February 1st–the start of the 12th Annual Women In Horror Month. So throughout this month expect at least a few appropriately related posts, starting today with The Mask.
I’ll be honest. I’m not much of a fan of 3D flicks. The effects usually become distractions and/or attention grabbers resulting all too often in “What else can we make jump out at the audience?” Still, let’s talk about this 1961 Canadian 3D effort, shall we? A psychiatrist, Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens), tries to calm his patient, Michael (Martin Lavut, looking much like a cross between Anthony Perkins and Roman Polanski).
Michael suffers a psychotic break from the effects of a mysterious tribal mask. He soon commits suicide, but not before sending the mask to Barnes. Like any objective (ahem) scientist, he almost immediately puts the mask on.
And this is where The Mask gets clever with its 3D effects. The 3D segments are more extended but still only take up about fourteen minutes of screen time keeping the 3D effects from chewing up the scenery throughout the film.
There are good reasons for this. One, the 3D scenes only occur when Barnes wears the mask (itself a ghastly looking thing). The mask tells him, “Put the mask on now! Put the mask on now!” This also served as the cue for the audience to put on their 3D glasses. Not a bad gimmick, that.
All the 3D scenes, therefore, take place in this hallucinatory “mask world.” The visuals for this surreal, hallucinatory nightmare world were designed by Slavko Vorkapić, widely considered a master of montage.
What does this have to do with Women In Horror? It’s a fair question. Vorkapić, director Julian Roffman, and the main characters are all male. Well, it turns out a little backstory is in order.
It starts back in 1990 in Boston. At the time, I was a frequent participant in the open mic at Naked City Coffeehouse, held on the second floor of what was called the Allston Mall. Also on the second floor was the Primal Plunge Bookstore where I first found this:
Yep. The cover is from The Mask. Obviously, I bought it. But I never got around to tracking down a copy of the film until a couple years ago while I had also been reading New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird edited by Paula Guran.
And that brings me to Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929).” Kiernan’s story picks up shortly after where Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” leaves off. Blackman, her narrator, relates his association with his friend, Thurber (who Kiernan shrewdly establishes as the narrator of “Pickman’s Model”). Thurber has committed suicide.
Tasked with sorting through Thurber’s papers, Blackman uncovers some unsettling sketches of silent movie actress, Vera Endecott. Endecott is described as “a woman whose loveliness might merely be a glamour concealing some truer, feral face,” and he compares her to such contemporaries as Musidora and Theda Bara.
Sidenote: Brian McNaughton adds to this discussion of “the look,” specifically meaning The Innsmouth Look, in his story “The Doom That Came To Innsmouth” listing Herbert Hoover, Edward G. Robinson, and Gloria Swanson as further examples.
Blackman himself sounds respectably like one more in a long line of ill-fated Lovecraft protagonists: “the mind may not…simply forget the weird and dismaying revelations visited upon men and women who choose to ask forbidden questions.” It’s straight out of the Lovecraft playbook. Barnes could have said it in The Mask.
There are two connections I want to make to The Mask. One is that the story could have come right out of the Lovecraft Mythos: a cursed object which triggers unexplainable dread leading to obsession, nightmares, bizarre visions, madness, and death.
Sometimes that cursed object is a film. This happens in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s story “Flash Frame” and Fabien Delage’s Fury Of The Demon. It also happens here in Kiernan’s story. Blackman sees a disturbing film featuring Endecott leading to all those aforementioned results.
It’s worth pointing out that The Mask is creepy, underratedly so. But Kiernan’s passages about Endecott’s film look like they could have come directly from The Mask. Her imagery and Vorkapić’s montage work–both are atmospheric, otherworldly, sinister. My point is, reading “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” significantly ramps up The Mask’s creepazoidinal factor.
Come to think of it, The Mask came out in 1961. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” was published in 2008. I wonder if, just maybe…
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