Movies Till Dawn: Sights and Sounds Beyond Belief!

12 a.m. “The Mask” – Horror

2900(1961, Kino Lorber) At first blush, Canada’s first feature-length horror film – and its first film in 3-D – plays like an extended episode from one of the many suspense anthology series of the period, some of which employed director Julian Roffman during his brief stay in the States. The premise finds a psychiatrist (American actor Paul Stevens) visited by an agitated young man (Martin Lavut) who claims a tribal mask he found has driven him to kill. Sensing the doctor’s disbelief, the young man flees his office and commits suicide, but not before sending the mask – a huge, tiled, Aztec-like skull with apparently real human teeth – to the doctor. Upon opening the package, he is immediately compelled to put on the mask, which trigger an incredible barrage of hallucinatory images, which soon give rise to his own murderous impulses. Audiences would don special anaglyphic viewers to witness these setpieces, designed by Serbian filmmaker and montage specialist Slavko Vorkapich and filled with vivid, nightmarish imagery – hooded figures carrying out human sacrifices in mist-shrouded landscapes, gouts of flame, snakes bursting from skull eye sockets and a colossal mask leering above it all, while avant-garde composer Myron Schaeffer’s electronic soundscapes wail ominously. These scenes, which suggest an unholy union between Maya Deren, Carl Dreyer and Big Daddy Roth, are unquestionably the highlight of the picture and place “The Mask” in the same orbit as “Spider Baby,” “Carnival of Souls” or Leslie Stevens’ Esperanto-language film “Incubus”: black-and-white creature features with artistic aspirations that transcend (intentionally or not) the limitations of their genre and budget. Some of the performances and special effects are sub-par – Lavut’s stentorian, disembodied voice commanding the psychiatrist (and the audience) to “PUT ON THE MASK NOW” may produce a few giggles, and lot of rubbery snakes are thrust at the viewer – but Roffman’s professional direction of the 2-D scenes and the outrageous visual assault of the 3-D sequences make “The Mask” a truly unique viewing experience.

Kino Lorber’s lavish Blu-ray presents the uncut version of “The Mask” (among the restored scenes is a straight-faced introduction by publicist and promotional wildman Jim Moran) in both 2-D and 3-D versions. You’ll need a 3-D TV to see the complete film in the latter format, but the hallucinatory sequences can be viewed separately in anaglyphic format (you’ll need the red/blue glasses), as well as an impressive new short, “One Night in Hell,” which suggests how Georges Melies’ turn of the century fantasies might have played in 3-D. Commentary by Jason Pichonsky is conversational and informative, and details the history of the production and its players, while Julian Roffman’s career as a documentarian and TV director in the U.S. and Canada is explored in a featurette (which also offers a full-color glimpse of one of the surviving masks). Two short films by Vorkopich – the pioneering avant-garde films “Abstract Experiments in Kodachrome” and “The Life and Death of 9143, a Hollywood Extra” – showcase his extraordinary talents alongside montages from “David Copperfield” (1935) and other films, while an array of theatrical trailers, including a reissue titled “The Eyes of Hell,” and TV spots round out this highly recommended, highly psychotronic Blu-ray.

1:30 a.m. – “La Grande Bouffe” – Drama

61b4l3cNKRL(1973, Arrow Video) Outrageous, scatological satire of upper-middle-class male menopause taken to extremes (which is putting it mildly) by director Marco Ferreri. A quartet of middle-aged men – restaurant owner/chef Ugo Tognazzi, magistrate Philippe Noiret, TV exec Michel Piccoli and womanizing pilot Marcello Mastroianni – have grown tired of their privileged lives and retire to Noiret’s opulent villa for the purpose of eating themselves to death. A schoolteacher (Anne Ferreol) with her own set of prodigious appetites (and an abundance of wiles) soon joins them, and the group pursues its terminal goal with a series of increasingly grotesque repasts. Ferreri’s best-known feature film is a morbidly funny spectacle of excess that spares no quarter in depicting the digestive toll waged upon its leads in their pursuit of terminal gluttony; suffice it to say that some scenes (most notably the unclogging of the house’s sewer line) may prove a challenge to squeamish viewers. But “Bouffe” is not just a gastronomical gross-out; though unchecked consumerism seems to be its main satirical target (a notion vigorously dismissed by Ferreri in footage from the film’s chaotic press conference at Cannes that’s included in the extras), the director also seems to be addressing the pitfalls of bourgeoisie life: the four men have the money and status to end their own lives in the most lavish and absurd manner possible, but no amount of food or fornication can alleviate the anxieties that plague each of them – Mastroianni is impotent, Piccoli sexually confused and Noiret hobbled as an adult infant – and prevent them from genuine happiness or meaningful connection with others. The  final shot – pounds of expensive meat dumped into a courtyard to rot – serves as a mordant raspberry to their baronial aspirations. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray/DVD restoration of “La Grande Bouffe” includes a wealth of new and supplemental material, including an informative video essay on Ferrari’s early career and scene specific commentary by historian Pasquale Iannone; vintage interviews with Ferreri and behind-the-scenes footage, and a terrific booklet of liner notes by Johnny Mains, who includes the full menu for the quartet’s fatal feast.

