“Put the mask on now…”
In 1961, director Julian Roffman unleashed The Mask (aka Eyes Of Hell) upon the world. The Mask carries the distinction of being the first Canadian 3-D horror movie ever made and since it’s initial release it has become a certified cult classic. I have only just seen the film thanks to the newly restored DVD/Blu Ray released through Kino Lorber and the fine folks of the 3-D Archive.
The film, itself, is pretty much a by-the-numbers, early-60s horror affair that plays up the psychological horror as opposed to any onscreen brutality. The story features the tale of a young man, his doctor and a mysterious mask that, when worn, puts the wearer into a psychotronic world of horrific human sacrifice.
I enjoyed the film immensely due, almost entirely, to the now legendary 3-D sequences. Even watching on a standard TV with the superbly reproduced ‘Magic Mystic Mask’ viewer, I became totally immersed in the images on screen. While the 3-D was/is great, a large part of the sequences’ effectiveness all comes down to the additional score composed by Myron Schaeffer. The Mask, essentially, has two scores; one composed by Louis Applebaum, which is a more traditional score of relaxed orchestration and then the one composed by Schaeffer.
The Applebaum score isn’t necessarily bad, but when placed next to Shaeffer’s electronic wizardry, it pales in comparison.
The three electronic sequences composed for the film, as well as the band Larva’s own re-score of The Mask, have just been released on vinyl through new label Ondes Positives. I recently caught up with one half of the Ondes Positive team and Larva band member Scott Johannsson to chat about Myron Schaeffer, The Mask and re-scoring a favorite film.
Blumhouse.com: When did you first see/hear about The Mask?
Scott Johannsson: I must have been around 17, and was getting into the RE/Search book series – they were sub-culture tracts about Modern Primitives, Angry Women, Incredibly Strange Music and The Industrial Culture Handbook – all essential guides! But it was the Incredibly Strange Films volume that became my bible. It started a lifelong quest into unusual cinema. The first obsession it provoked was due to the front cover, which had a bizarre and alluring image of a masked woman at a sacrificial altar – very theatrical and intensely surreal and dreamlike. It was a still from The Mask. And being also obsessed with 3D films/comics etc. it was number one with a bullet on my must-find list. But back in the late 80s the only way to see it was on NTSC VHS – I had to wait until I could buy a VCR, which could cope with the format. Laserdiscs and grey-market DVD versions followed. I just can’t believe it’s now fully restored in HD!
BH: What was it about the film’s music that made you want to make it Ondes Positives first release?
SJ: Truthfully, we’d never really paid specific attention to the music. But once we got serious about attempting a re-score (commissioned by Flatpack Film Festival in the UK) and started focusing in on Myron Schaeffer’s music in the 3D sequences, it became clear that we really had our work cut out!
It’s astonishing stuff – an electroacoustic maelstrom that’s pretty much unlike anything else at that time. Then discovering that the man responsible was practically forgotten and unheralded – our fate was sealed for the next three years.
BH: I understand Larva re-scored the film for some live performances, which also makes up one half of The Mask release. How did you go about composing the re-score?
SJ: We had to seriously ask ourselves “why?”- We’ve both seen a lot of film re-scores, and they’re not always either very good or necessary in my opinion.
I must have seen ten different live Nosferatu re-scores, and only one seemed to really nail it, so we initially approached with caution. But since at the time we were getting serious about forging a new music project with a focus on a particular analog sound-palette and approach, it made more and more sense to make The Mask our first endeavor – new music for the film’s psychedelic sequences, whilst tipping our hat to the original.
On a practical note, this was before LARVA had a rehearsal space – and looking back we can’t believe that we wrote and rehearsed the score in Nick’s living room between work shifts, so mostly quite late in the evening. We have no idea what the neighbors were making of this infernal skronk coming through the walls! It’s actually quite a terrifying thought – cowering in their armchairs, steeling themselves against the sonic onslaught!
BH: Did the recent film restoration have anything to do with you wanting to release the score?
SJ: We literally had no idea when we started. At the time, around late 2012, the film was still only available on dodgy fly-by-night DVDs sourced from a poor TV master.
