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``The Mask' has roots in a 1960s 3-D masterpiece.


Jim Carrey's quirky new comedy, ``The Mask,' is a film of many resonances, some obvious, others less obvious. Both the comic book series from which the film was directly adapted and the wonderful berserk cartoons of Tex Avery are clearly acknowledged as source material. Less pervasive but still unmistakable echoes run the gamut from Captain Marvel to Captain Nice to Ricky Ricardo.

One clear forerunner of ``The Mask,' however, has been largely ignored. It's a Canadian low-budget thriller directed by Julian Roffman. Released in 1961, it too was titled ``The Mask,' although it has since turned up under other titles, including ``Eyes of Hell' and ``Face of Fire.'The film's basic premise is strikingly similar to that of Carrey's film. Paul Stevens plays a psychologist named Allan Barnes. One of his patients, an archaeologist, claims that he has discovered an ancient ritual mask with supernatural powers.

He feels compelled to put it on, and when he does, he experiences horrifying waking nightmares. These nightmares seem to be drawn from the darkest corners of his psyche, unearthed by the mask from the depths of his unconscious, much as he had unearthed the mask itself. Ultimately, it drives him to act out his dark visions by committing a murder.

Allan listens indulgently to his patient's wild stories about the mask, concluding that the man is projecting some kind of emotional trauma onto this exotic object. But when the tormented fellow decides to shoot himself to end his nightmares, he first mails the mask to Allan. Inevitably, Allan also feels the mysterious compulsion to put on the mask, and he too experiences the grotesque nightmare visions that the mask evokes.

It is these nightmare sequences that really make the film worth seeking out. First of all, the dream sequences were shot in 3-D. The idea was that the audience would put on their 3-D glasses every time Allan put on the mask. It was a clever idea, guaranteeing that the mask-induced dream imagery would appear to inhabit a different plane of existence from the rest of the film (and at the same time sparing the audience the pain of wearing those uncomfortable glasses through the whole show).

Even more interestingly, they obtained a radically different visual look for the nightmare sequences by bringing in another director to lend his visual style to those segments. Luckily, they were able to obtain the services of one of the film community's foremost visual stylists to render their dream imagery for them. His name was Slavko Vorkapich.

Born in Yugoslavia, Vorkapich studied painting in Paris before settling in the United States. His painter's eye for visual style combined with a natural affinity for the rhythms of film editing to lure him into filmmaking. Unfortunately, he did not possess the show-biz instincts that Hollywood requires, and so was relegated largely to the avant-garde fringe. He went on to become a respected film theorist, lecturing at the Museum of Modern Art and chairing, for a time, the Cinema Department at the University of California. Happily, his influence on Hollywood was not limited to teaching the next generation of filmmakers. Although he was not recruited to direct Hollywood product, he was often called upon to lend his eye to a type of movie sequence known as a montage.

Typically, a montage compresses months or even years of story time into a minute or two of screen time, like when you see a character rise from the mailroom to the presidency of a company in two minutes, as calendar pages fall away. It's the kind of highly compressed, high-octane filmmaking for which an avant-garde stylist is ideally suited.

Consequently, Vorkapich was called upon to create montages for such popular Hollywood classics as ``David Copperfield' (1935), ``A Tale of Two Cities' (1935), and ``The Good Earth' (1937). Contributing dream sequences for ``The Mask,' then, was a familiar exercise, but one that allowed him a freer rein to indulge his visual muse than he had ever had in a mainstream project. The result, to say the least, is fascinating.

By the way, this film is available on video in 3-D, but only as a part of the ``Midnight Madness' series, featuring horror hostess Elvira. In one package, you get a low-budget thriller, artistically stimulating imagery from an avant-garde master, and the earthy and generously displayed charms of Elvira. That's entertainment.


Steve Jarrett taught film history for more than 10 years at High Point University and UNCG. His column appears each Thursday in the News & Record's High Point edition. The News & Record welcomes columns from its readers; call High Point editor Dan O'Mara at 883-4422.


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