Film is a fragile medium. It’s easy to forget in this digital age that so much of our cinematic history is committed to old-fashioned celluloid, the plastic spools wound on reels that rattle and clack on their way through the illuminated projector gate, giving us our magic in the dark. And celluloid is decidedly impermanent. The winding and travel of projection can damage film prints. And they fade, dry out, flake and become brittle over the years, even when they’re kept in optimal conditions. Film preservation has become a big concern, with directors like Martin Scorsese trying to raise awareness about how much film history might be lost if efforts aren’t made to keep these prints around.
TIFF has gone to great efforts to preserve films in its collection. This October, they’re breaking out a rarity, Canada’s first horror film, and first 3D feature as well. It’s a little known picture called The Mask, directed by Julian Roffman and released in 1961. In the film, a psychiatrist comes into possession of an ancient tribal mask. When worn, the mask assails him with nightmarish visions of monsters, occultists, and ritual torture. Believing that he has discovered a portal to the deepest recesses of his mind, he continues to explore this terrifying new psychic world — even at the risk of his sanity. It’s a dark, malevolent journey, with a riot of psychedelic 3D imagery every time the film intones for the doctor, and the audience, to “PUT THE MASK ON”. A definitive version of the film hasn’t been seen in decades, but through the restoration efforts of TIFF and the 3-D Film Archive of New Jersey, The Mask has been returned to its full, dizzyingly surreal glory. I spoke with the TIFF Director of Programming Jesse Wente about The Mask‘s strange journey, and TIFF’s challenging restoration.
[This interview has been lightly edited to make us seem even smarter than we actually are.]
Luke: So, The Mask! You guys brought it back to life.
Jesse: We hope so!
Luke: What brought this about? What raised this as a project of interest?
Jesse: Personally I’ve always been a fan of the film. We showed it in 2011 when the building [the TIFF Bell Lightbox] was just about a year old, because TIFF has a 35mm print in our collection and we showed it as part of Audio-Visual Heritage Day. We got a pretty good turnout, perhaps a bit surprising how many people came out, some of them with their original 3D glasses.
Luke: That’s incredible.
Jesse: Yeah, very prepped. But after the screening, the folks at the Film Reference Library here who oversee the preservation and conservation of all the TIFF Collection, which has films and all sorts of other material in it, they informed us that we weren’t ever going to be able to show that print again.
Luke: Running it through the projector did that much of a number on it?
Jesse: Yes, the colours would fade a little each time, and it was brittle. Basically from an archivist’s point of view it was no longer tenable. Part of why we showed it that day was because it was a print that was on its last legs and you show it on that day to put a spotlight on these issues. But the response to it plus the fact that I don’t think before the screening we realized it would be the last time we would show it, that’s what started the initial idea. It’s such a shame that no one else would get to see it, at least not in a theatre the way it was properly meant to be seen. What sparks any preservation project is the idea of making sure that a piece of art is available to be seen the way that it was meant to by the audience. That was 2011. We really got an earnest start on it about two years ago, so it’s been quite a lengthy gestation.
Luke: Did you have to source other prints? Did you have to track stuff down in order to find the best pieces or how did that work?
Jesse: Whenever you undergo a film restoration that is the initial part. You start searching for all the elements that you can find. We knew that we had the last remaining elements in Canada. The National Archive doesn’t have anything. Through research we knew that some materials, including the original negative had been sent to Los Angeles in the late sixties or early seventies. What happened to it once it got to L.A. we couldn’t figure out. So we started work on our materials thinking that this might be all there is. Luckily once we started, we met up with the folks at the 3-D Film Archive, which is an archive in New Jersey who specialize in 3D film naturally, who were also looking to restore this and also had materials. We actually think they ended up with the materials that had been shipped to Los Angeles all those many years ago. It so happens that what they had patched some holes in our materials, and likewise what we had patched some holes in what they had. And so together we were able to put together the most definitive restoration of the film. It’s the most complete version of the film. The 3D works, which it never has in any of my previous experiences with the movie. The full sequence off the top–
Luke: The bizarre introduction with the explorer doctor?
Jesse: Yeah, it wasn’t always on a lot of versions. Because the movie got retitled and shipped all over the world. So there’s many different versions of it. It was really in that research and then joining forces with the 3-D Film Archives that we were able to get to what you saw ultimately in the final product.
Luke: Right, well that’s fantastic. Did the 3D elements cause any complication? The print aspect of that wouldn’t be all that different I suppose.
Jesse: No, it’s totally different and difficult.
Luke: It is! I wasn’t sure.
Jesse: The challenge is we had a 35mm print, so to do the right job you want the discrete left and right materials. If we had been forced to go straight from the print we would have been able to get close, but it would have been much harder to replicate the convergence properly. Luckily for us, the 3-D Film Archive’s issue was the 2D material. They had many gaps there which we were able to fill.
Luke: So it was really serendipitous you guys coming together.
Jesse: It really was. And it’s totally how these restoration can work out and should work. The partnership allowed us to do something that solo we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. And they had discrete left and right 3D so we were able to take that and get the convergence correct. Luckily they’re experts in the 3D part, which is complicated because it’s not normal flat film. That posed some technical challenges we had to overcome. It was definitely the tough part.
Luke: Those Magic Mystic Masks were super fun. The actual 3D glasses that you have to watch the film are quite hilarious.
Jesse: Yes, those are designed exactly like the original glasses back in 1961.
Luke: I was wondering about that.
Jesse: I’ve got a pair of the original glasses in my office and these ones are mirror copies of those. I think it really adds to the theatricality of the film. The fact that it’s a movie that quite literally commands you to put on your glasses–
Luke: Yeah it’s very performative in that way.
