If a modern-day horror film were shot in the Royal Ontario Museum, a director might be inclined to set some action in the museum’s bat cave.
But the revered exhibit didn’t exist 50 years ago when Julian Roffman directed The Mask, a psychological 3-D horror film which made use of the museum’s iconic totem pole. Premiering at Toronto’s Downtown Theatre on November 10, 1961, it ushered Canadian cinema into the horror genre established by Hollywood in the 1920s.
Screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week, the film, a drug-use allegory in which an archaeologist blames an ancient mask for terrible nightmares and murder, has always been a personal favourite of Paul Corupe, a Toronto-based writer and editor who founded Canuxploitation, a website examining the history of Canadian exploitation cinema. “The Mask is one of the first Canadian genre movies I saw that I truly recognized as Canadian,” says Mr. Corupe, comparing Mr. Roffman’s effort – the first Canadian film distributed by a major Hollywood studio – to a spook-show ride at the CNE: “A little creaky and campy, maybe, but still thrilling fun.”
In horror films – from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, to late-night cable staple Murder By Phone, in which a disgruntled employee kills customers through the phone lines and Deadly Eyes, where dachshunds dressed as large contaminated rats overrun the city and the TTC – Toronto typically seems cold and impersonal, says Mr. Corupe. “The quasi-futuristic concrete architecture so popular in the 1970s appears a lot because it gives the impression of soul-destroying bureaucracy and sinister government agencies up to no good,” he added.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of The Mask on Wednesday coincided with UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Sylvia Frank, director of the Film Reference Library, says that while much attention is paid to the preservation of early cinema, many more recent Canadian films are in danger of disappearing due to limited restoration funds. “The Mask is a perfect example,” said Ms. Frank. “It’s one of the only prints available in the world.”
Both Ms. Frank and Mr. Corupe agree that the uncertain survival status of many early Canadian horror films is partly due to the intense criticism they received upon their release, but late-night television viewing, DVDs and the interest generated on the internet have kept them alive – although Mr. Corupe still awaits the horror film debut of the ROM’s bat cave.