The Mask: Why this forgotten gem should be recognised as a cult classic.

September 19, 2019

 

When you say the words "cult film" there are certain movies that automatically come into people's minds. I'm sure you know the ones I mean; they're the Donnie Darkos, The Big Lebowskis, the John Carpenter films, or the work of David Lynch. Movies that just scream "cult", beyond any other film around it, and most people will agree that all of them are what we call cult films. But, what makes a cult film? Why are some movies considered "cult" while others aren't?

 

Are the Star Wars movies cult films, for example? Sure, at this point they're billion dollar franchises owned by the Dark Empire that is Disney, with major holiday release dates and an impressive box office haul, but they also have a strong and loyal fan base that, for lack of a better word, most definitely is cult-ish in nature. People dress up, they quote lines, and they write fan fiction.

 

The subject of what actually makes a cult film has been something I've often considered throughout my life, so much so that I created and now host an entire podcast about it (Cultish is going strong, by the way, hitting 110 episodes this week and has a pretty decent "cult" following itself, with actual fans who message the show with suggestions and things! Who knew?). But even now, after two years of talking about cult movies, and what makes certain movies cult, I'm no closer to understanding it, really.

 

Indeed, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why certain movies develop a following in the way that they do. And while some movies can be recognised somehow as both "classics" and "cult" in nature, other movies are recognised as solely a member of one of those two groups, while other movies, going even further into it, are recognised as neither, or simply not recognised at all.

 

And my total lack of real understanding on just what makes something a cult film, and why, is exemplified in no better way than the latest episode of the podcast. Because, this week, we were discussing all things Chuck Russell's 1994 smash comedy, The Mask.

 

The Mask, based on the Dark Horse Comic of the same name, but removed entirely from it in every way but the basic set-up, was a big movie when I was a kid. Everyone quoted it, there were catchphrases that seemingly entered into the pop-culture (you couldn't go anywhere without someone saying "Smokin'!" or "P-A-R-T-Why? Because I gotta!"), the look of the titular character was about as iconic as they come, it catapulted both Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz into super-stardom, where they would arguably become the biggest stars in the world, and it transformed VFX work forever.

 

Even now, when I talk about The Mask with people, almost everyone remembers it fondly. People have their favourite moments, they laugh at certain jokes, and mostly they all seem to enjoy it.

 

But then, at some point, it just got forgotten.

 

Quite why this happened I don't know, but perhaps it's a combination of Jim Carrey sort of not being everyone's favourite anymore (for a multitude of different reasons), the VFX perhaps looking a tad-dated, and the fact that's it's actually a really weird, hard to pin-down, difficult to sell movie that is wholly unique and incomparable to almost anything else I can think of.

 

And make no mistake, The Mask is weird. It's weird as hell. A sort of neo-noir crime thriller, in which everyone is playing their respective parts totally straight, the visual style captures the smokey rooms and neon-lit clubs of that kind of world, and that kind of genre, that is continuously invaded by a guy with a green face, giant teeth, and the ability to completely ignore the laws of... well, reality. And moving even deeper into it, the humour is drawn in part by simply watching this insane caricature play out various impossible scenarios, from inexplicably holding a balloon animal show when being chased by a gang of viscous, knife-wielding thugs, to stopping the entire movie for a good three minutes to perform a full on musical number, and in part by the fact that every single other character reacts with dumbfoundedness (is that a word?) at his presence because they're all presented as if they exist within an entirely different, hyper-stylised but relatively realistic gangster movie.

 

But, no matter how weird it is, and how bizarre it gets, I found myself, when re-watching it for the podcast, saddened by its lack of celebration.

 

The Mask was New Line Cinema's most expensive movie to date, and it has a production history that's as interesting and strange as the film itself. It's a comic book movie that chose to ignore the source materials basic USP (violence and gore. Lots of it) in favour of going for a more slapstick tone, that New Line unbelievably bought into despite the fact that the entire reason for making it in the first place was to find a horror icon to replace to ever-dwindling presence of Freddy Kruger.

 

And, look, it just isn't that often that movie so weird, starring essentially unknowns at the time, based off a relatively unheard of property, with such a massive budget is released into the mainstream by a major studio. And it's even less likely that said movie would then go on to become one of the highest earners of the year, create icons of its stars, spawn an animated series (remember that?) and enter into pop-culture.

 

And yet, when we talk about cult movies... no one flipping mentions The Mask!?

 

Where's the following here? Where's the love and the fan base and the all singing, all dancing, ultra special edition blu-ray release? It's not like The Mask has aged poorly, and yet the other Jim Carrey movie that year, Ace Ventura, gets more love than this does and it's one of the most homophobic, disgusting things I've had the displeasure of watching recently... I mean, my nostalgia goggles aren't cracked, they were thrown on the floor and stomped on with that one!

 

If I'm missing something here, let me know. But I genuinely have no clue why The Mask isn't discussed more. While on the surface it may appear to be a relatively simple "zero to hero" story, there's some interesting stuff going on in the movie as well. Carrey's Stanley Ipkiss begins the film as a self-professed "nice guy", but the truth is he's just not, and that becomes evident when he puts on the mask and he alter-ego, an unpredictable, kind of dangerous, bank robbing anti-hero emerges. Learning that he must both use his inner-strength, but overcome his own shortcomings and less than decent qualities, is a key factor. The Mask is the physical manifestation of the man that Stanley Ipkiss both wants to be, but also needs to overcome and learn to control.

 

It maybe not be the most subtle, or the most clever of movies, but it's not like it's nothing. There should absolutely be more love for this film. It should be mentioned alongside other cult favourites. People should be dressing up as the iconic lead character. We should be getting retrospectives and analysis's and the like. In short, we should just be talking a little more about The Mask.

 

With recent talk of a more faithful adaptation being brought to the big-screen, the potential for this movie to be rediscovered, and for a new audience to pop up around it, is huge. The Mask is just begging for a resurgence, and I for one, would like to see that happen.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018