Canadian horror films have a wonderful history that, much like Canadian film, is often overlooked. Our output isn’t as prolific as our neighbours to the south and the sheer amount they produce leaves Canadian offerings with less attention. Add the fact that horror is still considered a second-class citizen and it’s quite challenging for Canadian horror works to be discussed amongst the more recognized classics. Although it’s just a small piece of the picture, the recent restoration of outstanding Canadian horror film The Mask will finally allow this very important work to become a part of that discussion.
A collaboration between TIFF and the 3-D Film Archive resulted in this historical Canadian film being restored for a new generation to watch. Released in 1961, The Mask was the first feature-length horror film, and the first feature-length 3D film, produced in Canada. The story follows psychiatrist Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), who receives a strange mask in the mail from a patient who committed suicide. Donning the mask takes the wearer into a strange dimension, slowly causing them to become dependant on wearing the item, as well as stirring up murderous impulses. It’s an incredibly odd, but well put together effort that brings the audience into the insanity by asking them to put on their 3D glasses whenever someone wears the mask, transporting viewers into a surreal nightmare world.
To learn more about restoration process, as well as the importance of the movie in Canadian cinematic history, I spoke with Jesse Wente (director of film programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox) over the phone before the film’s release in October 2015.
“We screened it as part of Audio Visual Heritage Day. Just running it through the projector that one time was all it could stand, given the condition it was in. It sparked the idea that we should explore what it would mean to restore it, and that began the process.”
Restoring this cinematic artefact has been a lengthy process, which began after a screening 2011. Wente explains the circumstances that led to the decision. “We screened it as part of Audio Visual Heritage Day and it was very popular. After the show, the folks that run the film reference library, and really oversee the preservation of the TIFF collection — our ongoing holdings — told us that we weren’t going to be able to show that print again. Just running it through the projector that one time was all it could stand, given the condition it was in. It sparked the idea that we should explore what it would mean to restore it, and that began the process.”
It wound up taking over two years to research and complete the restoration, due mainly to the fact that even TIFF didn’t have all the materials needed for a proper restoration. “We had the best surviving elements in Canada,” explains Wente. “We started work on the actual restoration from the elements we had while we continued to look for more. That led us ultimately to meet up with the 3-D Film Archive, which is an outfit in New Jersey, which was also looking to restore it. It so happens that it was missing pieces and its materials were worn in areas that we had really good pieces and, likewise, where we were missing stuff, it had.”
There was also the option of taking the original anaglyph, red and blue 3D and turning it into the left and right 3D format we’re more familiar with today, but that was deemed unnecessary after watching the completed restoration. “When I finally saw it, I realized that the artist was very aware of the limitations of the technology at the time,” comments Wente. “This sort of added colour, the outline and all of the effects of what anaglyph 3D was in 1961were actually built into the design, and are now very much entangled in how you see those scenes. The colouring and all that stuff — much of what would be lost if you presented it in contemporary or modern 3D —was very intentional by the artist. I would just prefer to show the film that way.”
“It’s fascinating that it’s a Canadian film because it’s so unlike what we generally regard, even today, as a Canadian movie. It opens up all sorts of potential reconsiderations for how we think about not just this film, but Canadian film history.”
A discussion about The Mask inevitably leads to the state of the horror genre in Canada, which has obviously grown over the years. “There’s been a great deal of discussion or discourse over about Canada, or Canadian artists, being so good at the genre. A lot of that comes from, of course, David Cronenberg, but beyond him, it does seem there’s an affinity for the darkness of things.” The Mask just happens to be the beginning of that movement, and it’s an incredibly strong one. “I’ve always loved The Mask, because it’s absolutely as good as any B movie produced in Hollywood at the time,” Wente says before continuing. “I love that it’s genuinely scary in a way that a lot of those movies aren’t and that still holds. The 3D scenes are very weird; I still don’t fully understand what the heck is going on in them or what they mean. They do stay with you and resonate, and I agree that outside of those scenes the movie has a very sort of clean, efficient genre operation about it, and it does stick with you.”
The film is a fantastic experience and an important part of Canadian genre cinema, so why has it been overlooked for so long? Wente shares some of the reasons he believes The Mask was left behind when it comes to Canadian film history. “When I went to film school and studied film, this was not a movie mentioned in the history of Canadian cinema because, for some, it’s a B picture. And not only is it a B picture, it’s an entirely commercial enterprise; it’s produced by Nat Taylor, a guy who helped found the film exhibition business in Canada. It was made to help fill his theatres, which had 3D setups that weren’t necessarily getting a consistent stream of 3D movies from Hollywood.”
Wente also points out that The Mask isn’t what we would normally expect from classic Canadian cinema. “A film like Going Down the Road or movies that are recognized classics of early Canadian cinema transmit something about the Canadian experience in a way The Mask does not attempt. It is not about Canada; it is not that type of movie and because of that it’s sort of easy to exclude from larger discussions of Canadian cinema history. It’s fascinating that it’s a Canadian film because it’s so unlike what we generally regard, even today, as a Canadian movie. It opens up all sorts of potential reconsiderations for how we think about not just this film, but Canadian film history.”