Wednesday, November 3, 2021

A Beautiful Desolation: Poe, Price, Corman, and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ [Gods and Monsters]

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”

Between 1960 and 1964, Roger Corman directed a series of films for American International Pictures (AIP) based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. Collectively known as Corman’s Poe Cycle, it is a remarkably consistent series. They utilize much of the same behind the scenes crew, are written by some of the greatest voices in horror of the era, and all but one stars Vincent Price in some of his most iconic roles. Every film in the cycle is good, a few even great, but The Masque of the Red Death is a legitimate masterpiece.

Originally planned as the follow-up to The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Corman feared it would draw comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and decided to make The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) instead. Looking back, it seems odd to think that a film from the Pope of Pop Cinema released through B-movie house AIP would be compared to one of the crowning achievements of the towering Swedish master, but Corman’s concerns were not entirely unfounded. Both films are set in medieval times, deal with plague, feature a wandering personification of Death, ponder existential matters of religion, life, and death, and culminate in the Danse Macabre—the Dance of Death. After six successful films, however, Corman felt it was finally time to bring what he felt was Poe’s best story to the screen.

Thanks to a tax break, Corman discovered that he could shoot for five weeks, rather than the three of the previous six, for the same cost by making Masque in England. This brought several advantages to the film, particularly in the supporting cast largely made up of British actors, the existing sets available at Shepperton Studios, and the great cinematographer who would go on to be one of the great directors, Nicolas Roeg.

Though uncredited on Masque so it could be classified as a British film, production designer Daniel Haller returned to the Poe Cycle for the seventh time and is the only major crew member besides Corman to work on all eight films. Because of his experience with Corman, Haller was a master of transforming and rearranging set pieces into something new and wholly unique. With Masque, Haller was able to utilize medieval sets previously used on prestige pictures that had been filmed at Shepperton like Becket (1964) and Shakespearian adaptations. As a result, the sets of Masque are the most expansive of any of the Poe films. This gives the film an unprecedented sense of scale for a so-called B-horror picture.

Being a master cinematographer, Roeg takes full advantage of these sumptuous sets. His fluid moving camera lends a grace and elegance to the film and his lighting underscores the themes of good and evil, life and death. While the castle is filled with light and color, the village and the surrounding lands are plunged in darkness and shadow. Roeg and Corman fill the frame deep into its backgrounds, a feat that was nearly impossible for a color film of the period. The use of color is also at its height for the cycle and absolutely pops on screen. The veritable absence of reds except in the presence of the Red Death and its effects is a veritable stroke of genius for both director and cinematographer, making those moments all the more tense and horrifying.

Once again leading the cast is Vincent Price, giving one of his best performances as Prince Prospero, perhaps the most ruthless and depraved villain he ever played. Up to that point, it would be difficult to call his characters in the Poe films villains. They are often poor, wretched souls who are slowly driven mad. Even when they are compelled to evil acts, there is a level of sympathy and understanding. There is no sympathy for Prospero. He is a man who seeks only his own pleasure and entertainment, especially at the expense and corruption of others. He orders his subjects and guests to humiliate themselves for his enjoyment and tortures and kills local peasants as they beg for mercy. When the fearsome plague known as “The Red Death” is discovered in the nearby village, he orders it burned to the ground and walls himself and his guests up within his castle.

Hazel Court returns to the series for the third and final time as Juliana, who believes that by devoting herself fully to Satan as Prospero has, she can win the prince’s affections. She brands herself on the breast with the inverted cross and celebrates a black mass that binds her to the Prince of Darkness. The “wedding to Satan” scene, which was largely cut by British censors in 1964 but restored to the recent Scream Factory release, is a memorable and influential sequence. Film scholar Stephen Jones rightly compares it to the “dream” sequence in Rosemary’s Baby from a few years later. It is filled with surreal imagery, utilizing moody green lighting and balletic music and movement to create an impression that is simultaneously beautiful and unnerving.