Jesse: I think it really adds to how you experience those scenes and the whole experience of watching the movie. Because the filmmakers, Julian Roffman and the folks that made this movie, they intended it to be seen this way. So I think any time you’re doing a preservation, that’s what you want to get back to. That was a real key part of it to be able to have the audience interacting with the film exactly as they would have.
Luke: Definitely. Out of curiosity, how successful was the film when it first appeared? It’s a cult kind of thing, and it rings a vague bell with me, even the whole “put the mask on”, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a clip of it somewhere, but it reminded me of something somewhere way back. How did it do?
Jesse: You’re right it certainly attained a pretty hardcore cult. That was part of why we wanted to undertake this process. We understood there was an audience, a really rather devoted audience, to the film and to the idea of this sort of film. But that’s a recent thing. At the time it was reasonably successful. That’s one of the fascinating things about it as a Canadian film and as a piece of Canadian film history, in that it’s an entirely commercial project. It is a movie made to make money and put people in a movie theatre. I think that it is art, but that’s the initial design. And it worked. Nat Taylor who was one of the producers of the film and formed the production company with the director Julian Roffman. He’s one of the great cinema impresarios in Canadian history. He helped found Famous Players, and he ran some of the major theatres in the country, including some of the big ones in Toronto. They had installed 3D capability in the cinemas and by the time The Mask was produced the output of 3D pictures from Hollywood had sort of dried up. This came at what is really the very end of the first golden age of 3D.
Luke: 1961 is a little late.
Jesse: Yeah. The mid-fifties was the sweet spot for 3D production in Hollywood. So they really wanted a film they were going to be able to use this equipment on for these theatres. And it worked for that. It didn’t set any box offices records. It performed absolutely as one would have expected as a very good B-movie of the time. It was rereleased on at least one or two occasions, and it was released globally. It was released as Eyes of Hell in the United States, and it had a rather robust theatrical life overseas in Europe.
Luke: It achieved its aims.
Jesse: Yeah it didn’t overachieve. Julian Roffman and Nat Taylor made one more movie, so it’s not like they became the new Paramount, but at the time and in that context it was successful.
Luke: Sure. I think it’s also interesting, I wouldn’t make a direct linkage certainly, but it is a distant forerunner of the kind of genre filmmaking that David Cronenberg would end up doing a little bit later. It was Canadian cinema that was operating in that commercial/horror vein even at that time.
Jesse: I think you’re right. From a commercial standpoint, certainly in English Canada, the industry sprang out of horror movies. There was Cronenberg and the tax shelter movies of the late seventies and early eighties. It’s interesting that this film has historically been left out of those conversations.
Luke: It’s not that much of a leap, really.
Jesse: I don’t think it’s much of a leap at all. It actually allows us to add this new piece to whatever that puzzle really is, in terms of the origins of that and why Canadian artists seem to be so attracted to that sort of dark imagery. It’s a pretty valuable link. In the grander scope of Canadian film history, this is not a film that is discussed, but it should be. It’s worthy of being included when we talk about Goin’ Down the Road and those foundational films for the English Canadian film industry, I think this is one of them.
Luke: It’s worth including in the conversation for sure. It’s a quirky film. I find even some of the films of the fifties that are considered classics like The Thing From Outer Space are a bit didactic and dry in places but there’s always moments that just get ya. So they’re really interesting in that regard. I found this to be a similar experience. The dream sequences, the 3D sequences are insane, they’re great. Do you know much about Slavko Vorkapich [the artist behind the sequences]?
Jesse: I don’t. I know that he was brought in to consult on the 3D and work with the crew on those sequences.
Luke: I did a little digging on him and I couldn’t find much. He’s another one of those weird marginal figures that did a lot of specialized montage work in Hollywood in the thirties and forties. Who knows how he ended up on this film?
Jesse: You know about as much as I do. Those sequences for me, I’ve seen the movie many, many times. I could not tell you what they’re about, or what they mean. Which is probably the point. I find them haunting in a way that I don’t often find in other B-pictures of the era, if you call them creature features of the fifties and sixties, this movie is scarier I think. It’s genuinely more disturbing.
Luke: It definitely goes to a darker place.
Jesse: Which I think is interesting in the context we already talked about. The film ages better than The Thing From Outer Space, which we watch in a nostalgic, quaint way, and I do love those movies. This one is a bit different. The electronic score by Louis Applebaum is just an amazing score, too. There’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty cutting edge in terms of the film itself. The one history of the people in the credits is they all have a million credits. The director Julian Roffman made something like forty movies with the NFB. Louis Applebaum who did the score scored virtually everything for the NFB at that time.
Luke: It was a real workhorse crew.
Jesse: They were not newbies. They were definitely trying something different, but they were very experienced in terms of production, which you get a sense of.
Luke: The craft was there for sure.
Jesse: The Mask can be talked about as ground zero for the history of Canadian horror movies. It’s a good movie. It’s Halloween. It’ll absolutely creep people out a little bit. TIFF is extremely proud that we’re able to bring this out, and it shows our commitment to preserving and exhibiting Canadian image culture.
Digitally restored in pristine 2K anaglyph 3D, The Mask preys on the weak again starting on Friday, October 23rd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The screening on Saturday, October 24th will be introduced by authors Gina Freitag and André Loiselle, who will be available to sign copies of their book Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul before the start of the film. The film will continue at the Lightbox leading up to Halloween, and will be touring after it completes its engagement in Toronto. You’ll have plenty of chances to PUT THE MASK ON.