A Few Minutes with Jesse Wente from TIFF about ‘The Mask (Eyes of Hell)’ a forgotten piece of Canadiana

A Few Minutes with Jesse Wente from TIFF about ‘The Mask (Eyes of Hell)’ a forgotten piece of Canadiana

 It’s that time of year when moviegoers are quite simply looking to get their freak on in the best way that they can, but it isn’t often when get to see such a unique piece of cinema’s past…and have it be Canadian to boot.

The Mask (Eyes of Hell) at first glance is just a B-Horror Movie from 1961, but it is a CANADIAN B-Horror Movie from 1961, and thanks to TIFF and this loving 3D restoration we get to see this piece of history in a conversation that many people had thought of as closed and now thanks to TIFF and the 3D Archive it will get a chance to tour across North America for an experience that hardcore audience members will never forget.

While it admittedly veers away from the standard of films that you hear get talked about when it comes to restorations, it certainly doesn’t mean that it is any less important as film restoration is one of the most important cultural needs that we have in front of us today.  I got the unique chance to sit down with Jesse Wente; The Director of Film Programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to get a little history and insight on the film, why it is important in the landscape of Canadian cinema and film restoration as well.

Dave Voigt: Obviously the movie is a trip and it is certainly a little unconventional because outside of the work of a David Cronenberg or a movie like The Changeling or Ginger Snaps Canadian audiences really don’t have a starting point for our history in a genre like horror.  Would you call The Mask somewhat of a missing link for Canadian audiences in the genre?

Jesse Wente: You know, I think so, I haven’t found a feature length horror movie that predates this one and was made in Canada.  I also haven’t found a feature length movie that uses 3D that was made in Canada before this one.  It is a bit of missing link to be sure and even though it wasn’t necessarily a “lost” film, like something that you’d think was from the silent era.  It had a certain degree of “cult” life and it wouldn’t shock me at all if someone like Elvira played it at some point.  It was also rereleased once or twice after 1961 and even had a second life under the title Eyes of Hell and it was quite popular in Europe and especially Germany but it had completely fallen out of the discourse of Canadian cinema history.  Certainly when you think of the fact that Canadian artists and I would include Cronenberg on that list, and guys like Vincenzo Natali and other newer filmmakers on the scene that have a certain horror or genre bent to them and it really does pre-date them all, I think that this film manages to shift our perspective as an audience to where it all comes from.  Plus I think that it is interesting that we don’t often think of early Canadian cinema being in any way commercial, and this is an entirely commercial project.  I think it succeeds as a piece of art beyond that but when we think of movies like Going Down The Road or Rowdy Man and the lynchpins of early Canadian cinema, for the most part we really do regard those as art house movies in a way to say something about Canada.  The Mask doesn’t say a thing about Canada, other than the fact that it exists, which subsequently says something about Canada itself! (Laughs)

DV: Is that why The Mask has fallen under the umbrella of TIFF?  Because it certainly isn’t the type of movie that audiences expect to get championed and restored as the B-Movies from the era aren’t always held in the highest of regard but there is also a certain historical fascination that it holds which is very hard to ignore.

JW: I think it ultimately came down to TIFF getting involved because we had the best existing materials in Canada.  We showed a 35mm print of it back in 2011 back when the building was reasonable new and after at that screening the Film Reference Library here who really do over see the care of TIFF Collection which includes film prints and stuff like the actual Mask itself and various storyboards for a variety of films.  They told me back then, that we simply would never be able to show it again as the print would not be able to be run through a projector ever again without any sort of catastrophic damage.  That fact combined with the response that we got to that screening, which was very robust.  We got a great turn out, to like you say is a pretty obscure Canadian movie and it sparked the idea to look at this.  I’ve always loved this movie and the idea that we may never be able to see this again on the big screen would have been absolutely a shame.  I think that really is the genesis of so many restoration projects and any cultural endeavour because in many ways this really is a piece of us as a culture and I think that the film itself ages amazing well.  The idea that the only way we’d ever be able to see it would be on YouTube or some crappy DVD version of it was absolutely a shame, which is what motivated TIFF to get involved in what has been a two year process to get the best materials possible together which led us to a partnership with our friends at the 3D film archive in New Jersey, who were also looking to restore the film.  Thankfully it had just so happened that we were able to help each other with pieces that we were both missing and together we were able to make the most complete restoration possible which just turned out so well.  I really think that this restoration will allow audiences to see the film as close as possible as it would have been seen in 1961 and that truly is the goal of any restoration.  This is the way the filmmakers had intended to be seen and in 2015 we get to take it all in, glasses and all.

DV: Critically, this is a film that comes from an era that we always tend to snicker about, but no matter how much we snicker we still end up going back to it as a form of entertainment that we love.  From your perspective what is it about these kinds of films and this era of filmmaking that keeps us coming back, even though it does get critically derided?

JW: Yeah, it’s funny because at least for me personally, I stopped laughing about these movies ages ago.  Mainly because I grew up on movies of this ilk like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Creature From The Black Lagoon along with countless others.  I mean I LOOOVVVEEEDDD, that stuff when I was a kid.  I think that is interesting because when it comes to critical acceptance and the discourse around cinema, it’s OK for us to go back and embrace things.  It was the French film critics who went back and truly embraced Film Noir as a genre, which at the time were just B-Grade Hollywood pictures that they elevated and now I think that we look at those films in a very different way.  While I don’t know if creature feature or event style features such as this one can hold to the same critical analysis because the artists did tend to drift and there is no real stringent auteurism in these movies they are still very fascinating to look at.

Since we showed it at the festival this year, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with a variety of people over their various interpretations of this film.  Ron Mann who introduced it for us and who remembers seeing at the Imperial 6 theatre in Toronto was absolutely traumatized by the movie because he was a kid at the time just out to see the 3D Matinee, and now he sees it as this anti-drug fable where they are trying to demonize hallucinogenic which is such a fascinating take.  These movies can lend themselves to a variety of rereadings because they are so interesting and I think that The Mask is one because, as you said it is very easily the equal of any of the similar B-Movie’s coming out of Hollywood at the time and I think that as a horror movie it might even be more effective because there are some moments, especially for the uninitiated that are genuinely scary in this film, in a way that a lot of those other films aren’t.  If you look at the legacy of Canadian horror movies, for the most part they are not joking around and they are trying to scare you and don’t play loose with humor.  If you look at the early Cronenberg’s and some others, there is no doubt that they are genuinely trying to freak you out.  It’s fascinating that this film which until now has been a somewhat shadowy piece of the puzzle, is doing the exact same thing and trying to creep you out, which I think comes across in a very effective manner.

When you do a preservation project like this, it is fascinating when you have all these people that can now watch it after all of these years that have passed where the discussion around horror in Canadian cinema, has already happened…The Mask allows us a re-entry into that discussion or at the very least to add it to the pile.  For me I guess just being able to recreate that original experience with the glasses in the theatre is the end goal of it all as far as I am concerned.

The Mask (Eyes of Hell) is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This post was written by
David Voigt, has been a lover of cinema all his life and an actual underpaid critic for a solid 5 years covering everything that the city of Toronto has to offer. He was a content manager in video distribution industry before that and his love of all things cinema goes back to his first moments in awe looking up at the big screen. His 12 years of experience on the home entertainment side of the business have provided him with a unique view on what is worth spending your hard earned entertainment dollars on. Combine that with his unquestioned love of film, David should be your only stop to find out about the best in film, not only in Toronto, but worldwide.