Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (based on the stories "The Masque of the Red Death" and "Hop-Frog" by Edgar Allan Poe)
It's unusual for franchises to become greater objects of passion for their makers as they progress; and in our present case of AIP's Edgar Allan Poe cycle, we also have to contend with the fact that (of its canonical entries, at least) every single one of the seven films to date, packed into just five years, had been directed by the exact same guy, Roger Corman. Indeed, if we look ever-so-slightly ahead, we'll see that this was also his next-to-last. You'd practically assume, then, that Corman was close to getting sick of it, and if we refer to his two Poe films of the preceding year, The Raven and The Haunted Palace, we would suspect a certain weariness: the former was a joke and the latter wasn't even a Poe movie until AIP rebranded it. In both cases, the titles were pulled from Poe's poetry, which seems like scraping out the barrel. But Corman had, more by accident than design, deferred the pleasure of doing his favorite (or at least second-favorite) Poe short story till almost the end of his run, for as soon as his very first Poe adaptation, House of Usher, had proven a hit, he'd begun to contemplate "The Masque of the Red Death" as the subject of his follow-up, and it was only out of insecurity that he'd pushed the project aside. Believing that the superficial similarities to 1957's The Seventh Seal could invite jeering accusations of plagiarism, it fills me with compassion for Corman as an artistic soul: for starters, as Ingmar Bergman sure as hell didn't invent Death-the-anthromorphized-concept, the thought of Corman feeling obliged to give him so much deference bugs me; moreover, it reminds me that there was once a time when Roger Corman actually could give a shit whether a movie he made ripped off something else. For 1961, then, it was on to Pit and the Pendulum, where Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson ripped off themselves, though they did do it so uncommonly well.
This hesitation, however, provided a rare opportunity for Corman to spend several years developing a project. He used these to refine the plotless atmosphere of Poe's short story—Poe's tale being accurately summarized, "during a plague, a hedonistic nobleman with a taste for solid-color interior design goes into quarantine with a thousand of his closest friends, but it doesn't work out"—and in the interim things got ambitious. I cannot say if this extended development was a boon to Masque of the Red Death: I can understand finding Masque the most admirable of Corman's Poe adaptations, because it's so substantial in its themes (death, religion, and the problem of evil versus the other Corman Poe movies' themes of matinee-friendly madness and how much it would suck to get buried alive), and because it's so daring in its technique (this is the AIP horror film with an interpretive dance number!). Nor does it hurt its reputation, I'm sure—though this rankles me in the same way that the Bergman thing does—that it was shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg before he embarked on a celebrated career as a director of films that I personally don't like. (Roeg, nevertheless, does swell enough work that you pretty much never wonder how Floyd Crosby would've done it instead.) Hence it tends to place highly not just amongst Corman's Poes, but 60s horror overall. I don't begrudge it that, as its highs are extraordinarily high, climaxing as it does with some spectacularly bold visual ideas (not just interpretive dance, either). Yet it's a somewhat clunky ride getting there, the outcome of agglomerating more and more stuff onto the core concepts of "hedonist, plague," and perhaps suffering under the second-guessing that sometimes happens when you've put years of work into something you care about. And by the end it gets squeamish, squeamish enough that Poe might've been annoyed by it, too.
Corman had first given Masque to his semi-Matheson, Charles Beaumont, but the script passed through numerous hands over the years, never fully satisfying the producer-director. Corman would have preferred that Beaumont himself took one last crack at it, and maybe this would've done the trick, but the illness that would soon claim Beaumont's life was accelerating, and so finalization fell to R. Wright Campbell, who accompanied Corman to Britain for the shoot. The idea there was to take advantage, in co-production with Anglo-Amalgamated, of certain subsidies available to filmmakers if they used a British cast and crew. British screenwriters weren't a necessity, but the scheme also had a carve-out for one foreign director, Corman, and one foreign star, this of course being Vincent Price, the headliner of all Corman's Poes. These strictures didn't leave Corman completely disarmed of his usual collaborators; he managed to smuggle his production designer, Daniel Haller, into a position theoretically "subordinate" to art director Robert Jones, though in practice Haller was in charge. (Corman, unsurprisingly, had problems working with the British, whose unions had won them many more concessions than their American counterparts, some of which were anodyne, like more frequent breaks, and some of which make them sound more like the editorial cartoons in a reactionary newspaper—Haller, who of course had no compunction about recycling sets if they were available, had to cheat British rules to get ahold of the Becket sets he used for Masque, since reportedly the British custom was to take the sets out to a field and bulldoze them, which is so wasteful and stupid I don't think I believe it.)