2:30 a.m. “Swing Your Lady” – Comedy

616wLp-y+yL._SL1000_(1938, Warner Archive Collection) Wrestling promoter Humphrey Bogart and his sidekicks (comic character actor greats Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins) blow into a small Missouri town looking to set up a match for his grappler, Joe (Nat Pendleton, ever the genial brute). The only game is the local lady blacksmith, played con brio by former Mack Sennett comedian Louise Fazenda. Problems arise when the two lock horns and fall in love, which stirs the ire of Fazenda’s monster mountain man boyfriend Noah (real-life wrestler Leo “Daniel Boone” Savage). Bogart, sensing dollars to be made, arranges a match between Joe and Noah, with the winner earning Fazenda’s hand. Though Bogart regarded “Swing Your Lady” as his worst film (an opinion shared by many reviewers), his judgment was probably based on embarrassment than any particular technical element; there’s an unquestionable Bizarro World element in seeing Bogart (post-“Petrified Forest,” but not yet at the height of his WB fame) in the same film (same frame, even) with hillbilly singers and wrestlers, but the picture is no better or worse than any other B picture from the period. The comedy, which is drawn from a Broadway play (!) by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson, is dire, but the cast shoulders it well, and the musical numbers by the Weaver Brothers and Elviry are agreeable country novelty songs; though largely forgotten today, the trio were major stars of the Grand Ole Opry and made eleven additional rustic comedies for Republic between 1938 and 1943. The actor playing the sports reporter at the match, Ronald Reagan, also enjoyed long careers in various fields after his appearance here.

4 a.m. “The Maltese Bippy” – Comedy

61L8t8OAllL._SL1000_(1969, Warner Archives Collection) In their first feature film effort after striking pay dirt as the hosts of “Laugh-In,” the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin play hapless softcore filmmakers who cool their heels at Dan’s Charles Addams-styled manse in Long Island after their latest project goes awry. There, they contend with creepy neighbors (Fritz Weaver and Julie Newmar), cops (Robert Reed) and Dick’s apparent case of lycanthropy (!) while pursuing a fortune and jewels and Carol Lynley. Rowan and Martin’s years together as a comedy team (they debuted in the early ‘50s) lend a natural ease to their banter, and Martin is an energetic and amusing presence in both his “transformation” scenes and with Lynley. But the script, by the writer-producer team of Everett Freeman and Ray Singer, and direction by Norman Panama, feels leaden and stale – the antithesis of the anarchic, stream-of-consciousness humor on “Laugh-In.” All three probably seemed like a sure bet, given their collected past credits (“Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), but by the time of “Bippy’s” release, all three had settled into safe and unremarkable comedies for Doris Day and Bob Hope. Seen from a modern perspective, it’s a silly, harmless effort, probably best enjoyed by collectors of ‘60s pop culture detritus or character actor spotters, who will appreciate glimpses of familiar faces (if not names) like Leon Askin (doing his severe Teutonic schtick), Dana Elcar, Arthur Batanides, Alan Oppenheimer (the voice of Skeletor!) and a uncredited (perhaps wisely) Mike Kellin.

