Friday, November 1, 2013

The Masque of the Red Death (Alta Vista/American International, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The third film in the sequence, The Masque of the Red Death, proved to be the best of the three by a considerable margin. Part of the reason is Edgar Allan Poe himself; whereas most of his stories were carefully crafted by a master writer who knew exactly what effect he wanted to induce in his audience and how he wanted to do it (we know this because Poe wrote an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition” in which he spelled out in depth exactly how he came to write his poem “The Raven” — when the auteur movie critics in France compared Alfred Hitchcock to Poe they were absolutely right, but in a way quite the opposite from what they meant; they had visions of Poe and Hitchcock as haunted artists putting their personal dreams and nightmare visions before the public, and in fact both Poe and Hitchcock were careful craftsmen who dispassionately created stories that they knew would unsettle audiences and consciously shaped their work to get a rise out of people), “The Masque of the Red Death” was one of the few times Poe got unabashedly personal in his writing. The “Red Death” — an epidemic that is sweeping the region around Catania, Italy in the Middle Ages — is not plague (as a lot of people reading and commenting on the story have assumed) but tuberculosis, a real-life scourge of Poe’s time (as plague was not) and one which had already cost him his parents long before he wrote the story, and to which he would lose his wife afterwards. The giveaway is the passage early in the story in which, writing about the Red Death, Poe tells us, “Blood was its avatar and its seal” — and given that in Poe’s time (the 1830’s and 1840’s) the way you usually found out you had tuberculosis was that you started coughing up blood, the connection was obviously emotionally important to Poe himself and instantly recognizable to his original readers. The Masque of the Red Death is a much better movie than Pit and the Pendulum or The Haunted Palace not only because it’s a stronger story (Corman and his writers, Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, fleshed out the original tale by incorporating another Poe story, “Hop-Frog”) but because Corman shot the film in England. He did that so he could grab a tax subsidy from the British government by declaring his film a British production, and with the savings from the subsidy he was able to bankroll a longer production period (five weeks instead of three), get access to better studio facilities and sets (he borrowed a lot of the sets from the recently completed big-budget period film Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole from the early-1960’s “A”-list), and, most importantly, he had access to the amazing British talent pool of first-rate actors, with the result that The Masque of the Red Death is that rarity: a Corman film that is brilliantly and vividly acted throughout instead of containing one or two standout performances in the midst of a bunch of people who come off as rank amateurs.

The Masque of the Red Death had been the story Corman originally planned as the follow-up to House of Usher, but he temporarily abandoned the project because he thought the story — Death in corporeal form roaming around a disease-ravaged countryside and giving a corrupt nobleman and his equally decadent friends their comeuppance — would come off too much like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Though Death in Corman’s film is dressed in red instead of black, and deals Tarot cards instead of playing chess, the parallel is nonetheless quite obvious. The Masque of the Red Death also has going for it a script that allows Vincent Price to play no-holds-barred villainy, while at the same time it’s literate enough that instead of camping it up (Price’s fallback strategy when he got an absolutely dreadful, unmotivated role and had to figure out some way of making an entertaining movie out of it), he plays the principal villain, Prince Prospero, with a sort of off-handed, demented charm that makes him more chilling (just as the accounts of Adolf Hitler from his secretary, Traudl Junge, and others who knew him that focus on what a nice guy and easygoing boss he was when he wasn’t doing things like starting World War II and ordering the Holocaust just make him that much more frightening). The plot deals with Prospero’s attempt to avoid the Red Death by locking himself and his equally decadent 1-percent friends in his castle and having them party away until the epidemic passes: a surprising bit of anti-rich social comment coming from Poe, a Virginia native who believed in the aristocratic system and was such a passionate defender of slavery it put off Northerners like Nathaniel Hawthorne who otherwise liked him. The story was also written at the time when scientists were just beginning to start thinking that those weird little creatures they’d been watching in microscopes for a century might actually have the power to cause human disease, and that no amount of locking yourself in a castle was going to protect you against an infection that could be carried through the air.

The Masque of the Red Death works as a sheer horror film — notably in the chilling sequence in which the dwarf Hop-Toad (in Poe’s story he’s called “Hop-Frog” and he’s not only a little person but a hunchback as well, though neither Corman nor little-person actor Skip Martin were willing to go that far) has the secondary villain don a gorilla suit and then sets him on fire because the bad guy insulted Hop-Toad’s dwarf ballerina girlfriend Esmeralda (actually played by a child, Verina Greenlaw — an interesting reversal of 20th Century-Fox’s practice in the 1930’s of having little people serve as stand-ins and stunt doubles for Shirley Temple, which gave rise to the rumor that Temple was a little adult instead of a normal child) — but also as social comment and as religious parable: the main conflict is over Prospero’s abduction of innocent young Christian version Francesca (Jane Asher) with the intent of seducing (or raping) and ruining her, and the jealous hissy-fits of his previous girlfriend Juliana (Hazel Court), who agrees to brand herself with an upside-down cross and go through all the prescribed rituals of offering her soul to Satan to keep Prospero from dumping her in favor of the good little Christian he wants to destroy. (That’s one of the key changes Beaumont and Campbell made to the story; in Poe’s original Prospero was just a cruel, arrogant and clueless medieval landowner, not an out-and-out worshiper of Satan.) One reviewer called Jane Asher “wooden,” but I found her quite good, subtly projecting her virginal innocence and fear that that’s going to be taken away from her, and also her quandary when, twice during the film, Prospero offers her the chance of choosing between her father and her lover, one of whom Prospero will kill and the other he will spare — her choice. Hazel Court was also powerful, and indeed so was the entire cast — I’m not sure what makes these British actors so reliably great, but I’ve never had the sense watching a British movie (even one I didn’t like) that they should have let go any of the cast members and replaced them with people who could act — and I’ve had that experience with American films all too often!