April 2, 2011

"Put the Mask on NOW!"

The Mask (1961)

I recently had a spirited discussion with my stepson about Inception (2010). Like many IMDb users, he thought it was the stand-out movie in a fairly mediocre set of best picture Oscar nominees. He was wowed by the special effects and impressed by the story's complexity. While conceding the mastery of its visual design, I told him I was somewhat put-off by the cold, analytical nature of the whole thing. The characters are mostly arrogant, grim, and unlikable. The movie and its protagonists move along like a computer program from one visual set piece to the next with not even a smidgeon of humor or humanity to offset the relentless, oppressive atmosphere. But perhaps the movie's worst failing for me is its treatment of dreams. In Inception's universe, dreams, like real life, obey physical laws that can be managed if you only know the rules. They're just another tool for some "Impossible Dream Missions" team to exploit in a dog-eat-dog world. Yuck! In my universe, dreams are fascinating because they don't follow any discernible rules, and you never know what to expect when your head hits the pillow. And they can't be managed by grim technocrats.  If you want to see the latest tech effects wizardry applied to some imaginative concepts, i.e., the city of Paris folding in on itself, then see Inception. But there are other, older movies out there that do a much better job of capturing the awe and mystery of dreams (and the horror of nightmares) with a fraction of a fraction of Inception's budget.

The Mask, made for around $250,000, does a damn good job of spooking the viewer with visions that seem like a mad blending of Salvador Dali, Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft. One of its alternate titles describes it succinctly: The Spooky Movie Show (I can just imagine an ad man furiously jotting down the reactions of wide-eyed kids as they exited the theater and voila! -- coming up with that gem). The Mask's wild visions/dreams/nightmares definitely do not follow any discernible rules, and they most certainly are beyond any human control. Mask does share one theme with Inception-- it too has a self-confident professional who is fascinated by the power of the dream visions, and who thinks he can ultimately understand and harness them. Predictably, this arrogance and overconfidence very quickly leads to his undoing. There are no dream "architects" here-- just hapless humans in thrall to ancient, evil forces beyond their comprehension.

In good "Screenwriting 101" fashion, the movie starts out with action and suspense -- in the dead of night, a terrified woman is pursued by a pale, hypnotized-looking man. He catches her and starts to strangle her. In the struggle, she rakes the side of his face with her fingernails. Cut to an office in mid-day, where young archaeologist Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), scratches on his face, is trying to tell psychiatrist Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) that he is trapped in a "living nightmare." He's certain he's being hypnotized by an ancient South American ceremonial mask recently acquired by his museum-- and it's commanding him to do horrible things. Like all good, rational doctors, Barnes tries to calm Michael down, reassuring him that the horrors are not real, but rather creations of his mind. Frustrated that Barnes doesn't believe him and can't possibly help, Michael storms out.

The desperate Michael packs up the evil artifact and mails it to Barnes. Mission accomplished, he shoots himself. The police are called in, and in spite of the obvious physical evidence of suicide, Lt. Martin (Bill Walker) senses something else going on, and sets out to investigate further. He starts at Radin's museum, where the director fills him in on the legend of the ceremonial mask-- how it was connected with human sacrifice, and how it can put its wearer into a trance and get him/her to do unspeakable things. Martin moves on to the psychiatrist, who was one of the last people to see Radin alive. In a nice Hitchcock-like touch, Detective Martin interviews the doctor with the unopened box containing the mask right there in plain view on his desk.

After the interview, Barnes opens the box and stares at the key to his patient's suicide. The package also comes with a letter from Michael --  a disturbing testament to the Mask's evil power, and a kind of mocking challenge to the skeptical doctor to see for himself (see the clip below). Michael's words from beyond the grave turn into a forceful command -- "Put the mask on NOW!"  -- and we realize that it's now the Mask itself that is speaking.  Barnes of course heeds the command, and we're off to the races -- the command is also the audience's cue to put on their 3-D glasses (in my case, a pair of the classic anaglyph red-blue glasses that came with the DVD).

