and off in a theater with the rest of the audience is part of the experience. That’s the way to see The Mask. We may remaster the 3D down the road, but for now let’s all experience the movie like it’s 1961 and share the original vision of the work.
DS: What do you know about the origins of the movie? I’m assuming it was financed independently like a Roger Corman or William Castle production of the era.
JW: So, Julian Roffman and Matthew Taylor formed a production company to make The Mask. Taylor had invested a fair amount of money into updating his theaters for 3D and this movie actually came at the end of the first round of 3D movies. 1961 is pretty late for golden age 3D.
DS: Oh yeah, even by the time they did Dial M For Murder in 1954, 3D had pretty much died out.
JW: Exactly. Roffman was really an NFB filmmaker, as were the vast majority directors living in Canada at that point. It was the primary center of both French and English filmmaking in Canada at the time. So I think they did it to create 3D product for Taylor’s theaters. I find that fascinating because we don’t often think of a commercial filmmaking industry in Canada at that time. There really wasn’t one in a homegrown sense. But we tend to divorce that from the legacy of film exhibition in Canada, which is huge and robust. Canada still has a very vibrant movie-going culture, in Toronto especially, on a per capita basis. So there’s a rich legacy and this is movie that was made by two Toronto guys.
Even if we weren’t producing many of our own movies at the time, there was a vibrant movie-going culture. So The Mask is an interesting outlier in that respect. It’s a sort of missing piece of the puzzle or at least one that was out of view. It’s interesting to have that piece back because now there is very a rich history of horror movies in Canada. Obviously a lot of that comes from David Cronenberg, but there is a legacy beyond him and it’s interesting to have this film added to that conversation. Even with Cronenberg, we have always wondered why Canadians are so good at making scary movies. I think having The Mask available helps us see the horror legacy in Canada long before Cronenberg,. I hope that people come to see the movie because I do think it’s every bit as good as the B-movies being made in Hollywood at that time.
DS: The 3D sequences are practically avant guard for that era. Do you know much about the making of those sequences specifically? I gather they were by Slavko Vorkapic, an experimental filmmaker who contributed montage work to some fairly big movies like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. His work here in the 3D sequences is quite extraordinary.
JW: I don’t, actually. Having watched it over and over again, I’m not sure that I can even explain to you what those sequences are about. I’m not sure that we’re even meant to know.
DS: It’s pure surrealism.
JW: Yeah. I’ve had lots of discussions with people who have seen the restoration about what those sequences mean and they vary from more philosophical theories to the suggestion that it’s a vehement anti-drug screed. I know that from a production standpoint, they shot it in and around Toronto. The music was Louis Applebaum was a very successful composer who did a lot of scores for the NFB, like 400 or something like that. It’s a magnificent score.
DS: Yes, and I love that they marketed his score as ‘Electro-Magic Sound.’
(Laughs) Yeah, that was the time when you could be a bit freewheeling with the technical terms. But, in terms of the 3D sequences, I don’t know where they came from. There’s not much to even be researched.
DS: The fact that Applebaum’s music is electronic makes it interesting movie historically since that’s style of score became standard practice in horror movies in the 80s after John Carpenter.
JW: Yeah, I think the score is timeless, in a way. There was extensive work done to the sound which when it comes to film restoration always gets second fiddle attention when it’s actually one of the most difficult elements. If you’re restoring from print, the sound is baked in, so it’s a very complicated technical exercise. But yeah, I think the score is fantastic and brought alive again by the restoration. When you saw the initial print, I certainly wouldn’t have come out talking about the score.
DS: What sort of distribution did The Mask have?
JW: Warner Brothers had it at some point. It had a number of releases and rereleases. It initially came out in 1961 and then was rereleased four or five years later and then it had even another go in the late 60s and early 70s. It did ok. I don’t have box office numbers, but I believe it did what they were hoping for. They made one more horror movie afterwards and that was it. So I don’t think they set the world on fire, but it did ok. It was a much bigger hit in Germany and elsewhere overseas with yet another title. It’s also had a real cult life on those late night horror movie shows hosted by Elvira or someone like that.
DS: You have the mask itself at The Lightbox right now. How’d you get your hands on that? Is it the original?
JW: It’s the original. We actually don’t know how we got it. Over the years things have been donated to TIFF and we think it likely came as part of another collection that TIFF took over. So we have the mask and we have the casting of one of the actor’s face for the mask in the dream sequence. We’ve also got the creepy skeletal gloves from the 3D sequences. Some production budgets, storyboards, stuff like that. All original. That was one of the exciting things about TIFF taking on this project was that we had the print, but we also had all these production materials. The mask as an object is actually stunningly beautiful and creepy. It’s an old school movie prop made with an artist’s hand that’s quite striking to look at. So I think all of that added to our enthusiasm to see the restoration all the way through.
DS: Yeah, I’m not sure if you’ve discussed this at all, but that mask is quite similar to the one in The Mask comic book that the Jim Carrey movie was based on, which is interesting. I find it hard to believe it’s a coincidence.
JW: You know that’s come up a lot and even storyline wise—
DS: It’s close.
JW: They are very close. They are very similar to me. I don’t know how much beyond that I want to comment, but it is interesting to notice how similar they are. We haven’t been able to tie the comic book or the Jim Carrey movie to this picture through research, but it’s not crazy. They have sort of essentially the same story, really. But quite different riffs on the same story.
DS: Are the cardboard mask 3D glasses that you give out at the screenings based on the original design?
JW: Yep. I have an original pair in my office, on my door if you want to know that (laughs). They are exactly the same shape and color. We found a company to fabricate them and I think it’s a nice souvenir. I certainly remember seeing movies with those glasses on, so it’s cool to see them back.
DS: Yeah, it’s a nice throwback to that era of gimmickry in horror movies. In fact, has there ever been a discussion about doing a retrospective of William Castle movies at the Lightbox with all the old theatrical gimmicks?
JW: Well, I think there’s probably liability issues with some of those things now, especially The Tingler.
DS: Yeah, Castle worked in far less litigious times.
JW: I’m not sure about the practicalities involved in doing all of that. I do think The Mask has a bit of a William Castle feel to it. Although, I personally find it more genuinely scary that many movies of it’s ilk and era. It takes the horror more seriously, which is maybe very Canadian about it. It’s not playing around. But yeah, I think a William Castle retrospective would be fun, but I don’t think we’ll be doing any of the Tinger shocks or smell-o-vision or anything like that.
You can purchase tickets for a screening of The Mask here.