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The Forgotten: Put on The Mask!

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It's no surprise that the ReSearch Guide to Incredibly Strange Films used an image from Julian Ruffman's 1961 horror flick The Mask on its cover. The low-budget Canadian psycho-thriller embodies all the hallucinatory virtues of the psychotronic movie. Eschewing the conventional pleasures of a complex narrative with compelling characterisations, The Mask alternates endearingly amateurish scenes of stodgily conventional dramaturgy, with psychedelic freak-outs which don't advance the plot, but serve instead as a far more appealing alternative to it, a nightmarish abstract movie that periodically crashes into the narrative, distorting it into surreal rituals, shot in 3D and designed by Hollywood's ancient montage king, Slavko Vorkapich. Each of these scenes is preceded by a booming voice-over instructing us to --

"Put on The Mask!"

"Put on The Mask!"

"Put on the Mask!"

So our archeologist hero dons the titular skull-face and is treated to bizarre visions...

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While the audience dons its tinted spectacles and does the same. If you have a pair to hand, I highly recommend it.

While the rest of the film trundles along in predictable fashion -- our hero's spells wearing the mask mess up his mind until he's committing random murders, and the mask is not only as powerful a hallucinogen as LSD, it's as addictive as crack -- the dream sequences loom out at the audience with fever-dream intensity. Ruffman and Vorkapich thrust stuff out the screen at us, to be sure, but the real merit of the 3D is the way it makes utterly alien and peculiar imagery feel present and inescapable.

Slavko Vorkapich had been MGM's top montage director in the '30s, crafting weird sequences intended to compress time and conflate events in order to move the story forward at speed where necessary, but his wild and woolly fantasy sequences -- screaming naked harpies flying over the city in Crime Without Passion (1934), cannonballs melting into skulls with Napoleon hats on in The Firefly (1937) -- were regularly slashed down to scale by the studio apparatchiks, their wildest flights of insanity quietly confined in the refrigerated asylum of the studio vaults.

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The Serbian artist had made his breakthrough in 1928, co-directing with Frenchman Robert Florey the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra, an expressionistic satire of the studio machine that was about to consume both men. Florey became an accomplished director of genre product, some of which he imbued with a quirky flair, while Vorkapich's success as montage designer saw his name briefly become a recognized industry term for a stylized montage sequence.

So if Ruffman was no genius as director -- although his film boasts some impressive throbbing sound design -- he can be credited with at least one genuine inspiration: bringing Slavko Vorkapich out of retirement and turning him loose on a project that had no MGM supervision, no limits beyond its modest budget, and no grounding in logic or narrative sense.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

This was my first exposure to 3-D. I saw “The Mask” as the second half of a double bill with Mr. Magoo in “1001 Arabian Nights”, and it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my young movie-going life. Right up there with the skeleton army in “Jason and the Argonauts” and the whale in “Pinocchio”.. (I was a real coward…)
No, those are all pretty scary. I was more scared by Talos the giant statue in JASON and by the Italian puppetmaster in PINOCCHIO. Also the whole donkey thing. Sorry I didn’t see THE MASK when I was young enough to be scarred for life by it!
Dave
I pulled out some old 3D specs to see you’re clips on Shadowplay and thought you’d like to know the one I used most was the Mystic Mask: ‘This MYSTIC MASK is scientifically designed only for SUPER DEPTH viewing of the 3D TV program “THE MASK”. Other 3d glasses cannot be used for this special program’. No Kidding, they reversed the blue and red lenses, so I had to wear them backwards to view your clips. They showed ‘The Mask’ along with a 3D Samurai movie on TV in 1982. We all kinda hoped it would lead to more, but the TV 3D at the time was pretty underwhelming. Good job on 3D week! —
Thanks! Hunting for 3D stuff online I did find an image from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON that had been flipped around, which meant that the 3D didn’t work (unless you reversed your specs). Maybe somebody was trying to make it work with their mystic mask.
I also saw this at a young, impressionable age and was completely freaked out by it. I was more scared by this than any other movie I had ever seen, with the 3D intensifying the fright. I watched it when I was older and didn’t understand why I had the earlier reaction, but reading your article made me think about it again, and it seems that Vorkapich must have touched on archetypes that reach deep into the vulnerable psyche.
…and also, the lack of logic in the dream sequences, the flouting of narrative conventions — the sequences just GO ON, and don’t accomplish anything in story terms — that kind of rudderless drift can be disturbing in itself for someone used to stories that add up. Once you’d seen some more experimental work, THE MASK might have ceased to be so disturbing.
rinky
Anyone know where you might find a copy of this film?

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