Unlike the corny, hyperventilating Jim Carrey comedy of the same name, which appears to be a pretty terrible ripoff of this film, the 1961 original The Mask is a sublime little effort which also has historical significance as Canada's first feature-length horror film.
The story centers on a protagonist/antagonist who gets his hands on an ancient artifact in the form of an odd, skull-like ritual mask. The characters "put the mask on" because of an internal voice, a subconscious compulsion to do so once they hold the mask in their hands. Once worn, the wearer is subjected to wildly hallucinogenic, genuinely surrealistic dream-states and prone to pretty unfortunate acts of violence, the latter of which, of course, propels the story-line.
As we learn through a second viewing including the additional excellent and hugely informative commentary track by film historian Jason Pichonsky, by 1961 Canada still had essentially zero feature motion picture industry, which seems shocking since every other country in the world except perhaps the outer provinces of Tasmania did have a feature motion picture industry by 1961. No such luck for America's sparsely-populated neighbor to the north. Enter independent national film board of Canada producer/director Julian Roffman. In an effort to ring in a new future for Canadian cinema, Roffman successfully rolled the dice in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of horror films in the United States - then surging to turgid levels and about to usher in such opportunistic TV fare as The Addams Family and The Munsters as well as an endless cache of drive-in horror movies - and Roffman's undeniable artistic sensibilities collide in a wonderful way with his desire for the film to be financially successful and the hybrid is extremely unusual, suspenseful, compelling, sometimes fun and occasionally genuinely scary.
As the mask-wearing victim hears the voice on the soundtrack say, "Put the mask on NOW....", the cinema-goer in 1961 put on a cardboard mask with polarizer or red/blue plastic lenses - which depended on whether the theater was in a city or rural - and the hallucinatory dream states and only the hallucinatory dreams states were seen in 3D. We don't get to have quite as much fun today because we put on our 3D glasses at home instead of a cardboard mask, but it's still fun to do as an overt, interactive experience. To those without 3D glasses, the film is still recommended.
One thing the audiences at the time did not have were active-glasses 3D TVs, and with our current technology the 3D is often genuinely excellent and adds unusually successfully to the truly surreal, otherworldy aspects of the dream sequences which are, for the most part, extremely effective on many levels. On a technical note, occasionally the 3D does get over-ambitious and the effect partially collapses in a number of shots, but these particular cuts tend to be extremely brief, perhaps for that reason.
Obviously The Mask to some degree hearkens to the unabashedly exploitative efforts of producer William Castle,and particularly his "13 Ghosts" in which to see the ghosts you needed to put on the glasses. Here the interactive experience is more intriguing and more mature since putting on the glasses is more like a deliberate effort to experience a mind-altering effect, like deliberately taking a drug. It also has the odd sensation after awhile of giving you an additional first-person POV experience when it comes to the main character since to enjoy the movie you must also do what he does.
And the dream sequences do not disappoint. The sets are huge for a low-budget effort, extremely odd and highly stylized. This producer/director/critic felt a tinge of real admiration for what they did with so few resources in Canada at the time. Unsurprisingly, the black and white low budget has the same gritty visual feel of other effective low budget horror entries like Night of the Living Dead. The acting tends to be extremely method as it also true of these kinds of efforts for that time. These combined characteristics imbue the film with a quasi-documentary feel as all such films of the era exhibit and adds to the overall disquieting suspense. As a hybrid creature of arthouse cinema and unapologetic exploitation gimmickry, the film is essentially unique. Imagine, then, the seeming cinematically unimaginable: George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead meets Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries meets William Castle's 13 Ghosts. Thankfully, Romero and Bergman's influence win out in this effort.
As is always true of Kino Lorber, the print is excellent, in this case restored from the original 35mm elements, the commentary is likewise excellent and the quirky extras one has come to expect from Kino 3D Blu-ray releases are a real treat. In this case, the extras include red/cyan dream sequences so those with no 3D TV but red/blue glasses can enjoy the thrill, also, and some truly weird silent/early sound stuff collected under the umbrella title of "The Films of Slavko Vorkopich", which fit right in with the experience of The Mask's surrealistic dream sequences. In including those particular extras, Kino is again demonstrating a keen and intelligent instinct for constructing a cohesive and appropriate entertainment package born of an extremely deep knowledge of film history.
If you have read this far you probably have to have The Mask. Get it from Kino Lorber, which is once again to be congratulated for choosing a bit of important cinema history with just enough of the offbeat to make it fun and reasonably artistically solvent so as to make the viewing experience smart and intriguing, while doing their usual excellent job on the restoration.
To get it, you can order it at https://www.kinolorber.com/shop/genre/code/3d-movies