Friday, 12 April 2013

[The 13th Belfast Film Festival] Day 1 - The Mask

And so it begins. 

This is the first entry in my coverage of the 13th Annual Belfast Film Festival. Over the course of the next 10 days I've booked myself into a lot of films, and I hope to find time to cover them all for you. This is something I'm pretty excited about, the range and quality of the films on show over the course of the festival is an example of how Belfast has developed both culturally and cinematically over the last couple of years. 

I kicked off the festival in the cosy bean-bag cinema, a snug and suitably low-key setting that fitted the vibe of our first film perfectly. 

The Mask (1961) 

Location - BFF Beanbag Cinema

Director - Julian Roffman
Country - Canada, USA
Starring - Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings
Running Time - 83 Minutes
Synopsis - A young archaeologist believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and possibly to murder. Before committing suicide, he mails the mask to his psychiatrist, Dr. Barnes, who is soon plunged into the nightmare world of the mask.

As 3D tears its way through our multiplexes with an unsupported metabolism, each new re-release and shoe-horned gimmick come with the sense of inevitable collapse. The profits are down, the release numbers are down and the interest is down. Why? There is probably a long list of socio-economic factors that could be wheeled out in order to explain the short lived fad. Yet it is in the view of this film-school romantic that 3D is losing its numbers because its lost its fun

And here we have Julian Roffman's low budget horror-schlock The Mask which doesn't just gives us all the gimmicks and silliness, it embraces them in a wonderful meta-textual exploration of audience interactivity. 

Just as The Wizard of Oz famously opened in Black and White, before blowing the world apart in a Technicolor marvel, The Mask traps us in the two dimensional reality as the suicide of a young archaeologist launches a inquiry about a missing mask. For the first half hour the film plays out like one part Scooby Doo, one part Citizen Kane. Slowly the pieces unravel as detective and psychologist move from clue to clue but it is only when the missing mask (mailed before the archaeologist could take his own life) arrives Dr Allan Barnes desk (in a moment of pure Hitchcockian McGuffunry) that things enter the new dimensional horror promised by the films trailer. 

Tempted by the enclosed letter, Barnes dawns the mask and is immediately inflicted with horrific visions. Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Rings the voice over, but really it's a warning to the audience. On goes the old school red and blue glasses and suddenly we all found ourselves in a grotesque trans-dimensional nightmare. How well these sections worked almost took me by surprise, structurally they're pretty flimsy, the don't really offer anything other than haunted house sequences intended to shock the audience with vague ties to the overarching story of ancient evil. Yet I couldn't help but give myself to them completely. It brought the audience along with Dr Barnes into a new reality, giving the effects a reason to exist and the audience a reason to interact with them. Not to mention the sequences themselves were marked by creatively devilish set design and special effects, it frequently called to mind the work of Jean Cocteau, had he collaborated with Goya. 

The Mask might be a little to dreary for it's own good, there isn't enough ham to make it's rather silly and forgettable plot all that interesting, and the acting isn't great, but it isn't terrible enough to offer up more than a few giggles. But that didn't stop it from being a joyously memorable ride on an old rickety ghost train.

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