The Mask breathes fire at the viewer.
The nightmarish world that we and Barnes experience is shot in 3-D, while the "real" world is shot in flat, washed-out black and white. The irony -- surely intentional? -- is that the nightmares seem more real (or at least more solid) to the viewer. Disembodied eyeballs fly out of the screen; a giant skull breathes fire into the viewer's face; severed hands clutch at the air -- and meanwhile in the supposedly real world, worried "flat-landers" scurry around, trying to make sense of it all. Interestingly, almost all of  the denizens of the Mask's hellish world themselves wear masks. A mute, youngish (?) man with a Beatles haircut and outfitted with a mask and tattered, shredded clothes wanders through all of the dream sequences, bouncing like a hypnotized ping-pong ball from one horror to another. He seems to represent the ego (or perhaps the subconscious) of the person wearing the mask (Barnes).

Rather than being horrified and repulsed after his initial trip into the Mask's world, a flushed and enthusiastic Barnes declares to his girlfriend Pam (Claudette Nevins) that "there's much to be learned here, of man's most secret mind, of a world that exists even deeper than the subconscious!"  Pam responds: "I only see that it's ugly and cruel." Like a powerful narcotic, the Mask has hooked the overconfident doctor, who, as a trained psychiatrist, thinks he can handle it. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the viewer), he's dead wrong, and as a result, an increasingly obsessed, manic Barnes takes repeated trips into the hellish dreamworld. Meanwhile, Pam and Barnes' mentor Prof. Quincey (Norman Ettlinger) become increasingly worried, and take desperate measures to wean him from the evil thing. Also closing in on Barnes is the dogged Lt. Martin, who begins to understand that the young archaeologist's suicide was not the end of the Mask's malign influence. As the film builds to its climax, the nightmare sequences become even more bizarre and horrifying. The burning question: is there enough of Barnes' rational brain left to resist the Mask, or will he too succumb to murder and suicide?

Beware the hypnotic "eyes of light"!
From the user reviews I've read on IMDb and elsewhere, the consensus among the small group of dedicated horror fans who've managed to watch it recently is that while the dream sequences are quirky and interesting, the rest of it is dull, and the acting is average to poor. This seems to me way too harsh, and is probably due to the tendency of many to judge yesterday's films by today's standards. While it may not be a forgotten masterpiece, all aspects of Mask's production are at least competent, and the eerily imaginative dream sequences are as unique as anything I've seen in commercial film (with the exception of Eraserhead). Slavko Vorkapich (gotta love that name!) is credited with the surreal sequences, but the IMDb trivia section for the film quotes an article in Filmfax (#25) as saying that Slavko's concepts were judged too expensive to execute, and that director Julian Roffman did much of the work himself. (Vorkapich's resume includes a number of "montages" and "montage effects" for films in the 1930's and '40s.)

Canadian Julian Roffman directed only one other film, The Bloody Brood (1959), a "juvenile-delinquents-gone-wrong" B movie starring Peter Falk in the early phase of his career. He also wrote and produced; a producer credit that horror buffs might recognize is The Pyx (1973) starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer. That one is about a detective who uncovers evidence of a murderous devil cult while investigating the death of a prostitute.

Despite the IMDb user consensus, I think the acting ranges from average to quite good. Paul Stevens (Dr. Barnes) is a very recognizable face to anyone who watched a lot of TV (like me) in the 1960s and '70s. He is very good as the overconfident scientist who thinks he can handle and even learn from the evil power of the mask. Claudette Nevins is also quite good as the girlfriend trying to save Barnes from himself and the malevolent artifact. And Norman Ettlinger is very believable as Barnes' mentor Prof. Quincy, who, with Pam, intervenes to try to get Barnes off this otherworldly "drug."

I first saw The Mask in the late 1960s (or thereabouts). A local TV station teamed up with the area's Burger Chef restaurants to distribute 3-D glasses for their upcoming broadcast. While I was disappointed then with the 3-D effects -- as you might expect, cheap glasses combined with an old, slightly fuzzy TV does not work that well --  I was still intrigued by it. Seeing it again recently (this time on DVD, a flat screen TV, and… the same old cheap glasses), I was struck by how well it held up after all that time, even with primitive anaglyph 3-D effects. The Mask is available in a couple of DVD editions. If any of the above sounds interesting, I urge you to see for yourself… and "put the Mask on NOW!"

"Get ready... Steel your nerves... and put the Mask on NOW!"

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