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TIFF presents THE MASK (1961)


Written by Frank Taubes, Sandy Haver and Franklin Delessert / Directed by Julian Roffman / Starring Paul Stevens and Claudette Nevins

Film as a medium provides an interesting historical view on who we once were as people, or where our values and beliefs have been. Since it is fragile and older films are now diminishing, there is an extra importance in preserving old film and restoring it so we can view it for years to come. One such film recently received the restoration treatment thanks to TIFF, and now film and horror fans can check it out this wonderfully curious little piece of Canadian filmmaking on the big screen, as it was intended.

THE MASK (AKA THE EYES OF HELL) was released back in 1961 during the revival of 3D movies, especially in the horror genre. This gem is not only the first Canadian 3D film, but it also the first Canadian horror film, which is to say Canadian filmmakers were pretty late to the game with this genre. Despite its significance in film history for the Great White North though, don’t set your expectations too high for this one; the plot is thin and repetitive, and even with the 83-minute running time, it still feels 20 minutes too long.

A patient of psychiatrist Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens) has killed himself, and in the mystery of uncovering why he did it, Barnes happens upon an ancient mask that carries a heavy curse. The wearer of the mask is plagued by haunting visions and diabolical, murderous urges, but the mask becomes somewhat of an addiction for Barnes as he cannot seem to stop wearing it. As he tries to uncover the secrets of the mask, he becomes removed from his relationship with his fiancee Pam (Claudette Nevins), and increasingly obsessed with the visions the mask provides.

The mask from THE MASK (EYES OF HELL) is on display at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

The mask from THE MASK (EYES OF HELL) is on display at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

THE MASK takes far too long to get into the actual story, and the 3D sequences are completely bizarre. Each time the mask calls out to him (“Put on the mask, now!”), we the audience are also required to put on our masks so we can see the visions as Allen traverses though the same settings over and over again, from different angles. These scenes are filled with him holding his arms up to cover his face from fire balls, hooded figures stalking him through the fog, and a sacrificial altar. The 3D technology won’t blow anyone’s mind; the old school red and blue glasses give a bit of depth to these surreal and bizarre scenes, but after about the fourth time using them, and given that they don’t really seem to progress the story in any way, they do become tiresome.

THE MASK is definitely a film for genre fans, Canadian film fans and people interested in film history, not a film that general audiences will love, or should flock to see. It’s a curiosity piece at best. While it does have its moments that intrigue, like the Toronto locale, the acting isn’t very strong and the dialogue is definitely a reflection of the time. For a 1960’s horror film, it is quite tame (violence happens off screen), considering what French and British cinema was offering at the time. Canadian cinema did get there eventually and it’s definitely fascinating to see where Canadian horror movies were born.

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