I've complained, but Beaumont and Wright's script expands "Masque" in largely natural directions, especially at the outset. Here we find an old woman out collecting kindling in a nebulous medieval Italy, whereupon she encounters an incarnation of the Red Death (John Westbrook, uncredited, though whether this is contractual or thematic, I can't say), who announces that this is the day of her village's deliverance. Mistaking this blatantly malign supernatural figure as a messenger of a more benevolent power, she brings this message back to her folk, which is why this time, they find the spine to resist the prince of their lands when he comes to collect his taxes—or, as they lack the resources for resistance (it's not really a problem, but this is the movie about medieval Europe where aristocrats outnumber peasants ten to one), at least insult him to his face. This proud prince, called Prospero (Price), almost seems to relish the opportunity to discipline his subjects. He's about to execute the two most recalcitrant villagers, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), when he's interrupted by Francesca (Jane Asher), daughter to the latter, lover to the former, who pleads for Prospero's mercy. Prospero makes a game of it, promising to spare one, if she chooses which one. Prospero's sport is interrupted, however, when it turns out the old woman brought back, in addition to ironic prophecy, the red death's hemorraghic plague. Prospero flies back to his castle, but, enamored with Francesca, kidnaps the girl, her father, and lover, resolving to continue Francesca's education in the real ways of the world at his leisure.
In the meantime, he prepares a grand celebration of continued survival for his noble friends, inviting them to seek refuge from the plague behind his walls; yet he continues to test Francesca, finding in her a strong Christian zeal that he would take great pleasure in corrupting towards his own faith, a brand of Satanism shared by him and his concubine, Juliana (Hazel Court). Francesca can but try to keep her dignity in the face of Prospero's prodding threats, though he almost seems to find it pitiable when the cracks in her brave facade finally do begin to manifest.
This is all preface, of course, to the foreordained appearance of a certain uninvited guest at Prospero's masque—as Matheson had with Pit, Beaumont essentially worked backwards—but it's a completely reasonable extrapolation of Poe's Prospero to turn him into a cruel despot who despoils Christian maidens for laughs. It is less the case, perhaps, that "Masque" recommended Prospero as a Satanist, but as Poe did imply an esoteric and mystical side to his aesthete prince, this was a perfectly sound addition on Beaumont's part, and Prospero's creed becomes rather more interesting than the usual villainous devil worship; Beaumont and Campbell bring it back to Poe's intimation that, for Prospero, "life and death are equally jests," and Prospero's Satanism is more philosophy than religion, built on the bones of a Gnostic dualism but turned crucially away from Gnosticism's ascetism and idealism, instead accepting that while this world of mud and blood could only be the Devil's creation, there's nothing else to hope for beyond it. Philosophically, it's convincing, though Prospero seems to use it mostly as an excuse for indulging in colorful and consequence-free malevolence. Yet eventually even Francesca begins to concede that Prospero's hedonist realism makes more sense than belief in any deity that's supposed to care.
And as long as that's what's onscreen, Masque works, in larger part because of Price's excellent performance. The scenes by default become repetitive (how will Prospero threaten to kill Francesca's loved ones without killing them this time? though at least he does, eventually, manage to kill one of them), and Asher is basically just asked to restate her faith with less fervor each time Prospero invites her to abandon it. Price, however, gets to do practically everything, presenting a buffet of evil, from the matter-of-fact exercise of his power to his giddiness over the prospect of new transgressions, all of it born out of a certain abiding ennui. It's a great existentialist performance, founded on a desperation for living even as life's purpose fades, Price even managing a certain redemptive dimension in his fixation upon Francesca, who rouses him to both anger and empathy for a creature still able to perceive some meaning in the world. Now, it's best not to credit Price for finding this all on his own: much of this is said aloud. But it's a bit of a talk opera by design—the stunning finale opens up with the film's only real supernatural agency explaining that Prospero was right about God, but there's no Satan, either—and given that, it's hard to call Masque's didacticism a sin. Plus, since it's Price, there's an inviting affability to this connoisseur of evil that's always entertaining, too.
However, this isn't the whole movie by a long shot, and, thanks to Corman's perceived need to pad the Poe story, Masque grew to become the longest of his Poe adaptations, which means Corman never had much actual need to pad the story. (The more obvious need was to pad Haller's production design budget, but we'll get there.) It's a mere 90 minutes, so almost by definition it can't be "too long." It might be too short, tripping over itself as it spins from its A-plot into B-, C-, and even D-plots, which altogether take up a fair amount of time without feeling like they actually matter (or, given the film's nihilism, without feeling like they don't matter in useful ways). So we get about twenty minutes of fluff that are, to their credit, never boring, but feel like they're riding complete parallel lines to the actual story. Juliana's subplot comes off the worst, I think, mostly serving as the excuse for a Corman dream sequence in the form of a drug-fueled Satanic rite (though I do like this sequence). Juliana's terror of being made redundant is supposed to tie in with Prospero's spiritual and sexual lust for Francesca, but—between a script that doesn't have much more use for her than branding an upside-down cross on her boob and wasting Court on a flat one-dimensional performance—the connection remains exceedingly tenuous, even when it's summarily cut short as another way to establish Prospero's brutality.