Juliana is the dark reflection of the peasant girl Francesca, played by Jane Asher, who is brought to the castle after refusing to choose between her father or the man she loves being put to death. She is a woman of pure and simple faith. Prospero seeks to corrupt Francesca and convince her to abandon her belief by showing her the evils and cruelties of the world. “If you believe my dear Francesca, you are gullible,” Prospero tells her. “Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death, they rule this world.” Francesca counters by saying, “there is also love and life and hope.” Prospero goes on to state what was on the minds of many in the 60’s, “if a god of love and life ever did exist, he is long since dead.” Two years later, a similar sentiment would appear emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine: Is God Dead? The existential debates of the film are not merely philosophizing, however, but tied into the film’s story, characters, and themes.

Feeling that Charles Beaumont’s original script was strong but needed “more depth,” Corman called upon screenwriter R. Wright Campbell to add the subplot involving the character of the court jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and his revenge against Alfredo. Played by Patrick Magee, probably best known as the writer Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alfredo is a jealous rival of Prospero who is humiliated by the prince in front of his guests for slapping Hop Toad’s wife. Hop Toad, enraged by this violence against his fragile bride, vows vengeance against Alfredo and lulls him into a false sense of security. He convinces Alfredo to attend the masquerade as a great ape, binds him, and burns him alive. Prospero is impressed by these actions, and orders Hop Toad be rewarded for his “entertaining jest.” This subplot underscores an important theme of the film, namely the mistreatment of the poor by the powerful.

The Masque of the Red Death is in many ways a commentary on 60s social ills, particularly class, the attitudes of the rich over the poor, and by extension inequities due to race—all matters as relevant now as they were in 1964. Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, the wealthy are blasting themselves into space, a metaphor not so far removed from Prospero hiding in his ivory tower as the poor suffer from a plague outside his walls. As the COVID-19 crisis was at its height, we saw multiple tone-deaf videos from celebrities and politicians sitting in the lap of luxury philosophizing about the nature of life, death, and suffering. Some said things like “we’re all in this together and we’re all the same” while sitting in bathtubs filled with milk, walled up in luxurious mansions, or vacationing on private islands.

These kinds of discrepancies are illustrated throughout the film, but particularly in the climactic masquerade ball sequence. Immediately following a massacre of peasant villagers who have come to the castle seeking refuge, Prospero is seen throwing jewels and pearls to his guests who scramble to pick them up from the floor. “Look at them, all scrambling like starving men for crusts of bread,” Prospero says to Francesca, “all wealthy and all greedy for more.” He then promises his guests that everyone within his walls is safe, but the personification of the Red Death enters anyway. When Prospero sees the red-robed specter, he is infuriated because he commanded that no one at the masque was to wear red. He pursues the stranger through the multicolored rooms before finally confronting him. He becomes convinced that the stranger is Satan who has come to reward him. Prospero then brings the stranger out to his guests and the scene culminates in the Dance of Death in which the entire court is stricken with the horrifying, bloody pestilence.

Prospero then bargains with Death, saying that he made a pact with the devil that will protect him from the plague. “Your pact will not save you,” says the stranger. Prospero then pulls away the specter’s mask only to reveal his own face. Prospero has brought death, destruction, and suffering upon the villagers, his guests, and ultimately himself. He is, and always was, to blame. As he is taken by the plague, the Red Death says to him, “why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long time.”

This is ultimately the biggest reason why both Poe’s original story and Corman’s film remain timeless. Death does not discriminate; it eventually comes for us all. There is no telling who it will come for or when it will arrive. We are constantly at its mercy. As the Red Death says as the film closes, “I called many—peasant and prince, worthy and the dishonored.” He then joins his brethren, plagues of various colors, who walk the earth bringing desolation wherever they go. It is a frightening proposition to be faced with our own mortality and that is perhaps one reason why The Masque of the Red Death did not do as well at the box office compared to the previous films in the Poe Cycle. But its artful exploration of life’s greatest questions through true terror, an engaging story, and the remarkable beauty of its filmmaking craft makes it an exceptional example of the heights that horror can reach.


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