Almost no one had heard of the movie let alone seen it, beyond a fervent cult following. It was re-issued by New Line in the 80s I believe, at the height of the 3D boom, with advertising which suggested “the ultimate head trip” and all that malarkey. But we did extensive online research whilst writing the music, and came across a fantastic resource in the ‘Depthsploitation’ blog by Jason Pichonsky, as well as forum postings regarding a possible restoration by Bob Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive. I tried to reach out to Bob at the time, but it wasn’t meant to be. Then we literally forgot all about it until, astonishingly, on the actual day that we received test-pressings for our LP I was forwarded a tweet of someone holding up a replica Mask 3D Viewer, saying, “all set for the restoration premiere at TIFF 2015”. Unbelievable timing!
So I got in touch with Bob and thanks to the 3-D Film Archive, we were able to license Myron Schaeffer’s original score for inclusion on the LP. I have to say, we were pinching ourselves at that point. It was an amazing week for the project.
BH: The composer (Myron Schaeffer) is still a relatively unknown entity in the world of soundtrack/score music, was part of wanting to release the score a way to share his unique score with the world?
SJ: It became a big thing for us; in fact we became Schaeffer cheerleaders! Here’s a man who was quietly heading an experimental music studio at the University of Toronto in the late 50’s, inventing electronic instruments such as The Hamograph, and Robert Moog was visiting him and getting ideas for furthering his own work. And yet there was barely a reference to him online, and only one recorded piece – a joint composition on an Electronic Music compilation. For us it became about more than just his involvement with this curio horror film – he represented the unsung world of early Canadian electronic music. It’s the kind of thing that, the more you dig into it, the more you want to know. Who’ll be the next unknown pioneer?
BH: The score for The Mask is quite experimental in nature; do you know how it was received when the film first came out?
SJ: Not sure. There’s so much craziness going on in those 3D scenes that you just accept this insane assault of sound collage as part of the ride. It’s only when you listen to it without the images that you realize what an extraordinary accomplishment it is. In a way, it’s a similar thing to Carl Stalling’s music for the Looney Tunes cartoons – context changes everything. The other thing is, Schaeffer’s work on the film was completed by another composer, Louis Appelbaum, who’d been tasked with the more trad orchestral suspense score for the movie but took over and completed work on the 3D sequences because at some point Schaeffer suffered a stroke.
It’s incredibly difficult to ascertain who-did-what, but it’s clear that the sound in those sequences sounds and feels the way it does because of Schaeffer’s experimentation and the use of his own instruments, including the Hamograph. It’s why we’ve credited the score to Schaeffer on the LP. Nick was great at digging into this stuff, and actually found the original patents and schematics for the Hamograph. We should build one!
BH: How have you found the fan reaction towards the release?
SJ: We had absolutely no clue how this release would be received. It’s a kind of insane project in many ways – once we’d decided to record our own live score and then gained the license for the original, it just sort of ballooned into this ever-expanding focus for our creativity. We went a little crazy with the whole package! We jointly conceptualized and I designed it, and at no point did either of us say, “We have to pull back! This is going to cost a fortune, we’re trying things that haven’t been done before, and we don’t have a clue if anyone is going to be interested!” We blundered into a minefield with our first release, but throughout we both had a blind conviction that the audience for this stuff was out there….just waiting! And so far, the response has been very humbling. There’s a personal element to the interactions we’re having, since Nick and I are both not only artists but avid consumers – we’re just as fetishistic about vinyl as many others, and we get what makes people smile and say “oh, that’s just too cool to ignore.” You can be a sucker for a girl in a pretty dress, but of course she has to have some personality too!
We really hope that, even if fans are picking up the record for the way it looks they will discover, and be knocked out by, the astonishing music that Schaeffer created.
BH: What’s next for Ondes Positives?
SJ: We had the idea for a very limited edition of hand-made cassettes. We’ve been going to our rehearsal room pretty much weekly for about ten months, making and recording unrepeatable music alongside avant-garde short films. Bokanowski, Lynch, Takashi Ito – that kind of thing. Wish us luck!
The Mask is currently available in a limited run of 300 copies. The Ondes Positive team has well and truly knocked it out of the park on this, their debut release, with the presentation of this two disc set. As impressive as the pictures are, this is very much a ‘see it to believe it’ release.
As a combined listen, it takes you on a journey you may never want to come back from. The three tracks composed by Schaeffer walk the line between genius and terror and, at times, have left me jumping in pure fright and delight! Also, when taken into account that the three Schaeffer tracks are over fifty years old, they sound even more impressive. That’s not discounting the quite wonderful re-score by Larva. Not straying too far from the path laid out for them, when listening to both The Mask soundtracks, you have a pure unadulterated electronic master class that will leave you wondering when you started wearing The Mask… -TG