Monsters from the Id
BY Paul Corupe
Photography Courtesy of the Film Reference Library Division of the Toronto International Film Festival Group
More than 30 years before Jim Carrey donned a mythical mask to unleash the green-skinned party animal within, a similarly titled Canadian film provided its own twisted take on this idea, with far more eerie—and eye-popping—results. Both the 1994 hit The Mask and the recent Carrey-less sequel, Son of the Mask, owe their pedigree to the 1961 3-D spook show The Mask, not only Canada’s first foray into horror moviemaking, but a film that made history when it became the first homegrown feature to be distributed by a major US studio.
Shot in Kleinberg, Ontario, by former National Film Board journeyman Julian Roffman, The Mask promised audiences “a never-before-dreamed world of delicious terrors!” In the film, psychiatrist Dr. Barnes (Paul Stevens) comes to possess an ancient Aztec ritual mask that transports the wearer to a surreal dreamscape—equal parts Freudian nightmare and carnival sideshow hokum. As Barnes’ obsession with the ancient artifact grows, the primal lust and violence lurking in his subconscious begins to bubble to the surface of his real life.
Roffman distinguished his film from the pack with a unique, interactive gimmick. On entering theatres, patrons were given their own “Magic Mystic Mask,” a cardboard visor with built-in 3-D glasses. The ominous phrase, “Put the mask on now!” was the audience’s cue to don their own masks and join Barnes in the 3-D dream sequences, where they were bombarded with lunging snakes, hurtling fireballs and other phantasmagoric imagery from the doctor’s psyche.
The Mask opened to positive reviews from hometown supporters and reportedly took in more than US$1 million in Warner Brothers’ subsequent American release—although little of the proceeds trickled back across the border. Thanks to countless revivals and an ongoing interest in 3-D films, however, what Roffman’s The Mask lost in profit, it has made up for in cult-film status. The Mask continues to hold an esteemed place in the history of Canadian film, ensuring that fans will still turn to this timeless chiller long after Carrey’s manic gesticulations are forgotten.