Sunday, October 20, 2019

Unmask, Unmask...

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964, directed by Roger Corman) was originally planned to be the second of Corman's Poe films for American International Picture, following the unexpectedly large success of House of Usher. Corman had a screenplay in hand, but he eventually decided that the subject matter was too similar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which was then making its way through the American marketplace. Corman, reluctantly, turned to the more gruesome The Pit and the Pendulum. He wouldn't come back to The Masque of the Red Death for several years. By that time, he had started to use the Poe films as experimental films. Corman, in spite of the cash register in his heart, was a man of taste and discernment. When he returned to The Masque of the Red Death in 1964, he did not care that the screenplay he had in hand was too similar to Bergman. He was fine with that.

The story in The Masque of the Red Death is more or less the story one will find in Poe, though Corman and his screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell have improvised on top of the bones of Poe's scenario. It's still about an Italian prince, Prospero, who walls himself up inside his castle with his courtiers to hide from the Red Death, which is ravaging the land. In Corman's film, Prospero is a Satanist, whose absolute dominion over his guests manifests itself in sadistic games. The key object of his sadism is the peasant girl, Francesca, who submits to Prospero on the promise that he will spare her lover and her father from execution. This arouses the jealousy of Prospero's concubine and fellow Satanist, Juliana, who contrives to sabotage both Francesca's attempts to free her men, and Prospero's lust for Francesca. Meanwhile, the film includes a subplot derived from Poe's "Hop-Frog" that meshes surprisingly well with the main story, concerning a dwarf jester who contrives to exact a ghastly revenge on Duke Alfredo, one of Prospero's guests, in revenge for Alfredo's lust for Hop-frog's paramour. While the rest of the countryside dies from the plague, Prospero plans a masked ball for the stroke of midnight. He forbids his guests to wear red to the ball. Alas, he has an uninvited guest who didn't get the message...

Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman's final two Poe movies are the handsomest films in the director's portfolio. Filmed in England for tax purposes, Corman had access to the scene dock at Anglo-Amalgamated, a production company that had just finished making the big budget film, Becket. Corman's production designer, Daniel Haller, was already a master at making more from less, and he took full advantage of having to make more of more. The resulting largess is a film that looks many times more expensive than its actual budget. Moreover, Corman himself had been working in Europe for a while when he made Masque, and you can see some of the influence of the continental Gothics by Bava or Freda on the look of the film. This is almost certainly the result of having Nicholas Roeg for a cinematographer, but not entirely so. You see Corman expanding his use of space in this film, opting for compositions in depth where previously, he blocked his scenes for expediency. The film is lit differently than the other Poes, too, and makes extensive use of color that is meant to lead the eye around the film frame in addition to its occasional symbolism. Some of this comes from the Poe story itself, but not all of it.

Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

This is the peak of Corman's collaboration with Vincent Price, whose characters in the Poe films often vacillated between a kind of effete neurasthenia and a more vigorous sadism, sometimes in the same film (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace). Price's version of Prospero, however, is all villain. He delights in evil, thinks hard about the nature of evil, and descants his theories to the film's virginal heroine all while torturing and murdering to his heart's content. When Hop-frog burns Duke Alfredo alive at Prospero's masquerade, Prospero tells one of his retainers to give the dwarf a sum of money for offering such lively entertainment. There's still a twinkle in Price's eye as he performs all of this--this isn't the blank moral vacuum of Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General--but it's not a tongue in cheek performance, either. Prospero enjoys evil for its own sake like a gourmet enjoys food. There's some of Price himself in the performance, which isn't the case with Roderick Usher or Verden Fell. There's a bit of Bergman in Prospero, as well. Like the protagonists in Bergman's films, Prospero wonders about the silence of God, concluding that God must be dead or indifferent. Prospero goes one further than that, deducing from the plague, death, war, and misery in the world that something far worse than God rules in his place. Prospero is a philosopher villain. De Sade would have recognized him as a kindred soul.

Jane Asher and Hazel Court in The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

It's remarkable that Price doesn't swamp his leading ladies, because it's the kind of performance that could push other actors to the margins, but both Jane Asher as Francesca and Hazel Court as Juliana hold their own in the film. Asher is the eyes of the audience and we mostly experience the film from her point of view, while Court seems to relish the idea of playing a wanton Satanist. Court gets the starring role in the film's dream sequence freak out when Juliana is "married" to Satan. Among the guests, the film gives time to Hop-frog, played by Skip Martin, and Duke Alfredo, played by Patrick Magee. Magee's scenes with Prospero find him leering at the film's women, but his scenes with Skip Martin are outside of the shadow of Price and the ladies. The film's blocking of actors in the frame often places mortal enemies opposite each other and so it is with Magee and Martin, who are arranged with fire between them in a ghastly example of foreshadowing.

Patrick Magee and Skip Martin in The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The dream sequence and the final ball reveal some of Corman's limitations, whether those were financial or just a failure of imagination. The director himself claims that he's never been satisfied with the masquerade sequence, which has the look of a concept that should have been choreographed and rehearsed for weeks, employing professional dancers and a choreographer. Corman had none of that. He had neither time nor resources. One of the initial impulses that prompted Corman to make the Poe films in the first place was that he wanted to slow down and make something good rather than the three-day wonders he was making in 1959 and 1960 (and even later with The Terror). It's ironic that this film would run up against the same limits of time and money, only on a grander scale. What these two scenes most resemble are elements of Corman's later hippie-themed films like The Trip. Corman never throws anything away, though it's significant that this is the only one of the Poe films that doesn't end with a fire and the footage of a burning barn that Corman shot for the end of House of Usher. Nor is it as overtly Freudian as Corman's other Poe films. It has an otherness to it when set next to its brethren

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The most memorable scenes in the movie are the exploits of the Red Death himself, personified as a figure in a red robe. He acts like a Greek chorus. We meet him at the outset, and then at intervals throughout the film. The epilogue belongs to him, and it's here that the film shows its debt to Bergman in full. Death, as in The Seventh Seal, is a game player, and we find him playing cards with the little girl that he has spared. When his fellow Deaths arrive to report their findings on the human race, they seem resigned that things never change, and that death itself is a great equalizer. It's a striking ending for a film that's more artful than its audience likely demanded. Indeed, this was the least financially successful of the Poe films, something that Sam Arkoff blamed on it being too "artsy fartsy" for drive-ins. But the film has endured in spite of this. It's clearly the best of Corman's Poe films.

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