Mask, The (1961)

Forget about Mick Jagger and his nineteen nervous breakdowns. Somebody beat him to it.

After losing a disturbed patient to the throes of suicide, psychiatrist Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) receives a strange package in the mail. It’s from the ex-patient, Michael Radin. Before offing himself, Radin ranted to Barnes about his insatiable urge to wear a stolen museum mask, one that “brings out the evil in a person — and magnifies it!” Now, that relic lies in Barnes’s hands, a gift from beyond the grave. A voice bellows an order and tells Allan to “Put on the mask! NOW!” He complies, and the addiction begins, with both the film and audience. When Allan dons the mask, we don the 3-D glasses. We’re then bombarded with some of the most surreal imagery this side of 1970s-era Luis Buñuel, just served in a spookhouse setting. And in 3-D, even! Like any good heroin addict, Doc Barnes becomes a slave to the veil. Strangling hands, promiscuous lust, escalating obsession . . . he’s headed straight for the loonybin. That is, if the rubber snakes don’t get him first.

The Mask feels like what would happen if Coffin Joe hopped a freight train to the set of a generic crime thriller. And then on the way, he picked up snippets of a Herschell Gordon Lewis score, a couple of masks from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, and ten pounds of dry ice. Then, he hired somebody else to handle the 3-D special effects. But this isn’t too good to be true. The Canadian produced Mask is an experimental genre film trapped within the confines of a bland, yet functional framework. It’s an obvious trailblazer in the realm of spooky, hallucinogenic horror and a magnificent feast for the eyes of bizarre film followers.

The storyline surrounding The Mask‘s exalted nightmare sequences could use a little kick. But then again, wouldn’t anything? Director Julian Roffman (The Bloody Brood) throws all of his pennies into one fountain; the only one that counts. Loads of low budget 1960s genre films take advantage of nightmarish situations (Manos, The Hands Of Fate and Carnival Of Souls, just to name two), but none can touch the indescribable visual heights of The Mask. The film is cheap, yet smart, placing full emphasis on exploiting the frantic special effects. If the plot could use a kick in the rump, so be it. The acting is exceptionally tight and that disproportion in excitement only adds to our anticipation.

The Mask is the greatest nervous breakdown I’ve (n)ever witnessed. If only my own nightmares could be this good.

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