6 a.m. – “3-D Rarities” – Shorts/Animation/Experimental

51IfsY8YMBL(1922-1962, Flicker Alley) A remarkable collection of shorts, from stop-motion animation and coming attractions to industrial and burlesque films, that preserve the development of three-dimensional movie photography from its dawn in the silent era to the 3-D boom of the 1950s. Though the latter decade is the one most associated with 3-D in viewers’ minds, only half of the films compiled on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray are from that period; the earliest, a demonstration reel for an early anaglyphic method (opposite colored filters over viewers’ eyes) called Plasticon Pictures, shows scenes of Washington D.C. and New York in 1922. The subsequent 20+ films and photo galleries, all culled from and painstakingly restored by the 3-D Film Archive, trace the arc of the technology’s progress, from spectacle to potential art form and back, during its first wave of popularity. 3-D’s association with sensationalism is evident from its earliest incarnations, test reels and travelogues filled with swords, cameras, pistols, and in one bizarre moment, a glassful of acid thrust at the camera by a withered hag, all of which underscore the core appeal of stereoscopic cinematography: the notion of breaking the “fourth wall” between viewer and image and engaging them in the action of the movie. The widespread appeal of these shorts – all produced by independent companies and photography houses – naturally attracts the attention of major companies, resulting in 3-D shorts by the likes of Chrysler, Bolex and the Pennsylvania Railroad. These test the capacity of the process even further through imaginative shorts like “New Dimensions,” in which a 1940 Plymouth is constructed from the tires up in striking stop-motion animation. At the same time, 3-D becomes a bountiful playground for animators like Norman McLaren (who worked with Raymond Spottiswoode, a seminal figure in 3-D photography who was consulted for – “The Mask”!), whose shorts “Now is The Time” and “Around is Around” feature whimsical figures drawn directly onto the film over gorgeous expanses of color and shape, and “O Canada” by McLaren’s collaborator Evelyn Lambert, where the camera glides across a Canadian landscape built from pastel drawings and metal cut-outs in a seemingly endless zoom. These and other shorts illustrate 3-D’s artistic potential, which was quickly backburnered due to a combination of technical limitations and greater success with the process as an agent of movie ballyhoo.

The second half of “3-D Rarities” delves deeply into 3-D as most viewers understood it: as one of the most popular cinematic fads of the century, promising unparalleled sights to moviegoers for the price of a ticket and polarized glasses. 3-D’s association with the 1463669107281281455science fiction genre is illustrated with trailers for “It Came from Outer Space,” the first feature film to utilize the process, and “The Maze,” both starring Richard Carlson. Expecting a windfall from anything touched with 3-D, producers and distributors applied the process to all manner of projects, from prize fights (Rocky Marciano’s defeat of Jersey Joe Walcott in 1953, complete with Marciano delivering a jab directly at the audience), musical shorts (Nat “King” Cole and Russ Morgan performing in a short that accompanied the 3-D “Outer Space” trailer), comedy routines (comedy writer Trustin Howard in his stand-up persona of Slick Slavin, performing his act in Alaska for “Robot Monster” director Phil Tucker) and cartoons like “Boo Moon,” a 1953 “Casper the Friendly Ghost” short by Famous Studios that probably best illustrates 3-D’s ability to boost the visual impact of a film project. But shorts like “Boo Moon” were the exception for 3-D, not the norm; though interesting, the process never quite got a quality mainstream showcase to prove it was more than just a trick of depth perception. Saturation in the mid-50s led to a decline in popularity, and by the end of the decade, 3-D is back to its roots: a clever gimmick used to bring some appeal to less-than-notable efforts like “The Bellboy and the Playgirls,” a 1962 nudie-cutie with 3-D sequences shot by a young Francis Ford Coppola. The “Godfather” director is just one of many notable figures whose link to 3-D is featured in this set: viewers will also see clips by or featuring Rita Hayworth, John Ireland, Paul Frees, exploitation distributor Dan Sonney and Beany and Cecil (who were briefly considered for a full-length 3-D feature).

3-D is once again on the downward path after a second and even more profitable wave in the first decade of the new millennium, so the time is right to begin assessing the technology’s history and impact on film. Such an endeavor might not have been possible without the efforts of the 3-D Film Archives; many of these shorts were rescued from obscurity or total disrepair by their efforts, and the Blu-ray is testimony to their exceptional work. In addition to the films, the disc features several 3-D photo galleries, including stills from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), View-Master reels of the 1939 World’s Fair, and a handful of vintage comic books, as well as informative liner notes which explain the story and technology behind each film. All of the shorts can be viewed in 2-D format, but as with “The Mask,” for the full effect, you’ll need a 3-D Blu-ray player. 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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