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4 Things We Learned About Canada’s First Horror Feature, The Mask

The Mask (Eyes of Hell) is a film of many firsts. Prior to this 1961 cult favourite, no Canadian feature film had tackled horror, 3D, or been granted a proper American release. These historical milestones may seem like sufficient reason to revive director Julian Roffman’s oft-overlooked classic, but the film itself warrants fresh consideration, as it offers an engrossing, entertaining, and surprisingly modern experience.

Dealing with a psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with an ancient tribal mask that causes him to experience hallucinations both violent and psychedelic, The Mask strikes many of the same notes as classic addiction dramas (from The Man with the Golden Arm to Requiem for a Dream), while also delivering playfully outrageous imagery on par with the finest horror oddities of the ’60s. Just in time for Halloween, TIFF and the 3D Film Archive have completed a new digital restoration—and Jesse Wente (Director of Film Programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox) has taken the time to open our eyes about this new incarnation of The Mask. Here is what we learned.

The Mask has a loyal following

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When The Mask was released in 1961, English Canadian cinema was a rarity, but the producers managed to secure a theatrical release through Warner Brothers. While this didn’t result in huge commercial success, the film eventually found its audience. “The film was far from a smash hit, but it garnered decent reviews and solid enough box office to warrant a subsequent re-release,” explains Wente. “The film gained cult status, thanks to fairly consistent rotation on late night TV.”

The Mask needed a makeover

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In 2011, TIFF screened The Mask to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. The audience response was incredibly strong, but the print was too fragile for further use, inspiring a much-needed restoration. “We started to research what it would mean to restore the film,” says Wente. “We later came in contact with the 3D Film Archive in New Jersey, who were also interested in restoring the film. We found that we had complimentary elements, and together, we were able to restore the film back to its original condition.”

The Mask’s 3D sequences have never looked better

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The sequences that really set The Mask apart are the surreal 3D interludes that occur whenever Dr. Allan Barnes dons that psychedelic mask. These sequences are genuinely unsettling—and Wente says the same is true of the time spent restoring them. “Restoring the film to have effective convergence of the left and right eye was a struggle,” he says. “But with the materials from the 3D Film Archive, and their expertise in restoring 3D film, we were able to solve the convergence issues. Now you’re finally able to see the real power of those 3D sequences.”

The Mask is ’60s horror at its most essential

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As our list of the best Canadian horror films demonstrates, The Mask is widely regarded as a major Canadian horror film, but Wente doesn’t stop there. “I think the film is one of the more genuinely scary movies of its era,” he argues. “The way the film builds its 3D sequences into a grander experience—imploring the audience to “put the mask on now”—only makes it more surreal, and suggests the style of event cinema that has now become the norm.”

This new restoration of The Mask (Eyes of Hell) opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 23. Saturday’s 9pm screening will be introduced by authors Gina Freitag and Andre Loiselle, who will also be signing copies of their new book The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul. Watch the trailer below and buy your tickets here… if you dare.

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