Tag Archives: Julian Roffman

CAPSULE: THE MASK (1961)

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AKA Eyes of Hell; Face of Fire

DIRECTED BY: Julian Roffman

FEATURING: Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Martin Lavut

PLOT: A South American mask causes its wearers to have 3D hallucinations when they wear it, and then to strangle women afterwards.

Still from The Mask (1961)

COMMENTS: The Mask is short, weird, good movie covered up by a shoddy B-movie. The premise is simple: a bunch of Canadians wanted to rake a bundle of Canadian dollars by making a 3-D horror film, but the 3-D process itself was expensive, so they didn’t want to shell out cash to make the entire film pop. Therefore, we get three short (four to five minute) scenes set in the third dimension, with a flat, lame wraparound story about a cursed mask that causes its wearer to hallucinate. Whenever the 3-D segments are about to begin, a voice commands the mask’s victim (and the audience) to “put the mask on now!,” and the stereoscopic horror show begins.

Fortunately, the brief hallucination sequences are memorably bizarre and surreal—proto-psychedelic, truth be told. The mosaic Aztec mask appears floating in the air, and turns into a skull with two eyeballs popping out. Later, the eyeballs melt away and snakes crawl from the empty sockets, coming straight at the viewer. A zombie walks through a haunted forest. Hooded and cowled figures flank an altar over which the now-giant mask floats. Pillars spout claws. Charon takes us on a boat ride. The mask shoots fireballs. This dialogue-free stream-of-archetypes is accompanied by one of those noisy period horror/sci-fi scores, full of futury noises, shrieks, and heavy reverb. These scenes are straight-up coolness.

The problem comes with the majority of the movie, a formulaic horror scenario where nothing makes much sense (in a thoughtless way, not a surrealist way). The cursed mask is passed from a young archeologist to his psychiatrist. A contrived chase scene where the psychiatrist’s fiancee wrests the mask away from him and runs off with it, get into a cab, tip the cabbie enough so that he takes the forbidden artifact and hides it in the Natural History museum for her, only for the psychiatrist to walk in and find it in an office almost immediately, burns up about five minutes of screen time. The mask itself doesn’t seem to have given much thought to its end game: it possesses scientists, one at a time, makes them hallucinate and strangle, sure, but what’s it all leading to, really? There has to be more an evil entity could do with its incomparable supernatural powers than gaslight the occasional idiot. There’s a perfunctory attempt to portray the mask an allegory for drug addiction, but the story’s still a yawner.

The soapy acting is only slightly better than the script: the first victim is a poor excuse for a hand-wringing  , the lead cop is solicitous and ineffective, the psychiatrist breathlessly recites silly lines like “I must experience the greatest act of a human mind: to take another life,” and the fiancee leaves no impression whatsoever.

It’s not that the narrative section doesn’t show some directorial talent; the camera swings the angle where a trembling sapling blocks our view of a too-gruesome-for-the-day strangling. In a similar vein, the camera cuts away from a suicide to focus on a nodding  bobblehead. Touches like these imply that Roffman’s talents lay entirely with visual storytelling; he doesn’t have much of a way with actors, dialogue, pacing, or the other elements in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Or, maybe, Roffman (whose only other feature credit is the unremarkable juvenile delinquent B-movie The Bloody Brood) really was a complete hack, and the credit for the movie’s successes should go the art department and to one Slavko Vorkapich, who is credited with “script for the dream sequences.”

This unevenness—boring, senseless exposition wrapped around three relatively brilliant experimental shorts—puts The Mask in an odd category of movies that aren’t all that good, but which you should hunt down anyway. It’s a bucket list movie, but it’s at the bottom of the bucket.

The cardboard red-blue glasses that come with the Kino Blu-ray or DVD worked a treat. The disc even provide a sample image for you to calibrate them. The DVD also includes an audio commentary, twenty minute documentary on Roffman, and a twenty minute 3-D introduction to the film. The Blu-ray includes all the above plus the 2015 3-D animated short “One Night in Hell.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exercise in strangeness, but only in spurts… Surreal horror meets television procedural in the mediocre feature, which carries an abundance of eeriness, encountered through the display of some truly unsettling visuals.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who elaborated that it “incorporates really surreal nightmarish visions throughout the entire film when the ‘mask’ is put on; it’s very strange, especially when the year it was released is put into perspective.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)