Then there's the avowed padding: for to beef up Beaumont's thin script, Campbell seized upon Poe's final horror tale, the awesome revenge thriller "Hop-Frog," for added material. Its interpolation into "Masque" seems smart on paper—both take place during masques thrown by decadent princes, and "Hop-Frog's" conclusion dovetails nicely with this Prospero's violent whimsy—but it's not an entirely satisfying addendum, and not simply because they unaccountably change the dwarf bent on vengeance from Hop-Frog to Hop-Toad (Skip Martin). It's too involved to be punchy, but too short, and maybe too perfunctory in its pursuit of the spectacle of the offending nobleman's (Patrick Magee's) demise to do "Hop-Frog" real justice. (It's at least sleazy, and therefore more appropriate to Prospero's court, until Hop-Toad's insulted "dwarf" dance partner's dubbed voice kicks in. Casting a child instead of a dwarf for the "tiny dancer" introduces a disquieting pedophiliac element that's presumably still deliberate—Magee gets it, given the shamed sweatiness in his reaction shots—but the behind-the-scenes explanation is just depressing and icky, as it seems they just couldn't find a British dwarf they thought was cute enough.) Finally, Gino's D-plot provides a couple of minutes' worth of swashbuckling, which wouldn't be worth noting except Gino and Ludovico are such featureless entities that they are slightly boring. I suppose my main objection, however, is that when they arrive at a potentially-interesting convolution for Gino, Masque retrenches into its most unlikeable aspect, which is that after 80 minutes of preparing us for the desolation of meaning in an arbitrary universe, heading towards the foregone conclusion of Poe's story, which the Red Death's own monologue states is devoid of moral judgment, Masque provides something like a happy ending anyway. (This is even more pat considering that the likeliest vector for the red death entering Prospero's quarantine is Francesca.)
But that ending, whereupon Masque at last catches up with its source material, is something; so my last (and frankly my biggest) criticism of Masque is that despite their recourse to stealing sets, Corman and Haller don't seem to have saved enough money to actually do "The Masque of the Red Death," which is, after all, damned near Poe's own production design memo in creepy, fatalistic prose. They change the colors, as yellow wasn't even in Poe's scheme, and I eagerly agree this doesn't matter; the rooms are very small, which does matter but is an allowance you're happy to give to Corman; but they reduce the number of rooms from seven to four, which is just fucking miserly, and blunts the effect of passing through a weird rainbow on your way to the room of death that none of Poe's revelers, but one, can countenance inhabiting. Now, I approve of reimagining Poe's rooms as a linear series of antechambers leading to the Satanic holy-of-holies of the black room with the red window, and Roeg manages some superb shots within this room of horrible crimson figures suspended in depthless black with only the miraculously-graphic abstraction of the red window to keep them company (not to mention a couple of great dolly shots through the multi-hued procession of rooms flinging us headlong toward the void), and I dig the texture of Prospero's anecdote about the prisoner kept in the yellow room who could, upon his release, tolerate nothing yellow, from the sun to something as small as a daffodil, even though this room makes no sense whatsoever as a prison (maybe it's just the way Price enunciates "daffodil"). But it feels compromised: besides the black room, Corman and Roeg don't even capture Poe's description of the lighting within the strange chambers, which winds up in this depiction as an even white glow from overhead electric arclights rather than so much as the suggestion of uncanny firelight streaming through monochromatic stained glass. Roeg, I've said, does a great job overall, managing a stark distinction between Crosby's hushed gloom in the other Corman Poes and the bright carnival palette of Prospero's abode. Yet I'd like to say I'd trade all the wide-open claustrophobia of Prospero's castle to have Poe's seven rooms.
But that would, perhaps, preclude the unforgettable ending of Masque, which tacks into the poetic, when the Red Death finally makes his appearance and, after Prospero's impotent pleading, presents a new danse macabre with the prince's guests, the entire assemblage arrayed in stillness as the scarlet figure draws his cloak across the camera, each time revealing new bodies stained with their own bloody sweat, opening a dance of corpses as unmotivated kaleidoscopic lights coruscate across the scene and turn this horror film into vibrant pop art. It's downright ballsy for a fright flick pitched at bored teens who were only asking for a little gore (though, hey, when Prospero contracts the plague, he practically melts). Even that's not my favorite thing in Masque, which saves its very best for last, when we again find the Red Death sitting along the roadside (and Roeg's best photography in the film is in these scenes, which takes Corman and Crosby's "dry ice woods" aesthetic and gives it an even more painterly haze, with the colors, especially red, finding strange resonance with the dismal grays). The idea almost sounds goofy, but it's so goofy-cool I adore it, and, ultimately, it's merely a logical extension of the concept: if Poe personified the red death, then perhaps he would compare notes with his kindred, the black death, the yellow death, and so on, till a rainbow of hooded figures filled the screen. (Most of these can be guessed at, but the Blue Death is, I presume, gonorrhea?) It's one of the singular images of horror, and it just about makes up for the cheap crappiness of four rooms.
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